Lebanon's top leaders scramble to ease vote law endorsement

Sticking points such as the percentage for candidates to win electoral seats in any district, the preferential vote, and the duration of a technical extension of Parliament’s term could block the agreement

Members of the new Lebanese government pose for a picture at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon December 21, 2016.

Members of the new Lebanese government pose for a picture at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon December 21, 2016.

REUTERS/ Handout .

03 June 2017

BEIRUT: Officials scrambled Friday to smooth the path for the endorsement of a new vote law amid fears that sticking points could unravel the agreement reached by the country’s top leaders at Baabda Palace. A series of important meetings were held Friday between senior officials with each of Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri aimed at speeding up the implementation of the agreement reached by President Michel Aoun, Berri and Hariri at their closed talks before an iftar hosted by the president at Baabda Palace Thursday.

Sticking points such as the percentage for candidates to win electoral seats in any district, the preferential vote, and the duration of a technical extension of Parliament’s term could block the agreement which calls basically for the adoption of a proportional voting system dividing Lebanon into 15 districts.

Aoun had paved the way for the new vote law deal by signing a decree allowing Parliament to convene for an ordinary session from June 7 to 20 to vote on the law to govern the upcoming parliamentary elections. Parliament’s term expires on June 20.

“Remaining details might obstruct the endorsement of the [new electoral] law, but I am optimistic because those who have solved big issues can solve small ones,” MP Alain Aoun from the Free Patriotic Movement told Al-Jadeed TV Friday night. He said that a final date for holding the upcoming elections was among the remaining details being discussed by the rival factions.

But Lebanese Forces’ deputy chief MP George Adwan sounded optimistic that the proportional draft vote law would eventually be endorsed, disclosing that some sticking points have been ironed out.

“The plan is that a Cabinet session will be held Wednesday during which the electoral draft law will be brought up, discussed, approved and sent to Parliament which meets on June 12 or 13,” Adwan told MTV Friday night. “This is the roadmap in which we are deploying all efforts to make it happen.”

Declining to give details, Adwan said some points in the new law need to be addressed, while other points have been sorted out. “But nothing will undermine the new law,” he said.

In reply to a question, Adwan said that an article in the new vote law that calls for shifting three Maronite seats from districts that have a Muslim majority to districts with a Christian majority has not been put aside. Berri and other politicians have rejected the shifting of parliamentary seats from any area. Aoun pledged to fulfill his promise to the Lebanese to have “a new fair electoral law despite the difficulties that have encountered reaching such a law.”

“The beginning of reforms will be through a Parliament that represents all the Lebanese,” Aoun said during meetings with his visitors at Baabda Palace. After the endorsement of the new vote law, he said efforts would be geared toward “correcting defects by fighting corruption and launching the construction process.”

Earlier in the day, Adwan, who has been instrumental in helping thrash out the new vote law, met with Hariri, discussing with him the sticking points in the law. He said that politicians are in a “race against time” to finalize the last few details of the law. “Today’s meeting with Prime Minister Hariri is aimed at accelerating discussion on the remaining points in the electoral draft law, a big part of it are considered details,” Adwan said after meeting Hariri at the latter’s Beirut Downtown residence.

“The goal is clear. Everyone knows that there is a new electoral law and we have begun the race against time,” he said. He added that the sticking points should be solved before a Cabinet session Wednesday “so that the Cabinet can as soon as possible approve the new electoral draft law and send it to Parliament.”

“Things are moving in the right direction. Today’s meeting was very useful and positive,” Adwan said: “I think that the countdown has begun for the approval of a new electoral law.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Ghassan Hasbani also echoed a similar upbeat note after meeting Hariri, downplaying the remaining obstacles facing the new law.

“Optimism is rising as time passes to reach a consensual solution to the electoral law. There are minor obstacles that will be eliminated by discussions,” Hasbani said after meeting Hariri. “We have entered the second phase of discussions. Dialogue is taking place calmly and with openness by all the parties. There is positivity accompanying all these discussions.”

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk was also optimistic about the new electoral law deal, but said that preparations to conduct the parliamentary polls based on proportional representation would take 6 to 7 months. He spoke to reporters after meeting Berri at the latter’s Ain al-Tineh residence.

“I consulted with the speaker on the electoral law issue which is expected to be finished within the next few days.” Machnouk said. He said he handed over to Berri a detailed working plan prepared by the Interior Ministry in cooperation with the United Nations on the required timeframe to prepare for the first elections to be held in Lebanon based on proportionality. Machnouk had handed Aoun a similar copy Thursday.

“Practically, we need to train the concerned judges and polling stations’ heads and all administrative employees, who will be undergoing this experience for the first time,” Machnouk added.

The minister said vote counting could only be done electronically, which compels the need for magnetic boards that should be in every polling station.

“Training should be done on how to calculate the results and on what basis ... Judges, voters and employees should be trained through an intensive and long-term media campaign,” Machnouk said.

Asked for how long Parliament’s term would be extended to prepare for the elections, Machnouk said: “Practically, the minimum is six months and the maximum is seven months for training and attaining the necessary experience for holding the elections.”

He said that Berri had proposed the formation of a small ministerial committee, chaired by Hariri, to discuss the preparations.

Machnouk also said the government will have to seek aid from U.N. agencies and donor countries to fund the elections and “encourage the democratic process which will definitely be costly.”

For his part, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the FPM leader, vowed to continue the struggle to ensure a better Christian representation despite his approval of the new vote law deal.

“We have agreed on proportionality with 15 districts ... Proportionality is on the way to be implemented. Certainly, it needs to be completed and followed up. We will continue fighting to obtain the best with regard to [Christian] representation,” Bassil told reporters after a meeting with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Bkirki, north of Beirut.

“I confessed [to the patriarch] that we could have done better. But we have to do the best we can in any situation. The battle will continue to obtain rights and correct representation,” he said. “The proportionality law is not the 1960 law; it’s far better.”

© Copyright The Daily Star 2017.

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