By Patrick Galey
The Daily Star
BKIRKI, Lebanon: Christian leaders failed to agree upon proposed changes to the parliamentary electoral law Friday, as divisive remarks made by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai concerning Hezbollah and Syria were briefly discussed.
The meeting at Rai’s seat in Bkirki brought together Christian representatives from across the political divide and, in spite of talks described as “very positive,” failed to produce a cohesive stance on legislation that would change how parliamentary representatives are chosen in the 2013 election.
“The participants had an in-depth discussion characterized by rich ideas,” Bkirki spokesperson Walid Ghayyad told reporters following the conclusion of four hours’ worth of talks.
“Christians who believe in the Lebanese state and its institutions believe that the election law is the proper and fundamental entry-point to enhancing the [political] role of Christians and building a true partnership based on actual power sharing,” he added, in reference to the current 50-50 system in which Christians are allotted 64 parliamentary seats in spite of some deputies running in non-Christian majority areas.
Unlike Lebanon’s current winner-takes-all system, proportional representation would grant every electoral list a section of parliamentary seats equivalent to the percentage of votes it achieved. There is disagreement over proportional voting, and some claim that the proposed system would widen sectarian rifts among the electorate.
The four main Christian parties have established a quadripartite committee to discuss suggested changes to the electoral law, which must be passed before mid-2012 in order to be implemented during the following year’s parliamentary vote.
The political source said that participants had agreed to the addition of an independent representative on the committee and confirmed that the proposal put forth by the Orthodox Gathering – in which Lebanon would be classed as one electoral district – had received the most interest in terms of possible solutions.
No repeat meeting will occur until the committee has decided upon which proposal to pursue, the source added.
Batroun MP Butros Harb, speaking after the meeting, said that more in-depth discussions were needed to provide a united Christian front regarding proportional representation.
“There will be another meeting because the issue of elections is a huge and very critical one; it’s a strategic issue,” he said. “Every draft law has its positives and negatives. Personally, I support a law that allows each person to elect a single MP, because it would constitute the best type of parliamentary representation and reassure the Lebanese.”
Harb said that no mention had been made of Rai’s remarks, made earlier this month in France, that provoked a political maelstrom. The patriarch linked an overall Middle East peace settlement to the fate of Hezbollah’s arms and warned the international community that the fall of President Bashar Assad in Syria could imperil Christians there.
Several Christian leaders came out seeking clarification of Rai’s words, which he subsequently claimed had been take out of context. Contrary to Harb’s claim, a source inside the meeting told The Daily Star that Phalange Party head Amin Gemayel had confronted the patriarch over his remarks.
Rai is reported to have replied: “I am a patriarch; I will not be taking political positions. I ask questions on general principles and convey fears and concerns. During my discussions in France I did not take sides with one party or the other and Bkirki’s principles are known to be in support of human rights and the state.”
The session began with a prayer led by the patriarch and was attended by several senior Christian politicians, including Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and Marada Movement head Sleiman Franjieh. In all, 34 delegates attended, with notable absences including Bsharri MP Strida Geagea, Chouf MP Dory Chamoun, Metn MP Salim Salhab and Aley MP Fouad Saad.
One participant, who did not wish to be identified because of a secrecy agreement struck at the meeting, told The Daily Star that some parties were seeking to block proportional representation.
“I hope this isn’t true, but my impression is that many wouldn’t want to see proportional representation adopted and may use various means and tricks to avoid it,” the participant said. “Major political groups wouldn’t want to see it jeopardizing results in their constituencies. You will not hear anyone saying they are against proportional representation, because it is an international trend. But at the same time they are trying to build on a system of each community electing its members of Parliament.”
Geagea told reporters that although an agreement had not been reached Friday, “the committee registered all observations put forward in today’s meeting but it was a very positive discussion.”
Metn MP Sami Gemayel, who is on the committee, added: “Holding this meeting under the auspices of Bkirki is something good. The discussions were in-depth and we hope that they will be continued, in order to arrive at a single election law.”