Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has decided to indefinitely postpone the bureau meeting he had initially scheduled for next Monday. While the main concerned figures indicated this decision is related to “purely technical considerations,” Berri's initiative faced intransigence from the main Christian blocs.
After showing flexibility, Gebran Bassil's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) seems to have revived its opposition to any parliamentary session before the election of a new president, particularly because the session was supposed to deal with the thorny issue of municipal elections.
“It is necessary for the joint committees to examine some laws, and that is why Nabih Berri decided to postpone the Parliament's bureau meeting,” a source close to Berri told L'Orient-Le Jour. The source added that Berri made this decision “under the impetus of no one.”
This was a thinly veiled reference to the two Christian blocs, the FPM and the Lebanese Forces (LF). Both accuse Berri and his Sunni ally, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, of trying to run the country during the presidential vacancy, hence, without their Christian partner.
Nevertheless, several weeks after his first (failed) attempt to convene a parliamentary session, Berri seemed to be banking on a concession from Bassil.
“We do not have an absolute veto. We could participate in a session if the agenda is focused on urgent items,” said MP Alain Aoun (FPM/Baabda). “Our participation will therefore be on an à la carte basis.”
But the issue at stake goes beyond simple prerogatives. If Parliament meets, it will have to decide on the upcoming municipal elections, as the current municipal councils' term expires on May 31.
MPs will have to either release the funds necessary for the Interior Ministry to organize the election or extend these council's term to avoid another institutional vacuum. The opposition MPs seem to fear this scenario.
“The objective of the session is to allow the ruling class, which is aware of its weakness, to postpone the municipal election,” said LF Spokesperson Charles Jabbour. “The election can be held without convening Parliament because cabinet can allocate the necessary funds through special drawing [rights].”
On Wednesday, this issue triggered a cutting exchange between LF leader Samir Geagea and Ali Hassan Khalil (Amal/Marjayoun-Hasbaya), Berri's right-hand man.
“Samir Geagea accused us of seeking to torpedo the municipal elections, while he and his parliamentary bloc are working to prevent the release of the necessary funding,” said Khalil, in reaction to a tweet by the Maronite leader.
In the tweet, Geagea accused “Nabih Berri and the moumanaa camp of preparing for a parliamentary session whose primary purpose is to torpedo” the election and said he wanted “to prevent an unconstitutional parliamentary session from being held.”
Moumanaa is a term sometimes used by Hezbollah's opponents to refer to the party.
FPM in a corner
Bassil finds himself in an embarrassing position in this debate, to say the least.
The FPM leader has reason to fear a new popularity contest, particularly during the presidential vacancy. The FPM suffered a major setback in the May parliamentary elections, even with solid support and a significant transfer of votes from Hezbollah. The FPM probably can't count on such support this time, as relations between the two allies are tense.
Also, Bassil does not want Mikati to capitalize on municipal elections by treating them as another major success of his term of office. This would strengthen Mikati's political legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the international community, which is keen on Lebanon holding the elections.
However, the FPM does not want to be held responsible for canceling municipal elections and it hopes to take steps closer to the LF on the presidential issue to block the election of Hezbollah-supported candidate Sleiman Frangieh.
“We certainly hope that the municipal elections will take place, but we doubt the state's capacity to carry out this mission amid a financial and political crisis,” MP Alain Aoun said.
Caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, close to Mikati, appeared to reply to Aoun yesterday, saying that he is able to overcome the obstacles to the presidential race.
“I will convene the electoral body on April 3 if Parliament does not pass a law to postpone the election,” Mawlawi told the Lebanese channel MTV.
Is it an ultimatum?
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.