Lebanon – Berri says electoral law talks require cooperation

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 Speaker Nabih Berri called Wednesday for calm and cooperation by the rival factions to agree on a new electoral law amid a widening gap over which legislation best guarantees fair representation in this year’s crucial parliamentary polls.

Also Wednesday, Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which make up the bulk of the parliamentary majority, rejected any attempt to hold the elections based on the controversial 1960 law.

But a member of a parliamentary subcommittee studying a new electoral legislation warned that failure to agree on a new law would lead to holding the elections on the 1960 system.

Speaking during his weekly meeting with lawmakers at his residence in Ain al-Tineh, Berri sounded optimistic over addressing a new electoral law, a contentious issue between the opposition March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance that has put the fate of the elections, scheduled for early June, into jeopardy.

The speaker stressed the “need for following up the work of the parliamentary subcommittee in a calm and positive atmosphere.”

Berri underscored the “importance of cooperation by all [parties] in order to produce a new electoral law that can win the agreement of the parties,” the National News Agency reported.

“We have to remain biased toward optimism in dealing with this issue [electoral law],” Berri was quoted by the MPs as saying. “The atmosphere surrounding this issue is not negative.”

Berri’s remarks came a few days before the parliamentary subcommittee is scheduled to meet in Parliament on Jan. 8 to resume discussions on a new electoral law. The speaker hoped that the resumption of the subcommittee’s meetings would help ease the March 14 boycott of the government and all Cabinet-related sessions in Parliament.

Formed in early October, the subcommittee, which includes MPs from the March 8 and March 14 parties, was tasked with studying the type of the electoral system and the distribution of electoral districts in the absence of Cabinet members or representatives.

Representatives of Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and Aoun’s FPM have agreed during a meeting “to reject any attempt to promote the 1960 law or impose laws tailored to the size of some parties,” Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported, quoting sources at the meeting.

Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from Berri’s parliamentary bloc said the meeting continued “discussions on an electoral law and the subcommittee which will discuss a new electoral law.”

“We will go to the subcommittee’s meeting with utmost openness,” Khalil said, according to Al-Manar. He added that the meeting, which was also attended by Energy Minister Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah’s Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish, discussed boosting coordination between the government and Parliament.

Future bloc MP Ahmad Fatfat, a member of the parliamentary subcommittee, warned that failure to reach an agreement on a new electoral law would lead to holding the elections on an amended version of the 1960 law.

In addition to the type of the electoral system and the size of electoral districts, he said the subcommittee will also discuss a Cabinet proposal for increasing the number of Parliament members from the current 128 to 134 to allot six seats for Lebanese expatriates.

“We are going to the meetings with a positive spirit to reach an agreement on a new electoral law. The possibility of reaching an agreement depends on how positive the other [March 8] side is,” Fatfat told The Daily Star.

Noting the March 14 coalition has presented a proposal that would divide Lebanon into 50 small districts under a winner-takes-all system, Fatfat said the March 8 parties supported the government’s draft electoral law based on a proportional representation system with 13 medium-sized electoral districts and a proposal put forward by the Orthodox Gathering. The Orthodox proposal calls for every sect to elect its own MPs under a proportional representation system. The March 14 parties have rejected the two proposals.

“We support dividing Lebanon into small electoral districts under a proportional system,” Fatfat said, “If no agreement is reached on a new electoral law, the elections will be held on an amended version of the 1960 law.”

The 1960 law, which adopted the qada as an electoral district and is based on a winner-take-all system, has been rejected by officials on both sides of the political divide, as well as by the Maronite Church. The 1960 law was used in the 2009 elections.

Both President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati have said that the elections, deemed crucial by the rival political factions because the vote outcome would determine who controls the majority in the next Parliament, should be held on time. March 14 MPs have agreed to resume talks with their March 8 rivals on a new electoral law after accepting Berri’s proposal for the subcommittee’s March 14 members, facing security threats, to stay at a hotel near Parliament under Army protection until the body finishes its work.

Work on a new election law was halted in October after opposition lawmakers boycotted parliamentary committees’ meetings as part of their boycott of the government following the Oct. 19 assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, who headed the police’s Information Branch.

Meanwhile, Sleiman’s attempt to convene a new session of National Dialogue seemed to hang in the air after the March 14 coalition reiterated its demand for the government’s resignation and the formation of a neutral salvation Cabinet to oversee the elections as a prerequisite for attending any talks with the March 8 parties. March 14 politicians expected the president to again postpone the Dialogue session, scheduled on Jan. 7.

Sleiman, who left for Geneva last week for the New Year holiday, is due to return home for Thursday’s Cabinet session devoted to discussing the issue of Syrians and Palestinians refugees from the fighting in Syria.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah is expected to touch on the political crisis as well as National Dialogue in a televised speech Thursday.

The U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly discussed developments in Lebanon during a meeting, including a dinner, with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt at his residence in Clemenceau Tuesday night.

A PSP delegation, led by Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi, visited Aley MP Talal Arslan at his residence in Khaldeh as part of its contacts to promote the PSP’s political initiative aimed at bridging the wide gap between the rival factions. “The basic aim of the initiative is to stress the principle of dialogue among the Lebanese,” Aridi told reporters after the meeting.

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