Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanese parliament in crisis

With a crisis brewing over its legislative role in the absence of a president, and disputes growing over the parliamentary election law, is extending parliament’s mandate a solution? Hassan Al-Qishawi reports from Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Despite his insistence on holding an emergency parliamentary session, parliament speaker Nabih Berri Monday called a rare press conference Monday afternoon at his Ain Al-Tineh residence to declare his backing off from calling for the legislative session, yielding to the main demand of key Christian blocs in Lebanon the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Lebanese Forces.

“I will not call for a session before the joint committees complete their work with regard to an electoral law. This position is not a retreat from my convictions, but a show of respect for you (the Christian blocs) and keenness on Lebanon,” he said.

Christian blocs have refused to attend any legislative session unless an electoral law is listed as the first item on the agenda. For his part, Berri urged joint committees to mull a raft of draft electoral laws, explaining he has in parliament 17 drafts and proposals. Berri said a quorum of 75 to 80 MPs was secured for a legislative session, hinting that the parliamentary Future Movement bloc would have attended.

According to Berri, parliament has the right to legislate in all conditions, referring to the 23-month presidential vacuum and reiterating that he is not one to be blackmailed by any pretext of sectarianism.

But Berri’s decision merely postpones the conflict, which is the result of a broader crisis in Lebanon’s political sphere.

It appears to some that the presidential vacuum is the major political obstacle in Lebanon. But other crises are no less serious, though they are not of the conventional variety in a country based on Sunni-Shia polarisation and a split between 14 March forces, led by the Future Movement, and 8 March forces, led by Hizbullah.

One of the most significant of these crises is the dispute between the Shia Amal Movement and most Christian parties on the direction of the State Security Service, whose director is Christian and deputy director is Shia. Disagreeing about the service’s authorities, its budget, and the prerogatives of the agency’s director and deputy director, the parties’ dispute threatens Lebanese cabinet meetings.

These disagreements had deepened after Berri, Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker, insisted on convening the Chamber of Deputies, which has been in recess for months, in the face of opposition from most Christian political forces. With the presidency vacant, these forces believe the parliament’s role is limited to electing a president.

Since the speakership of the assembly belongs to the Shia sect and the premiership, occupied by a Sunni, is also functioning, the presidency, which is designated for a Maronite Christian, is the only vacant position. The parliament exercising its legislative function thus upsets the balance of powers, and Christian forces see this as a violation of the foundational principle of power sharing between Lebanese Muslims and Christians.

Christian forces insist the parliament should only be convened to approve a parliamentary election law based on proportional (list) elections. The demand has met with reservations by some Muslim political forces, especially the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) led by Walid Jumblatt.

The election law is one of the most sensitive in Lebanese politics. Some analysts say it is even more sensitive than presidential elections, which have not been held for nearly two years.

In a country where presidential powers were curtailed after an agreement ended the civil war, it is the Chamber of Deputies that acts as the legislative branch, forms the government and possesses most executive powers, not the president. The election law determines the outcome of elections in advance — particularly important since the parliament also selects the president.

Given the sectarian system in the country, major changes in voting patterns are not likely. Voters are already committed to their communal and local leaders. The way parliamentary seats are distributed and elections are held thus has a major influence on the final outcome of the poll.

Those forces demanding amendments to the election law — most of them Christian, but also Hizbullah and its Sunni political allies — believe that the beneficiaries of the current law are the Future Movement, led by Saad Al-Hariri, and Walid Jumblatt’s PSP. Both have an interest in perpetuating the existing law, or simply extending the mandate of the current assembly. Christian forces believe that the current law is prejudicial to them because it means many Christian MPs reach parliament thanks to the votes of Muslims.

While traditionally most Christian forces preferred the so-called orthodox law, under which each MP is elected only by members of his sect, there is a near unanimous rejection of the law now because it cements sectarianism.

Many Christian forces, as well as Hizbullah and its Sunni allies in 8 March, are now leaning towards a proportional election law and they would like to see all of Lebanon be made into one electoral district. Seeing the law as less sectarian and more representative, they also believe it will benefit 8 March forces since it will give more weight to Hizbullah’s Sunni allies.

Constituting less than one-third of Sunnis, this bloc currently has no political influence since the main Sunni representative, the Future Movement, typically wins more than half the votes in small districts. If a list system were adopted, however, those votes would be counted for the 8 March list on the national level, giving them a bigger voice than in the current system.

Christians also want to change the election law, especially after an alliance was concluded between the two largest Christian movements, the FPM, led by General Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, and the Lebanese Forces Movement led by Samir Geagea, Aoun’s old rival and new ally. The alliance will prevent the fragmentation of the Christian vote, as has been the case in the past.

Much of the Christian bloc thus insists on convening the assembly only for the purpose of adopting the parliamentary elections law, even though the competent parliamentary committee has failed to agree on a draft. These forces believe the parliament should only convene in the absence in a president to adopt establishing laws.

As a compromise measure, Berri had proposed an initiative during the Lebanese national dialogue on 20 April to convene parliament for the purpose of exercising its legislative role, provided the election law is put on the assembly’s agenda. The parliament would have the right to adopt or vote down the law after consideration.

It was reported that Berri intended to call the parliamentary secretariat to meet in order to set the agenda for the parliamentary session, soon to be convened.

Berri received no response from Christian parties on his proposed session, but the Lebanese Forces did not take part in the national dialogue and the Phalanges party has consistently rejected out of hand bringing the parliament to session in the absence of a president. As for the FPM, it has made it clear in the media that its priority is the election law, which should be the first item on the agenda and must be adopted.

The head of the Future Movement parliamentary bloc, Fouad Siniora, reiterated its compliance with a vow made by Saad Al-Hariri, the head of the movement, to not take part in any legislative session unless the election law is on the agenda. But he did urge everyone to assume their responsibilities and to work through the rest of the agenda if the law were voted down.

“Lebanese are not only incapable of electing a president,” Siniora told Al-Mustaqbal, the Future Movement mouthpiece, on Sunday, 24 April. “Unfortunately, they also cannot agree on a new election law. This raises the possibility of a new split over the election law, similar to the split over the election of the president.”

If all the major Christian forces agree, with the exception of the Marada Movement led by Suleiman Frangieh, who declared he had no problem with the parliament convening, it will be difficult to bring the assembly to session without Christian participation, especially since Berri sees himself, as others do, as the father of Muslim-Christian political power sharing.

At the same time, the failure to convene parliament seriously impedes the interests of the country, and the ordinary parliamentary session is set to close in late May. If the session closes without a meeting it can only be reconvened by invitation of the president, currently non-existent and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

The Chamber of Deputies looks like it will convene late in the current legislative season, in May, to extend its mandate before the previous extension expires in June, given the expected failure to come to a consensus over the election law, the most challenging of Lebanese laws that will re-divide the country’s political cake.

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