Beirut: In the seventy-year post-independence of Lebanon, no politician served in any position as long as the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, who was first elected to his post in 1992. Born in Sierra Leone, Berri inherited a family fortune, which he multiplied several fold. A leader of the Shi’ah Amal Party — a charitable institution created by one of the country’s genuine patriots, the Imam Mousa Sadr, before it became a militia and a political party — Berri used his perch to impose special rules, which were summarised with his quest for consensus long before any debates occurred.
On Saturday afternoon, the Speaker convened Parliament’s subcommittee to iron-out differences over the proposed new elections law, even if he ruled out convening Parliament’s general assembly unless lawmakers reached consensus first. “As long as there is no consensus,” he hammered, “I cannot call for a [parliamentary] general session. There will be no general session without consensus,” Berri emphasised.
Because deputies were deadlocked over a new elections law, the likelihood of extending Parliament’s four-year mandate, which expires on June 20, reached the level of near-certainty even if Berri voiced his opposition to an extension. “I don’t have any desire for an extension [of Parliament’s term] even for one day,” he declared, adding: “I reject the talk about an extension for six months or four years. For my part, [an extension of Parliament’s term] is out of the question and poses a danger to democracy.”
In the event, and given that the Ministry of Interior was not ready to hold elections on June 16 under current regulations — the universally reviled 1960 Law that was amended in 2009 — a technical extension of Parliament’s mandate, was a forgone conclusion. Moreover, and although every politician opposed an extension, no alternative loomed on the horizon. The mere fact that no solutions were in sight, either to adopt a new elections law or agree on the type of government that Prime Minister designate Tammam Salam ought to form, reinforced the notion that wily and self-serving deputies would finally settle on precisely such an extension.
Their disavowals notwithstanding, most were engaged in behind-the-scenes debates, precisely about the length of time involved for such a postponement. For herein lied the ultimate conundrum: were Lebanese parliamentarians plotting the election of the next president under the guise of an unending and largely futile new electoral law?
Lebanon’s confessional system of government espouses a form of consociationalism, which guarantees group representation, with the highest offices proportionately reserved for certain religious communities. It is parliament that elects the president. Under its current make-up, March 14 and March 8 parliamentarians are more or less evenly split, with the Walid Jumblatt-led Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) playing the role of a balancer. When Jumblatt aligns with March 14, the majority is theirs, and when the PSP’s six swing votes go with March 8, the latter are victorious.
The two leading presidential contenders in 2014 are Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and the Free Patriotic Movement boss, General Michel Aoun, although several worthy candidates are also ready to throw their hat into the ring. Still, in a polarised political environment like the one in Lebanon, if parliament’s mandate is extended this week for a period or more than a year, the PSP will determine which one of these two men will succeed Michel Sulayman who, it may be worth noting, ruled out a constitutional amendment to legitimise his continued service. He also expressed his opposition to an extension of parliament’s term that was longer than four months.
Without a deal, and that was precisely what was being cooked, a total parliamentary void may well arise and that would require the President and his Prime Minister to issue a decree, which would call the outgoing deputies to an extraordinary session until such time when agreement is reached and voted upon. Few Lebanese expected a felicitous outcome and most braced themselves for uncertainties galore. Two days before the deadline to settle on a new law, neither Speaker Berri, nor any other politician were able to serve the country and its hapless citizens.