In an unprecedented move Wednesday, President Michel Aoun pulled the country back from the brink of a severe crisis by activating his prerogative to delay a parliamentary session that had caused consternation among the public and political parties. “I decided to postpone Parliament’s meeting by one month, based on Article 59 of the Constitution,” Aoun said during a televised speech at 8 p.m. Wednesday evening.
Article 59 stipulates that the “president may postpone the Parliament’s meeting for a period not exceeding one month, but he may not do so twice during the same [parliamentary] session.”
“When I was elected as president, I took an oath to be faithful to the nation’s Constitution and to maintain Lebanon’s independence, unity and safety of its territories,” he said.
“[The] National Pact became part of the Lebanese Constitution, which stipulates that the parliamentary elections should be held according to a new electoral law.”
Aoun also vowed to fulfill the pledges he made during his swearing-in oath, promising to “correct” the representation of the Lebanese through a new electoral law.
“I warned against any attempt to extend Parliament’s term ... [if] it reached the end of its ... mandate,” he added.
Parliament can now no longer hold sessions until May 15, while its term will end on June 21.
Speaker Nabih Berri welcomed Aoun’s decision. “The president has used Article 59 of the Constitution ... I consider this ... is for the sake of providing more time that we can benefit from to reach an understanding on a new electoral law,” he said in a statement soon after Aoun’s announcement. “As long as the president called for this law to be ... proportionality [based], I in turn, out of coherence with his stance, postpone tomorrow’s [Thursday’s] session to May 15,” he added. Berri expressed hope that the political parties could reach a “unifying law” that would “shield us from the deadly vacuum that would have led Lebanon toward certain suicide.”
Any new electoral law will entail a “technical” extension to Parliament’s term in order to allow the Interior Ministry to lay the groundwork for holding elections under the new law, and inform the electorate of its mechanisms.
The announcements came after a day of marathon meetings held by the major political parties as they attempted to reach a last-minute agreement on the nature of the new electoral law.
Aoun met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri ahead of his televised speech.
Hariri told reporters after the meeting that he was working with the speaker and the president to reach a solution to the crisis.
“We will hopefully reach agreements,” he said. “I want to reassure the Lebanese that we are working to end the crisis and the electoral law dispute.”
Hariri also met with Free Patriotic Movement MP Ibrahim Kanaan.
Speaking after the meeting, the Change and Reform Bloc lawmaker said he and Hariri were “speaking one language.”
“The only difference is that he is concerned about [a political] vacuum just as other political forces and officials [are],” Kanaan said, “but we emphasize that rejecting the extension doesn’t mean the vacuum, on the contrary, rejecting the extension means to urge all political forces with the time that is left, which is short, to adopt a new electoral law.”
Hezbollah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem also met with Kanaan and reiterated that the priority remains reaching a consensus over a new vote law. “The dispute isn’t sectarian and not between Christians and Muslims,” Qassem said following the meeting. “The correct representation would relieve all parties. The people’s most important right is to be able to express their opinion and vote.”
FPM President Gebran Bassil denied that Aoun’s declaration was premeditated, adding that it “not only aims to stop the extension but to reach a new [electoral] law.”
“Today there was a preliminary agreement over the ... constituents of a new electoral law that takes into consideration proportional representation and majoritarian voting [systems],” he said via Twitter. “We have no choice but to endorse a new electoral law and today we added a new element of agreement on the new law.”
Kataeb Party head Sami Gemayel said that the contentious issues in the electoral law are yet to be resolved. “The problem was not solved today, it was only delayed,” he added, also via Twitter. “I am surprised by all the tension that was brought up yesterday and today when it was known that the president would take this decision.”
The FPM, Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces had scheduled demonstrations for Thursday to protest Parliament’s expected decision to extend its own term for what would have been the third time. Civil society organizations and the Communist Party also called for protests. Following Aoun’s announcement, the parties canceled their demonstrations.
Berri described a third extension of MPs’ terms as “poisonous but better than death.”
“I don’t want to extend [the terms] but it’s like a poisonous chalice [we’re forced] to drink that is more favorable than death,” Berri was quoted as saying after his weekly meeting with lawmakers in Ain al-Tineh. “When we agree on a new electoral law, we can adjust the length of the extension based on what’s required to hold elections under the new law.”
The rift emerged Tuesday as Berri announced plans to proceed with extending Parliament’s term, prompting a swift backlash from parties representing Christian constituents.
Parliament, citing security concerns, extended its term in 2013 and 2014.
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