The dispute between the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, and the Amal movement over an electoral law is fueling sectarianism in the country.
THE LEVANT NEWS EXCLUSIVE – by Dr. Haytham Mouzahem – The relationship between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is no longer as strong as it was before the election of Michel Aoun as president on Oct. 31, 2016. Notably, this election wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Hezbollah’s insistence on completing the quorum of the parliamentary electoral session for more than two years and a half on condition of electing Aoun.
Some of Hezbollah’s advocates now regret having elected Aoun. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri was against this election from the start, as he favored Marada Movement leader and member of parliament Suleiman Frangieh, a prominent ally of Hezbollah and a main part of the March 8 Alliance.
Adding insult to injury are the [current] stances of Aoun’s son-in-law, FPM head and Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil, especially those related to the electoral law. Bassil is clearly neglecting the interests of his former allies in Hezbollah, Amal Movement and the March 8 Alliance, which includes these two parties in addition to other movements.
It is worth noting that Hezbollah and the FPM signed on Feb 6, 2006 a Memorandum of Joint Understanding.
Shiite circles accuse Bassil of wanting to fulfill his political ambitions and the electoral interests of his party under the headline of “regaining Christian rights,” even if that were at the expense of the country’s stability and national unity. Shiites believe Bassil’s electoral law proposals are fuelling sectarianism.
A media source close to the Amal Movement told THE LEVANT NEWS on condition of anonymity that the relationship between Hezbollah and the FPM has hit a rough patch. He described Bassil’s behavior with Berri and Frangieh as “malicious and retaliatory” since they both opposed Aoun’s election and their blocs cast blank papers during the presidential election session.
Bassil insists on the qualification vote law, according to which citizens vote depending on their confessional affiliations in their district as a first stage. During the second stage, they vote in wider constituencies as per the proportional representation law.
The problem with this law is its sectarian discrimination. It prevents 10% of voters from practicing their right to vote in their district in the first stage of elections, in case their sects do not have allocated seats in that district. The law is also attacked for allowing monopolized representation within each sect, as only two candidates qualify for each seat and compete for it in the second stage. This allows major forces in each sect to monopolize its seats, thus eliminating competition in the second stage.
A large Hezbollah delegation headed by the movement’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem visited Aoun on April 9 to discuss the electoral law. Bassil insisted on his stance and refused the proportional representation law suggested by Hezbollah. A media source close to Hezbollah told THE LEVANT NEWS on condition of anonymity that this angered the delegation.
Failure to agree on an electoral law persists despite the nearing end of the parliament’s ordinary session on May 31 and the expiry of its term on June 20.
In his speech on May 2, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called for not pushing the country to the brink, avoiding vacuum and agreeing on an electoral law. He also addressed the government, asking it not to pass a law that any Lebanese sect opposes.
But, Aoun asserted during a government meeting May 4 holding on to Article 65 of the constitution, which states that the electoral law should be put to a vote in the cabinet. Aoun’s response seems to be a clear indication of the tense relations between Hezbollah and the FPM.
Some analysts believe that although both parties have been trying to reflect strong ties between them, the electoral deadlock has shaken their bond.
An informed source close to Hezbollah told THE LEVANT NEWS on condition of anonymity that Hezbollah’s relations with Aoun and the FPM are “strategic” despite some political disputes, like the electoral law disagreement.
Independent Lebanese political expert Toufic Shouman told THE LEVANT NEWS, “Hezbollah and the FPM are currently at odds, mainly because the FPM wants to monopolize Christian representation with the Lebanese Forces (LF), thus removing other Christian allies, like Frangieh, from the picture.”
Shouman added, “I think that Bassil is partly reproachable because he is escalating the sectarian dimension in his political rhetoric. His electoral proposal based on sects voting for their parliamentary representatives as well as his call for electing a Christian to lead the potential senate reflect sectarianism at its worst.”
During the Taif Agreement, an understanding was reached between political forces to grant the Druze community the presidency of the Senate once it is founded. But Bassil insists on giving that position to the Christians under the pretext of equality in the three presidencies, since Muslims have already two presidencies (Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament), while the Christians occupy the Presidency of the Republic only. The Druze leaders argue that Christians also occupy other presidencies and high positions such as the governor of Central Bank of Lebanon, the leader of the Lebanese army, and the president of the Constitutional Council among other positions.
Shouman ruled out the possibility of any of the two parties [Hezbollah or the FPM] withdrawing from the memorandum of understanding signed in 2006.
He said, “The FPM is maintaining its strategic discourse in support of the resistance. This was clear in Aoun’s visit to Egypt and in his speech before the Arab Summit in Jordan [on March 29]. The FPM strategic discourse asserts strong ties with Hezbollah regardless of domestic political complications. Hezbollah understands these challenges, which means that both parties are well-aware that their disagreement over small issues does not eliminate their consensus on bigger matters.”
Hezbollah and the Amal Movement headed by Berri, both of which represent Shiites in the government and parliament, are concerned the disagreement on an electoral law or on a technical parliamentary extension will lead to legislative vacuum on June 21 with the end of the current parliamentary term.
The source close to Hezbollah expects the movement [Hezbollah], Amal and their allies to withdraw from the government should the latter vote in favor of an election law without the approval of all sects or after the end of the parliament’s mandate. By withdrawing, the government would no longer be in line with the National Pact. Their ministers might also refrain from attending the sessions to pressure Prime Minister Saad Hariri not to call for sessions in their absence. This would impede the cabinet’s work until new parliamentary elections are held according to the applicable law — the 1960 law — thus dealing a heavy blow to Aoun’s rule, as he had vowed to pass a new electoral law ensuring fair representation.
Christians argue that the 1960 majoritarian law, which was used in the 2009 elections, allows Muslims to choose Christian members of parliament in some constituencies, which does not ensure their fair and just representation.
On a more positive note, a Shiite minister told THE LEVANT NEWS on condition of anonymity that a settlement will ultimately happen, and a consensual electoral law will be reached to avoid vacuum.
From his side. Nasrallah said on May 25: “Time is running out but we still hope to reach a new law and over the past two days some, new ideas have been put forward that could lead to a good outcome.”
“There are new initiatives. we have already said: no vacuum, no extension, no for the 60 law, a new law must be reached. When President Aoun says that the forces have an opportunity until June 20, that means there is an extraordinary session for the parliament,” Nasrallah added.
Time is running out, and an electoral law must be reached before June 20; Parliament Speaker Berri has delayed the parliament session of May 15 to be held May 29 to allow the parties to reach an agreement on a law. The government will most likely disapprove of Bassil’s proposal because Hezbollah, Amal, the Druze and Frangieh oppose it. Meanwhile, nobody wants parliamentary extension. This leaves the Lebanese parties before two options, either to agree on a consensual law or to face vacuum; and in this case of vacuum] the government would have no choice but to call for elections based on the current 1960 majoritarian law to avoid said legislative vacuum.