Although parliament’s joint committees approved the so-called Orthodox electoral proposal today, Speaker Nabih Berri gave them an extra week to study other draft laws, and it is unclear if the endorsed proposal has enough votes to become law.
In theory, the proposal should now go to the full parliament for an up or down vote. However, given Berri’s extension, the controversial law – which calls for Lebanese to vote for MPs only from their own sects in polls scheduled for June – may be just one of many proposals for the full legislature to discuss next week.
When the Orthodox law reaches parliament, a vote on it will create strange political bedfellows and its passage will be far from guaranteed. It will certainly fracture the March 14 coalition, and will even cause division within March 8. For example, March 14 stalwarts the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb have largely voiced public support for the law – meaning they would buck the Future Movement and March 14 independents to side with the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal and Hezbollah, among others.
However even Kataeb unanimity is not guaranteed. MP Nadim Gemayel in mid-January said he will not vote for the law, and MP Elie Marouni on Monday seemed less than fully committed to the Orthodox law in an interview with the National News Agency.
That said, not every party in the March 8 bloc supports the Orthodox law. Last month State Minister Ali Qanso, from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, said he opposes any law that would “reinforce religious fanaticism and divide Lebanon into sectarian cantons.”
To pass in parliament, the law needs 65 votes. According to two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the press, the law might not have that many supporters.
“It’s not really clear if [all the votes are there],” one source said. “And I think maybe some of [those who should vote in favor out of party loyalty] will not attend the session.”
Even if the legislature approves the Orthodox law proposal, the cabinet seems guaranteed to reject it (and all draft laws need the approval of both cabinet and parliament to pass). The president, prime minister and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt are vehemently against the law. Together, the three have 11 ministers affiliated with them in cabinet (which is enough for them to veto it).
Should parliament and cabinet manage to pass the law, it could face enough opposition to derail it. Several politicians have previously called the Orthodox proposal unconstitutional. Indeed, article J of the preamble to the constitution says “any authority that violates the national pact has no legitimacy.”
The national pact is Lebanon’s extra-constitutional agreement that all of the country’s sects need to agree on major decisions to avoid a “tyranny of the majority” against one or more minorities. Since the Druze and Sunni communities are against the Orthodox proposal, lawyer Marwan Saqr told NOW, “that would be a reason to challenge the law before the Constitutional Council.”
However, he noted, article J of the preamble is not always strictly adhered to.
“I know in the past they have bypassed this article in a similar situation,” Saqr said. “If you have the Druze and Sunni communities against the law, even if it has the majority in parliament, there are grounds for a challenge.”
One thing, however, is clear: Lebanon’s politicians are running out of time to pass a new law and hold elections on time. As former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud previously told NOW, for purely technical reasons, a new law has to be in place by mid-March or politicians will have to choose between using the 2009 law (known as the 1960 law, which all parties are publically against) or postponing the elections.
Indeed, some think the current deliberations over new electoral laws are merely a smokescreen for wanting to postpone the polls.
“The mood right now is not one that calls for holding elections,” Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told NOW. “I think the elections will be postponed.”
Khashan also offered a perhaps salient reminder: “Politics in Lebanon doesn’t happen in the parliament. They happen outside of parliament.”