Orthodox plan heats up electoral law debate


By Hussein Dakroub
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Lawmakers from the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the rival March 14 coalition will resume their discussions on a new electoral law Wednesday after a day of deliberations held in a positive atmosphere.

However, the rival MPs, part of a parliamentary subcommittee exploring a new election law for this year’s polls, are expected to encounter major obstacles in approving the controversial Orthodox proposal after it came under fire by President Michel Sleiman, the parliamentary Future bloc and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

The subcommittee’s meeting came a day after the country’s rival Christian parties – the Kataeb Party, the Lebanese Forces, MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Zghorta MP Sleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement– voiced full support for the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal, calling for every sect to elect its own MPs in this year’s crucial parliamentary elections.

The rare Christian consensus raised the stakes of the Orthodox proposal, which dominated the subcommittee’s meeting held in Parliament amid tight security measures. Enforced by the Lebanese Army, these precautions were taken to protect the subcommittee’s March 14 members, who are staying at the Etoile Hotel a few meters from the Parliament building.

Also Tuesday, Jumblatt visited Speaker Nabih Berri at his residence in Ain al-Tineh to discuss a new election law as well as the repercussions of the 21-month-old bloody conflict in Syria for Lebanon.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Jumblatt stressed the need for national unity and avoiding “small narrow sensitivities” in order to preserve stability and security in the country.

“What is happening in Syria today is much more than we can imagine. Despite some statements in Lebanon, we cannot influence things. States are struggling to destroy a central state named Syria,” said Jumblatt, a harsh critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He said that regardless of the Syrian people’s legitimate aspirations for freedom, there is an “international conspiracy” to destroy Syria. “We have to be careful and we stress national unity,” Jumblatt added.

March 14 MP Robert Ghanem, who chaired the meeting of the parliamentary subcommittee, described the first round of talks as “very useful, serious and objective.”

Ghanem, substituting for Deputy Speaker Farid Makari who is currently abroad, said there were common elements to the various draft electoral laws presented by the MPs, but adding that details of the meetings should remain confidential.

“We have presented some proposals. It is our duty to reach a common ground to serve as a window that can break the current wall between the Lebanese. This is very important under the current circumstances and amid the regional conditions by which we have been affected and which we will be affected more,” Ghanem told reporters after the morning meeting. “These are major challenges. We hope we can reach a common ground among all the parties.”

Noting that the subcommittee’s members were working to reach a new electoral law satisfactory to all the parties, Ghanem added: “We have skimmed through the draft laws during the meeting and the door remains open to any proposal. There are common grounds among all the draft laws.”

Ghanem said the mission of the subcommittee, which includes MPs from the March 8 and March 14 parties, was confined to discussing the type of the electoral system – a proportional or a winner-takes-all system – and the number of electoral districts.

Future bloc MP Ahmad Fatfat, a subcommittee member, told The Daily Star the MPs will also discuss a Cabinet proposal to increase the number of MPs from the current 128 to 134 to allot six seats for Lebanese expatriates. Ghanem said that among the proposals being examined were the Orthodox proposal and the draft law put forward by the March 14 Christian parties that would divide Lebanon into 50 small districts under a winner-takes-all system.

The Cabinet has also sent to Parliament its own draft electoral law based on a proportional representation system with 13 medium-sized electoral districts. However, the Cabinet’s draft law has been rejected outright by the opposition March 14 coalition.

“The door is not closed to any proposal. We have begun studying the draft laws sent to Parliament and which have been referred to this committee,” Ghanem said. “We either reach a common ground or a dead end, which we will then leave in the hands of Speaker Berri.”

Ghanem said the subcommittee, which held a second round of talks Tuesday night, will resume its meeting Wednesday morning.

During the meeting, the MPs discussed the possibility of increasing the number of lawmakers in the 128-member Parliament. Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel suggested adding a parliamentary seat to the Druze community and another seat to the Syriac community. His proposal will be studied in Wednesday’s session.

“I stressed the need for an [election] system to be balanced, taking into account the requirements of national coexistence,” said Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad, a member of the subcommittee. “We understand the Christians’ demands to improve the conditions of choosing the Christian candidate.”

Meanwhile, Sleiman warned that the Orthodox electoral proposal contravened with the Constitution.

In an interview with the Progressive Socialist Party’s weekly newspaper Al-Anbaa, Sleiman praised the resumption of the parliamentary subcommittee’s talks. He said all efforts should be exerted to reach an agreement on a new electoral law.

Reiterating his support for the government’s draft electoral law for proportional representation, Sleiman said any law to be adopted by Parliament should conform with the spirit of the Constitution.

“There are electoral proposals, including the Orthodox Gathering’s draft law, which are in breach of the Constitution,” Sleiman said.

The parliamentary Future bloc also criticized the Orthodox proposal as well as the Cabinet’s draft electoral law based on proportional representation.

A statement issued after the bloc’s weekly meeting said Future rejected the adoption of proportionality in an election law “due to the organized control of armed de facto forces on some areas in Lebanon,” in a clear allusion to Hezbollah.

In an overt reference to the Orthodox Gathering proposal, the statement said: “The bloc rejects any election law that does not take into account the just and true representation, the freedom of choice, and runs contrary to the spirit of the Taif Accord which is based on partnership, Muslim-Christian coexistence and equal power between Muslims and Christians, in addition to violating the Constitution preamble.”

Druze leader Jumblatt also rejected the Orthodox proposal, describing it as a “dangerous adventure.”

“The Orthodox draft law carries with it a big risk. It will lead to extremism and isolation in every sect,” the PSP leader said in remarks published by As-Safir newspaper Tuesday. He added that the Orthodox proposal jeopardizes sectarian coexistence and the Taif Accord.

In sharp contrast, Aoun defended the proposal, saying it would ensure true representation of the Christians. The FPM leader also said that his allies – Hezbollah and the Amal Movement – supported it.

“We will not accept anything short of the Orthodox [draft] law. We will not accept anything short of our rights which are ensured by this law,” Aoun told reporters after chairing a weekly meeting of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc at his residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut.

“The Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces have supported the Orthodox law. What matters is that [the two parties] stick to their position until we go to Parliament,” he said. “The Orthodox [draft] law ensures a just representation by 100 percent to the sects.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 09, 2013, on page 1.