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Sleiman to sign draft law to suspend poll deadlines
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President Michel Sleiman has said he will sign a draft law Parliament passed Wednesday that suspends all deadlines applicable under the 1960 election law until May 19, creating time for agreement to be reached on a new law adopting proportional representation.

In remarks on his twitter account, Sleiman said he will sign the draft law to amend deadlines which Parliament passed today [Wednesday] to allow the endorsement of a modern electoral law based on proportional representation.

Sleiman added that if he declined to sign the draft law, it would allow candidates to win unopposed and prevent the endorsement of a new law.

Parliament endorsed the draft law during a session which lasted less than an hour and was attended by MPs from all blocs, except that of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt.

Two articles were added to the draft law as proposed by the Future Movement. The first stipulates that the deadline for submitting candidacies under the 1960 law would be three weeks before election day, rather than 60 days.

The second sets the deadline for withdrawing candidacies 15 days ahead of polls, rather than 45. Elections are set for June 16.

If these two deadlines remain the same, then it will not be possible to hold elections based on the 1960 law [if no agreement on a new law is reached until May 19], Future Movement MP Ahmad Fatfat said after the session.

The draft law would also abolish article 50 of the law, which stipulates that candidates with no competitors automatically win once the deadline for submitting candidacies has passed.

The suspension aims at giving rival blocs time to agree on a consensus electoral law other than the 1960 law. Most political factions oppose the current law and have not submitted candidacies.

Caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, from the PSP, said shortly before the session that MPs from Jumblatts bloc would not attend.

Abu Faour voiced suspicion that suspending deadlines was aimed at annulling the law. We want to stress that we oppose suspending deadlines and we do not accept the so-called compromise text [draft law] that is proposed, he told a news conference. This is because we are afraid that this [suspension of deadlines] hides an intention to abolish the current law without having an alternative one and thus pushing the country into political vacuum or imposing electoral laws that we oppose, such as the Orthodox proposal, he said.

Abu Faour said that he and Aley MP Akram Shehayeb, also from the PSP, had expressed to Speaker Nabih Berri their reservations about the session, telling him it violated the National Pact since representatives of a major political party would be absent.

Abu Faour said that he and Shehayeb held two consecutive meetings with Berri and contacted Jumblatt.

The PSP later announced Jihad Zuheiry as its candidate for a seat in Beirut. Zuheiry will run for caretaker Transport and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridis seat.

Khalil Gebara, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star that while the draft law would reduce the periods separating the election date from the deadlines for submitting and withdrawing candidacies, it says nothing about setting new time-frames for the other eight deadlines.

These eight deadlines will make it very difficult for elections to take place on time from a technical point of view, said Gebara, also a former member of the Supervisory Commission on Elections Campaign that supervised the 2009 polls.

Some of these deadlines have to do with out-of-country voting and granting NGOs permits to supervise elections.

A flurry of contacts between March 14 officials, and between them and Berri, preceded the session.

By passing this draft law, I am buying one month, during which I will try to achieve consensus on an electoral law, Berri said, addressing MPs during the session. If we fail to agree on a law, I tell you from now that I will convene a session a month from now in order to pass a consensual electoral law. Even if we have to sleep in Parliament [to reach an agreement], Berri added.

The speaker assured lawmakers that suspending the deadlines was not a move to annul the law or extend the parliamentary term, which expires on June 20.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who heads the Future Movements parliamentary bloc, demanded that the draft laws preamble be redrafted.

Batroun MP Butros Harb, from the March 14 coalition, suggested that article 50 be suspended rather than abolished.

But Berri responded that abolishing the article was agreed upon during a meeting that involved him and representatives of various blocs Tuesday.

Caretaker Minister of State Nicholas Fattoush proposed extending rather than suspending deadlines. Fattoush, Harb, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Minister of State Ahmad Karami voiced their opposition to the draft law.