Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

Lebanon’s election law deadlock threatens another crisis

Parliament’s term expires on June 20 but its MPs have so far been unable to agree on new electoral legislation and are proposing to extend their terms for a third time since being elected in 2009.
Lebanese president Michel Aoun, centre, sits in parliament with speaker Nabih Berri to his right on October 31, 2016. Joseph Eid / AFP
Lebanese president Michel Aoun, centre, sits in parliament with speaker Nabih Berri to his right on October 31, 2016. Joseph Eid / AFP

BEIRUT // Last October, Lebanese politicians finally elected a new president to end a two-and-a-half-year power vacuum that had crippled the functioning of the government.

But just over six months later, Lebanon is drifting into yet another political crisis that could leave the country without a functioning parliament.

The parliament’s term expires on June 20, and it is extremely unlikely that an election will be held before then. The members of parliament were elected in 2009 for a four-year term but have extended their mandate twice, citing instability caused by the Syrian civil war and later the country’s lack of a president.

Last month they attempted to extend their term once again, saying they had failed to agree on new legislation under which to conduct elections. But Lebanese president Michel Aoun suspended parliamentary sessions and gave MPs one month to focus on reaching a compromise.

That deadline passed on May 15 without any agreement and with politicians as divided as ever. The parliament speaker Nabih Berri extended the deadline by two weeks to May 29, but it is uncertain whether this will yield any results. In any case it will be nearly impossible to hold elections within just a few weeks of an agreement.

The issue at the heart of the impasse – the voting law – is a complicated one.

Lebanon’s last election was held under what is known as the “1960s voting law” that granted different sectarian groups parliamentary seats in each district based on a quota, although the candidates are elected by all the voters in a district, regardless of sect. Due to population shifts and the absence of a census since 1932, some say the existing quotas do not accurately represent the sectarian make-up of districts today. Others are critical of how the system allows a dominant sect in a district to decide the winner of a seat reserved for another community – an extremely controversial matter in a country where all of the major political parties are based on sectarian identities.

While there is universal agreement that the current law is unfair, all the alternatives proposed by rival parties so far would probably lead to major shifts of power in parliament, making agreement on any of them nearly impossible.

Parliament may have to eventually decide whether to hold a general election under the old law, which would lead to roughly the same balance of power in the new house and many of the current members retaining their seats, or try to extend its term once again. Even if elections are held under the old law, parliament will almost certainly have to extend its term past June 20 until elections are held.

A third option could see the current MPs continue discussing a new electoral law, to the exclusion of all other legislation, beyond end of their term on June 20. Until they agreed on one, Lebanon would be caught in a Catch 22 – without a new parliament or the electoral framework to choose one.

“I think there is a tacit agreement that there will be no vacuum among the political elite,” said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University. “And if there is no agreement on the electoral law or amending the electoral law, then the prevailing law and the existing law will prevail…which is a favourable law to most sectarian leadership because it will probably reproduce the existing ruling strata.”

Some, including MPs, have called the current stalemate and attempts to extend parliament’s term a threat to democracy in Lebanon.

“Democracy [does not mean that] when there is no consensus, the country just stops functioning; we vote,” Sami Gemayel, the leader of the Christian political party Kataeb, was reported as saying in the English-language Daily Star newspaper. “Lebanon, its elections, and its democratic system are threatened.”

Dubbing Lebanon the “republic of procrastination” in a May 15 post, political blogger Ramez Dagher accused the country’s politicians of doing everything they could to avoid coming up with a new voting law in an attempt to extend their terms.

“A parliament that had four years to find an electoral law, and that extend its term for another four years to find an electoral law, was going to give itself – in full hypocrisy – another year to find a new electoral law,” he wrote. “As if it was too mainstream to call for elections based on the current electoral law, vote a new electoral law as soon as the new legitimate parliament is elected, dissolve the parliament and then call for parliamentary elections, like all democratic countries do.”

jwood@thenational.ae

Updated: May 19, 2017 04:00 AM

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