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Cabinet poised to okay new election law

The Cabinet is set Wednesday to endorse a long-awaited new vote law based on proportional representation before sending it to Parliament for final ratification after all hurdles have been overcome, thus clearing the way for holding the first legislative elections in more than eight years. The major breakthrough in the monthslong deadlock over the vote law capped a series of intensive and hectic meetings of political rivals chaired by Prime Minister Saad Hariri all day Tuesday and overnight Monday in a stepped up flurry of activity to agree on the final version of the agreement reached by President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and the premier at Baabda Palace on June 1. The agreement would divide Lebanon into 15 electoral districts, each of which would elect representatives on a proportional basis.

By all means, the vote law agreement is considered as a big political achievement for both Aoun and Hariri, especially the latter who had declared that the failure to agree on a new electoral law would be viewed as a failure of his government.

The agreement came six days before the expiry of Parliament’s term, thus averting a vacuum in the legislative body with all the grave consequences this entails on the country’s stability. It also buries once and for all the disputed 1960 majoritarian voting system used in the last elections in 2009 to which all the political parties have been averse, at least in public.

Shortly after details of the agreement were announced, Hariri met with Berri at the latter’s Ain al-Tineh residence Tuesday night, apparently to discuss a Parliament session slated for Friday to ratify the draft law.

Berri congratulated Hariri on the electoral law agreement, a statement from the premier’s media office said.

Hariri announced that an agreement has been reached on a new electoral law, adding that the details would be announced Wednesday after the Cabinet meeting.

“This is not an achievement for a party or a community, but for the whole country, especially that it was the last important issue on which there was a disagreement,” Hariri said in a speech during an iftar organized by the Islamic Orphanage at the BIEL complex Tuesday night. “Now there are no more political disagreements that could block the country or our project to advance the economy and provide job opportunities.”

Hariri, however, expressed disappointment because some reforms were not approved, especially a quota for women’s representation in Parliament, which he considers as “very important.” He added that the quota would be nonetheless applied in the Future Movement’s lists.

During a two-hour meeting chaired by Hariri of a ministerial committee tasked with drafting the new electoral law at the Grand Serail Tuesday evening, the committee reached “a common vision” of the vote law, while a number of ministers made comments on the draft law that Hariri promised to tackle during the Cabinet session.

“The meeting focused on the comments of all political parties regarding the draft law, reaching a common vision that will be presented during the Cabinet session at Baabda Palace tomorrow,” said a terse statement issued by Hariri’s media office.

The meeting was attended by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos, Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh, Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury, Social Affairs Minister Pierre Bou Assi, State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Qanso, Minister for the Displaced Talal Arslan and Tourism Minister Avedis Kadanian.

The night meeting followed another meeting Hariri chaired earlier in the day attended by Bassil, Hussein Khalil, Ali Hasan Khalil, former Minister Wael Abu Faour, and MP George Adwan.

A third meeting attended by representatives from the main political parties was also held at the Grand Serail to iron out the remaining wrinkles holding up the agreement on the vote law.

Aoun praised the agreement as a “milestone” in Lebanon’s political life. “The new electoral law is a key milestone in Lebanon’s political and national life because it will clear the way for the birth of a new Parliament that is supposed to honestly embody the choices of the Lebanese and their aspirations for shaping the future of their country as they wish,” Aoun said during meetings with visitors at Baabda Palace. Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, whose string of new demands had threatened to unravel the agreement, praised the deal, saying it would correct to a large extent representation and allow Lebanese expatriates to vote for parliamentary seats. “We have removed the specters of a [parliamentary] vacuum, extension [of Parliament’s term] and the 1960 law. The Lebanese will have a [vote] law that will rectify, to a large extent, representation,” Bassil told a news conference after chairing the weekly meeting of the FPM’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc.

The FPM leader said that the presence of 15 electoral constituencies would improve Christian representation, while admitting that not all of his demands had been fulfilled. “The battle to improve [Christian] representation will go on.”

Although a political source told The Daily Star that the agreement calls for a one-year technical extension of Parliament’s mandate to allow for the implementation of the deal, Bassil said it was up to Aoun and Hariri to agree on a final date for holding the upcoming parliamentary elections.

In addition to dividing Lebanon into 15 electoral districts under a proportional voting system, the agreement states that the preferential vote should be based on the qada [district], rather than muhafaza [governorate] as demanded by some parties. The agreement also introduces a magnetic voting card that would reportedly allow Lebanese voters living outside their electoral constituencies to vote at their constituency of residence, within Lebanon and abroad. Lebanese diaspora would be allotted six parliamentary seats in the next elections after four years.

Unapproved demands included granting the military the right to vote, and a quota for women in Parliament, and lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

Several rights groups and organizations have long lobbied for a quota arguing that a minimum 30 percent of seats should be filled by women in parliamentary elections. In the current sitting Parliament there are only four female MPs out of 128 elected members.

Yet, a number of ministers criticized the agreement without hinting at blocking it. Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Ogasapian lashed out at the agreement for ignoring a quota for women’s representation. “Someone said this evening that the supposed electoral law is the worst possible. Indeed, a law that ignores the promise of a women’s quota is the worst,” he said on Twitter.

Hamadeh, the education minister, told a local TV station: “The law that has been reached is mixed up, complicated and more sectarian than we wished. Nevertheless, we support a national accord and reaching an electoral law and we will facilitate matters.”

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