Maronite agreement on election law draws fire

By Hussein Dakroub
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: A radically new election law endorsed by Maronite leaders that would allow each sect to choose its own representatives during the 2013 parliamentary elections has come under fire from officials across the political divide, with some warning that it would deepen sectarianism in the country.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he will comment at the “appropriate time” on the agreement reached Friday by Christian leaders from the rival camps of March 8 and March 14 on a proposal adopted by the newly established Orthodox Gathering.

But two MPs from Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc have harshly criticized the Bkirki agreement.

“I have been repeating two matters for years. First, Lebanon cannot exist without an effective role for its Christian citizens. Second, I reject that sects adopt [political] attitudes because this will be the beginning of the end to a united Lebanon,” Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani said in a statement Sunday.

“Therefore, I consider the proposal for sects to elect their MPs as a mass suicide of Lebanon’s people and a consecration of the federation of sects which will eventually lead to the partitioning of the country into geographically sectarian cantons,” he added.

Qabbani said that the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal could be discussed only after the implementation of a provision in the 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord which called for the establishment of two parliaments: A non-sectarian Parliament and a Senate that elects its members along sectarian lines.

The current 128-member Parliament is equally divided by Muslims and Christians.

Beirut MP Nuhad Mashnouq said the agreement announced at Bkirki is “not reassuring.”

“We are committed to an understanding with the Christians on a rational [election] law that does not encourage sectarian diseases. What has been issued by the Bkirki meeting is not reassuring,” Mashnouq said.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel rejected the Orthodox Gathering’s election proposal, saying it isolates Christians from Muslims.

“Lebanon is made up of a mosaic [of sects] and this [Orthodox] proposal isolates us from the other [Muslim] side,” Charbel told Al-Jadeed TV Sunday.

“We can make a proposal whereby each sect can elect its MPs in the first round while everyone can participate in the second round according to the results of the first round,” he said.

The row over an election law comes as the government is still debating a new electoral law based on proportional representation. The law was prepared by the Interior Ministry.

Commenting on the Bkirki agreement, former Prime Minister Salim Hoss said: “The election by each sect of its MPs will be a prelude to the application of sectarian decentralization.”

Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt slammed the Maronite agreement on a new electoral law. “This law will lead to the isolation of people from each other,” Jumblatt told Al-Manar television station.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party leader MP Assad Hardan warned that the election by each sect of its MPs would bring Lebanon back to “square one of the crisis that was the starting point for shattering the unity of the country’s social fabric and sparking civil conflicts.”

Following wide-ranging talks in Bkirki, north of Beirut, the four Maronite leaders were unanimous in endorsing the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal, while stressing the need to hold dialogue with the rest of the Lebanese factions on the matter.

Chaired by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, the Bkirki’s meeting was attended by Phalange Party chief Amin Gemayel, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and Marada Movement chief MP Suleiman Franjieh.

The Orthodox Gathering called for each sect to elect its own candidate based on proportional representation during the 2013 parliamentary elections.

A statement issued after the meeting described the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal as “a valid formula to achieve a just and effective representation.”

Earlier this year, the Orthodox Gathering called on the government to adopt a single, country-wide electoral district and to let each sect elect its own MPs.

In its current form, the proposal calls for a single electoral district, with proportional representation within each sect. An Orthodox voter, for example, would choose among a number of 14-member lists, equal to the community’s allotment of seats in Parliament.

A list that receives approximately 60 percent of the community’s votes, for example, would receive roughly 60 percent of the 14 seats.

However, further discussion will be needed to deal with a number of issues, such as smaller communities that have only one or two seats in the legislature – applying proportional representation is either impossible, or extremely difficult, if a number of lists receive roughly equal levels of support.

The former patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, was staunchly critical of previous elections because non-Christian voters effectively selected the majority of Christian MPs.

But a number of politicians and civil society activists have criticized the proposal, saying it would only further divide the country along sectarian lines.

In a statement after the meeting, Bkirki reiterated its commitment to an election law that would guarantee fair representation for the country’s 18 officially recognized religious communities.

Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman and Aoun held an “ice-breaking” meeting over the weekend at Baabda Palace during which they discussed a number of issues related to the Cabinet and Parliament, sources close to Sleiman told The Daily Star. Sleiman and Aoun are at loggerheads mainly over civil-servant appointments.

Aoun supports Judge Tannous Mashlab for the post of the head of the Higher Judicial Council while Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati endorse Judge Alice Shabtini, the head of the Military Appeal Court, for the post. The sources said that Patriarch Rai stepped in personally and asked Sleiman to contact Aoun.

The sources added that based on Rai’s request, Aoun and Sleiman agreed that Christians in Lebanon should be united, given the unrest which the region is witnessing. The first indicators of unity, the sources continued, materialized in Christian leaders agreeing on a new election law based on the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal.

Separately, PSP and Future Movement officials met in Iqlim al-Kharoub Sunday to discuss ways to maintain peace and stability in the Chouf region, while Jumblatt reiterated his commitment to the alliance with Hezbollah in the March 8 coalition.

In a statement released after the meeting, the Future Movement said their responsibility “was to maintain calm speech and commit to stability and place joint efforts in relieving political tensions.”

“The political reality we live in today and events surrounding us leaves us with fears and cautions us of possible implications at the local level while we live the victories of the Arab Spring,” the statement added.

Jumblatt reiterated that his party was committed to the wide political coalition, which includes Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal Movement and President Michel Sleiman.

Jumblatt’s stances on several issues such as those on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon probing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination has raised speculation that the PSP leader could be switching alliances.

However, Jumblatt, who said he preferred to be a centrist politician, has repeated his commitment to the alliance, saying Sunday that each person was entitled to his own opinion, regardless “if it varies with their political alliance.”

“There may be disagreements regarding the Syrian regime … but what matters to me and to Talal Arslan and Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah are for Syria to remain in peace and prevent civil war,” Jumblatt said during a gathering in Chouefat that was also attended by Arslan, the head of the Lebanese Democratic Party.