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Once again, disputes delay Lebanese elections

Unless Lebanese politicians overcome their differences — or at least ignore them long enough to hold elections — the country could face another legislative vacuum.
Newly elected Lebanese president Michel Aoun (C) sits with former prime minister Saad al-Hariri (R), who is expected to lead the new Lebanese government, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Lebanon November 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir - RTX2ROR8

Lebanon's parliamentary elections are languishing after being postponed for the third time since 2013. Officials estimate it could be months, or even a year, before they will be held.

The elections were to take place between May 20 and June 21. But because of a dispute over a proposed new law regarding the elections, the country missed a critical deadline. Lebanese law states voters must be informed 90 days before an election so they can prepare for the polls. March 21 came and went with no official announcement. 

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Prime Minister Saad Hariri of the Future Movement signed the decree in time, but President Michel Aoun refused twice, on Feb. 21 and March 20. Aoun declined because the elections would have been held based on the contested 1960 majoritarian (winner-take-all) law. In fact, Aoun, of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), said he would prefer a vacuum to holding elections based on the default 1960 law, which was used in the 2009 elections. The law allows Muslim leaders to choose Christian members of parliament in some constituencies.

Aoun, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement are insisting on the "total proportionality" system. Hariri, Democratic Gathering leader Walid Jumblatt and the Lebanese Forces want either a hybrid law or the majoritarian system, which would yield the same results as before, granting their alliance — the March 14 Coalition — the majority of seats in parliament.

Rabih Barakat, a lecturer in journalism and digital media at the American University of Beirut, told Al-Monitor, “Since the Taif Agreement, the electoral laws have been tailored to the whims of some political forces that were in power post-Taif. There were no common criteria to divide constituencies and determine the size of electorates in each. Following the Doha Agreement in 2008, the political parties agreed to return to the 1960 law, which still did not reflect the real balance of power. Perhaps for that reason, Hariri and Jumblatt are refusing proportionality today because it would reduce their parliamentary blocs." 

This impasse prompted Foreign Minister and FPM head Gebran Bassil to propose on March 13 yet another option suggesting the equal distribution of seats between the proportional and majoritarian systems. This would mean voting according to the majoritarian system based on 14 hybrid constituencies, provided that each sect elects its members of parliament, and adopting the proportional representation system based on five constituencies, which are the five historical governorates (Beirut, Mount Lebanon, Bekaa, and the South and North governorates).

However, most parties turned down Bassil’s proposal. His allies, including Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh, parliament member Talal Arslan and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, slammed the proposal because they believe it would tarnish proportionality and fuel sectarianism. Hezbollah and the Amal Movement implicitly rejected the proposal, and so did Jumblatt and Phalangist Party Leader Sami Gemayel. The Lebanese Forces were the only ones to support Bassil’s proposal, while the Future Movement has kept mum about its stance.

Independent political analyst Yasser Hariri told Al-Monitor that most parties frowned upon Bassil’s proposal because “it caters to the Christian representation of the FPM and the Lebanese Forces and deprives other Christian forces of the possibility to win electoral seats, meaning it excludes others from fair representation. It also goes against the principle of equality, which makes it subject to appeal before the constitutional council. Besides, this proposal does not obey the rule of fair distribution of electoral constituencies, as it corners the Christian and Sunni allies of the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.”

Lebanon’s system is based on sectarianism and national consensus rather than a democratic vote, and all sects and parties seek to guarantee their parliamentary seats before approving an electoral law. The majoritarian system grants the large parties the possibility of gaining all of the seats, while the smaller parties and independent candidates suffer from lack of representation in the parliament. For that reason, the proportional system would grant all parties and independents proportional representation, but the large blocs would lose some seats.

Mohammad Raad, leader of the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc, announced on March 17 that his party rejects electoral laws that do not ensure coexistence and fair, comprehensive representation, which he said can only be accomplished through a law based on total proportionality.

The Progressive Socialist Party and its parliamentary bloc, led by Jumblatt, expressed their fears regarding the proportionality system and Bassil’s recent proposal, and they dismissed them as attempts to marginalize the Druze minority and undermine his bloc.

Bassil also suggested establishing a Senate, as was mentioned in the Taif Agreement, as a council representing all religious sects, provided it has a Christian leader on a 50-50 basis: The speaker of parliament and prime minister are both Muslims, so if the Senate leadership goes to the Druze instead of Christians, there would be three Muslim leaders and one Christian leader: Aoun, the president of the republic. This added insult to injury, especially as the Druze were promised the Senate’s chairmanship when the Taif Agreement was signed in 1989.

There are fears of a legislative vacuum if parliament members do not extend their mandate for six months or a year. Aoun threatened on Jan. 24 to reject a potential extension and challenge its legitimacy, which could result in a political and constitutional crisis.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned March 18 that there is no time to bicker over a new electoral law, and he advised against playing with fire. He noted that the available options are “vacuum, extension or the 1960 law, and they are all bad and dangerous for the country.” He said a solution will require all parties to make concessions.

Future Movement Secretary-General Ahmad Hariri said March 18 that his party will refuse any law that jeopardizes national partnership and that a “parliamentary vacuum will have dire consequences on the country.”

To avoid such a vacuum, Machnouk said March 20 that there would be a “technical delay” of the elections for a few months to prepare for the implementation of a new electoral law. Machnouk did not set a date for the elections because it is still unclear if or when parliament might reach an agreement on a new law.

Aoun responded to Machnouk that the elections should not be delayed for more than a few months after an agreement is reached. Machnouk said he expects an agreement by April and warned of a political crisis if the parties fail to give voters a three-month window before the parliament's current term ends June 21.

Also, parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said last week that a "technical extension" of the parliament is inescapable, and he expects to resort to this option in April. He said an extension will require the existence of an election law, or at least an agreement among the concerned parties, even if it's not complete, so parliament can approve the extension along with the new law.

It seems inevitable now that parliament will have to extend its mandate. If the political parties reach an agreement on the election law, elections would then probably be held in the fall, or in spring 2018, since it would be difficult to hold them during the winter in some mountainous villages.

However, if Aoun continues to reject the current election law or refuses to extend parliament’s mandate, Lebanon could be facing a constitutional crisis. However, the government does have the authority to hold the elections in case the president does not respond to the decree within a month of receiving it, and parliament could thus extend its term. Aoun would consider it an “illegal parliament,” as he already described it before its previous extension — although it is the same parliament that elected him in the first place.

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