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Protesters gear up as politicians' clock winds down in Lebanon

Activists in Lebanon have organized to oppose a third extension of parliament and demand a modern electoral law that would bring in new political candidates.

Protesters in Lebanon are planning a two-for-one call to action: rallying against a possible third extension of parliament's term, and promoting a law mandating proportional elections rather than the current majoritarian, or "winner-take-all," approach.

President Michel Aoun wants to hold off on parliamentary elections until the contested 1960 Electoral Law can be replaced. Aoun, along with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, insists on a "total proportionality" system, while others want either a hybrid law or the majoritarian system. Aoun has been trying to get legislators to pass the proportionality proposal before parliament's term expires June 21. If they can't come to an agreement before then, the politicians are likely to grant themselves another term without holding elections. Either that, or the country could be left without a parliament at all. 

Aoun already fended off one term extension by postponing the April 13 parliamentary session for a month, until May 15, which he is allowed to do one time under the constitution. After a May 3 meeting, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri said he ruled out extending parliament's term. He also proposed a proportional voting law in medium-sized districts linked to forming Lebanon's first Senate.

But when no agreement was reached by May 14, Berri moved the session to May 29. The protesters are growing restless.

The 1960 law allows Muslim leaders to select Christian parliament members in some constituencies. Aoun is a Maronite Christian. His Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces bloc are the country's largest Christian parties. The parties stood ready to derail the meeting scheduled in April, threatening to block the roads to prevent legislators from even reaching parliament. Aoun kept the peace when he postponed the session.

The tension has been building for years. In May 2013, the parliament extended its own term — which was set to end the following month — for 17 more months, citing security concerns and the inability of the Lebanese state to hold parliamentary elections. In November 2014, that same parliament passed a law extending its term another 31 months, to this June.

The Free Patriotic Movement, the party then headed by Aoun, and civil activists protested those extensions. In 2014, protesters gathered outside parliament forming a human shield to stop the vehicles carrying parliament members from reaching parliament, pelting their cars with tomatoes and eggs.

Today, in 2017 — amid the political rift over the voting law — the scene could be repeated.

But the civil movement today has grown. It has amplified its activity and formed coalitions, backing numerous protests and proving the Lebanese people can be mobilized to thwart state plans that citizens deem inappropriate.

Today, these coalitions are organizing their ranks in preparation for a major move. Several groups have started their campaigns on the Lebanese street. On May 6, the You Stink movement formed a human chain around parliament in protest.

The We Want Accountability movement is taking action in northern and southern cities. It organized protests and sit-ins against the extension and the sectarian Election Law April 21 in Sidon, the capital of the Lebanese south, as well as April 30 in the northern Bekaa district of Hermel.

Civil activist Alaa Sayegh, representing the Mount Lebanon Movement, told Al-Monitor her group has begun organizing in various regions so it won't be limited to a central demonstration. In Mount Lebanon, Sayegh said, “We will be going door to door to call on people to take to the streets and participate in the rallies and protests."

Activist Nihmat Bader al-Din, a member of the We Want Accountability movement — which is part of the large Parliament for the Whole Country coalition — told Al-Monitor, “The battle of the civil movement is not only against the extension but also against any new electoral law with sectarian aspects or that has the same effect as the default 1960 Electoral Law. This is the law approved by the majority of politicians; however, it does not secure the right representation of the Lebanese people and eventually [will result in] the same people [being] in power.”

She said postponing the parliamentary session, or even an agreement in parliament against the term extension, will not affect the escalation in the street. “Civil movements held meetings on May 12 and agreed to escalate based on three main principles. We refuse any term extension. We want a proportional voting law with the adoption of large electoral districts. [Also,] civil movements will be running in the upcoming legislative elections.”

Bader al-Din added that the Parliament for the Whole Country coalition will be organizing a sit-in every Sunday in front of parliament. "These sit-ins will be held until [June, when] we will be organizing an open-ended sit-in and setting up tents in front of parliament," she said.

The For the Republic movement differs from the other civil movements in that it is not calling for any specific electoral law to be passed that would come at the expense of holding parliamentary elections. Movement member Marwan Maalouf told Al-Monitor, “Even if there was no agreement on a new electoral law, the elections should be held according to the law in force, although we are in principle against this current law.”

He added, “As per the constitution, what applies in the case of the dissolution of parliament [also] applies to the expiry of parliament’s term. This means, upon the expiry of the parliament term, the office of the Parliament (Bureau) would manage the day-to-day state affairs until the election of a new parliament within three months or until holding the parliamentary elections in accordance with the law in force."

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