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| 21 September, 2017

Lebanon's PM stands by biometric IDs, May 2018 elections date

The son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Saad al-Hariri, delivers his statement in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia October 22, 2005.

The son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Saad al-Hariri, delivers his statement in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia October 22, 2005.

REUTERS/ Ho New

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri Wednesday reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the adoption of biometric identity cards and to holding next year’s parliamentary elections on time in what appeared to be a response to Speaker Nabih Berri’s proposal to shorten Parliament’s term and conduct early polls. Hariri made the announcement after meeting Berri in Parliament on the final day of a two-day legislative session that endorsed a host of draft laws, including the oil tax bill that effectively cleared the way for foreign companies to bid for offshore oil and gas exploration in Lebanon’s territorial waters.

Commenting on Berri’s proposal to shorten Parliament’s term, Hariri said: “We, as a government, are obliged to implement the [new vote] law. But as a political faction, I have my own stance. Everyone knows that we have worked very hard until we reached an electoral law. Shall we go back and open this file?”

He said there are matters in the new proportional electoral law that need to be clarified.

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Referring to opposition by some political parties to the use of the biometric identity cards in parliamentary elections planned for May next year and the preregistration process, Hariri said: “There might be fears and questions over the failure to have the biometric cards ready [on time] and whether the preregistration is useful. The Cabinet is trying to answer these matters and talk about them inside the Cabinet. Speaker Berri fears the worst that, we, God forbid, will not be able to finish the issue [of biometric cards on time before the elections]. This matter is open to debate.”

Hariri’s remarks came two days after Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil blasted from the United States Berri’s proposal to shorten Parliament’s term and hold early elections, saying the suggestion would deal a blow to reforms contained in the vote law.

A day after the Cabinet approved in a special session on Sept. 17 the use of biometric identity cards in next year’s parliamentary elections, after dropping the magnetic voting card system previously proposed, Berri announced that his parliamentary bloc had presented an urgent draft law aimed at shortening Parliament’s term and calling for early polls to be held before the end of 2017.

Berri’s proposal was to shorten Parliament’s term, from the original end date of May 21, 2018, to Dec. 31, 2017, and to hold elections before this date.

Berri’s Amal Movement and Hezbollah Wednesday backed the speaker’s proposal, saying that holding early elections has become an “urgent necessity” as long as it is unlikely the biometric cards will be ready in time, according to a statement issued after a meeting of senior officials of the two parties in the southern suburb of Burj al-Barajneh.

Lebanon plans to hold the first legislative elections in nine years in May next year after Parliament ratified on June 16 a new vote draft law based on proportional representation, with Lebanon divided into 15 electoral districts.

The new law calls for using the biometric voting card for the first time instead of the identity card. The biometric card is designed to allow voters to cast their ballot for their local constituency from anywhere in the country and, in future election cycles, from designated overseas polling stations.

But Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said in June that he opposed the biometric voting card, saying the use of the cards would lead to “confusion.”

Changing topics, Hariri reassured the Lebanese that the security situation in Lebanon was under control, dispelling fears of security threats following warnings by some Western embassies.

“I reassure all the Lebanese and all those who visit Lebanon that the security situation is under control,” Hariri said. “The Lebanese Army, the [Internal Security Forces’s] Information Branch, the [Army] Intelligence, General Security, the State Security and all security apparatuses are on full readiness and alert. This matter has been in place before any [security] threat or warning.”

Last week, the embassies of the United States, Britain, Canada and France advised their citizens in Lebanon to remain vigilant and to avoid public places, warning of a likelihood of an imminent attack.

Despite the widening row over the use of biometric IDs in voting, MP Alain Aoun from the Free Patriotic Movement ruled out any postponement of the elections.

“The elections will definitely take place and no one can postpone them. The elections for us are sacred,” Aoun told the Voice of Al Mada radio station.

He said Berri’s proposal for early polls reflected his doubts about the ability of the Interior Ministry to issue the biometric IDs on time for the elections.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Council agreed during its meeting Wednesday to meet again at 9 a.m. Friday to decide on an appeal against the tax hike bill, the National News Agency reported.

The council continued its deliberations on the appeal of the tax hike law presented by Kataeb Party chief MP Sami Gemayel last month and included the signatures of 10 MPs. The council last month suspended the tax hike law to study the constitutionality of the law.

The council will demand amendments to some items in the tax law, mainly the dual taxation, the NNA said. It added that the council might overturn the tax hike bill because some of its members considered that the Parliament session that approved the law was unconstitutional due to the manner used in the MPs’ voting.

Some council members also considered unconstitutional a law to impose new taxes without including it in the state budget, the NNA said.

Separately, Agriculture Minister Ghazi Zeaiter Wednesday visited Damascus where he signed an agreement with Syrian Internal Trade Minister Abdullah Gharbi to boost economic relations and integration in the agricultural field between the two countries.

The two sides agreed on the flow of agricultural products between the countries, including the export of bananas and potatoes from Lebanon to Syria and also live animals, meat and poultry products.

Last month, Zeaiter from Berri’s bloc, Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan from Hezbollah and Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos from the Marada Movement visited Damascus and held talks with Syrian officials, defying the government’s decision not to deal with the Syrian regime.

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