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Hariri cites progress toward accord on electoral law.

Summary: Prime Minister Saad Hariri insisted Monday that Lebanon is edging closer to an agreement on a new electoral law, urging political parties to put the country's interests first.

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri insisted Monday that Lebanon is edging closer to an agreement on a new electoral law, urging political parties to put the country's interests first.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil asked the Cabinet to renew Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh's term for another six years at its next session slated for Wednesday. Khalil's move is apparently linked to a U.S. draft legislation that seeks to impose tougher sanctions on Hezbollah and its affiliates and allies, amid reports that the sanctions might also include the Amal Movement, which he belongs to.

Hariri met with President Michel Aoun to brief him on the outcome of ongoing efforts, including his talks with Speaker Nabih Berri Sunday night, to reach a new electoral law to prevent a vacuum in Parliament before its term expires next month and set the stage for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

"The president and I are keen on getting an electoral law agreed upon as soon as possible and for a positive atmosphere to prevail in order to reach a solution," Hariri told reporters after meeting Aoun at Baabda Palace. "In my opinion, matters are very close to a solution. This matter calls on all political blocs to realize that the country's interest is more important than their interests."

Referring to his meeting with Berri in the presence of MP George Adwan, the Lebanese Forces' deputy chief, Hariri said: "There will be continued meetings. ... We are working to finalize an electoral draft law as soon as possible."

He refused to go into details "because everything is being worked on in a positive atmosphere."

Noting that all electoral draft laws on the table have proportionality, Hariri fell short of spurning Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil's controversial sectarian-based two-stage "qualification" vote law proposal, which has drawn opposition from Berri, MP Walid Jumblatt's bloc and the Lebanese Forces.

"[Bassil's] qualification law has originally been proposed with proportionality. All draft laws we are working on include proportionality," he said.

Although no major breakthrough was made in the vote law stalemate during the meeting held at Berri's Ain al-Tineh residence, the only tangible outcome was that the speaker postponed until May 29 Monday's Parliament session that was originally scheduled to extend the legislative body's term for one year.

A source close to Berri described the Ain al-Tineh meeting as "fruitless," saying it did not achieve any major results to end the standoff over a new vote law.

He said that Berri has withdrawn his latest proportional vote law proposal after it was rejected by the Free Patriotic Movement. Berri had said he would withdraw his proposal by May 15 if no agreement was reached on a new electoral law. "Berri's proposal is a package deal, take or leave it. It cannot be accepted as a piecemeal," the source told The Daily Star. The source suggested that Bassil is still upholding his "qualification" vote law proposal.

Berri has presented two draft laws, one for an electoral law based on complete proportionality, dividing Lebanon into six electoral constituencies, and another calling for the creation of a senate as stipulated by the Taif Accord.

The source pointed out that a flurry of intensive political activity would continue among the rival factions to reach consensus on a new electoral law. "But will this activity yield any results? This is the question," the source said.

Reflecting Berri's growing concern over the dire repercussions of a much-feared vacuum in Parliament if no agreement was reached on a new vote law before the legislature's term expires on June 20, the source said: "Is there anyone pushing for vacuum? Should the country fall into a [parliamentary] vacuum, the government would collapse before Parliament."

The source added that a delegation comprising MP Yassin Jaber from Berri's bloc, MP Mohammad Qabbani from Hariri's Future bloc, Ali Hamdan, a media adviser to Berri, and former Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. Antoine Shadid will fly to Washington Tuesday for talks with a number of U.S. congress members and senators on a U.S. draft law imposing tougher sanctions on Hezbollah and its affiliates and allies.

For his part, Aoun defended the "qualification" law proposal. "There is still an opportunity until June 19 to agree on a new electoral law and endorse it," Aoun told visitors at Baabda Palace.

He said that the FPM's parliamentary Change and Reform bloc had proposed three electoral draft laws and they were all rejected. "I ask as some are trying to give the qualification proposal a sectarian character, where is the sectarianism in it? Qualification is not [meant] for election but for selection," Aoun said.

Adwan met with Bassil and MP Ibrahim Kanaan, the FPM's secretary, at the Foreign Ministry to brief them on the results of the Ain al-Tineh talks. "Our goal is a new electoral law and true representation. We are going toward what achieves this goal," Kanaan told reporters after the meeting. "The goal is to correct imbalance [in Christian representation] that is 27 years old."

Meanwhile, Khalil, the finance minister, proposed to the Cabinet the renewal of Salameh's term, which expires on July 31, for another six years.

Hariri, who supports a new term for Salameh, hinted after meeting Aoun that the issue of the Central Bank governor would be decided soon.

The Cabinet is set to meet Wednesday under Hariri at the Grand Serail to discuss a host of financial and economic issues. Khalil has demanded that the extension of Salameh's term be listed on the Cabinet agenda.

The new U.S. sanctions targeting Hezbollah and its affiliates and allies have prompted many bankers and economists to urge the government to renew Salameh's term as he is the only one who can discuss such thorny issues with the Americans.

Salameh, who assumed office in August 1993, was credited for stabilizing the Lebanese pound, reducing inflation, beefing up Banque du Liban's foreign currency reserves and regulating the banking sector.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:May 16, 2017
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