BEIRUT: Well into a special legislative session after a more than two-year deadlock, MPs reflect on returning to work, the string of bills passed during recent special meetings, and the slated elections later this year. “There is a feeling [of rush], not only because Parliament is operating again, but because this Parliament is almost at the end of its term,” Change and Reform bloc MP Ghassan Moukheiber told The Daily Star.
“It’s like we’re cleaning the drawers to finish up business.”
With more than 340 bills pending in Parliament, Moukheiber called the process of passing bills “haphazard.”
Following the end of former President Michel Sleiman’s term in May 2014, a political deadlock prevented the legislative work of Parliament for 29 months while a new head of state was elected. Following President Michel Aoun’s election on Oct. 31, 2016, he called for a special legislative period to pass the backlog of bills. The special session began in January and will conclude on March 20, the day before the regular scheduled legislative session begins.
The body’s agenda is organized by a small number of parliamentarians who collectively decide how the bills are prioritized, with Speaker Nabih Berri having the final say.
The bills placed at the top of the session’s agenda are then presented to the general assembly, which votes to decide whether the proposal is “urgent” or not. If the bill does not receive the required number of votes to be deemed urgent it is referred to a parliamentary committee for further debate.
Parliament has two regular sessions, taking place in the third week of March and the third week of October according to norms, each lasting several months. Despite legislative sessions being suspended during the presidential deadlock, Parliament’s committees continued to meet to discuss their assigned bills.
Now that the sessions have restarted, many of these committees have passed final drafts to the house for debate. However, some MPs have expressed concern that they are unable to scrutinize the proposals from the committees due to the number of pending bills and the short time left before May’s expected election.
“The habit of Parliament is to clog the agenda with dozens of bills which are debated as a package, which in my opinion makes for an ineffective and nervous debate on bills,” Moukheiber said. “There’s [not enough attention] in the way these bills are being debated because we’re under the rush of time and the number of agenda items.”
However, Future Movement bloc MP Bassem Shabb said he saw the current momentum in Parliament as a reflection of recent advancements and a sign of political unity.
“What’s happening in Parliament is not isolated, it’s part of a momentum that has been building up since the election of the president, the appointment of the prime minister and the formation of the government,” he said.
Shabb said he was positive regarding Parliament’s conduct during its latest sessions, adding that he believed the political stalemate between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions have temporarily subsided.
“What’s interesting is that if you did not know the alignments and the alliances you [wouldn’t be able to] tell which bloc was against which bloc [based on the] parliamentary sessions,” he said. “The divisions are not politically split. The mood has been very positive, which is a change.”
He pointed to how Amal Movement-affiliated Minister of Finance Ali Hasan Khalil and members of Hezbollah defended Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the most recent parliamentary session. “This is something very interesting, it shows that people want to get things moving. It has been a very productive session,” Shabb added.
Future Movement bloc MP Mohammad Qabbani emphasized the positive changes in Parliament, while also recognizing that time was of the essence.
“There is a rush and there are difficulties in over-rushing,” he said.
“We have limited time [before elections] ... but this was the first time in a long time where the session was efficient and nobody really objected to anything.”
In emergency legislative sessions called for by Berri before Aoun’s election, Qabbani attributed impasses to the “arrogance” of MPs who refused to discuss or pass legislation in the absence of a president.
Kataeb party bloc MP Elie Maroun said he was amongst the lawmakers who refused to discuss legislation without a president.
“We were one of the first people that stopped legislation in the absence of a president because we wanted to do our duty within the constitutional institutions,” Maroun said. “Since the election of the president, we have participated in all the sessions and all the committees. We have to work overtime now in order to fulfill our duties toward citizens and we have to make up for the time we lost.”
Maroun called on Berri to exert efforts to finalize a draft budget bill and a “fair” electoral law, the two most contentious issues currently facing Parliament. Replacing the 1960 electoral law has been discussed at varying levels of intensity since 2009, while Lebanon has not had a budget since 2005.
All parties recognize that the pressure is on to reach a consensus regarding the electoral law as they face of deadline of Feb. 21
A delay could force Parliament to extend its term for a third time.
Speaking on the issue of the electoral law, Amal Movement MP Ayoub Humayed said, “We have been calling for Lebanon to be a single constituency since the 1970s,” he said, referencing a proposed proportional electoral system. “Unfortunately, there is no progress on any talks. ... Everyone ultimately wants what is best for his party and sect, rather than a national good.”
Democratic Gathering MP Fouad Saad agreed that he believes some MPs were working in their own personal interests, while others were acting in the name of interests “asked of them.”
“What concerns me is that something is finally done for this country, that there is something done in the interest of the people,” he said. “I’m the type [of person] who wants all people to [get along] and to have representation in the Parliament. Maybe someone will come up with a project that satisfies the concerns of everyone. I am concerned with patriotism; we have to have patriotism in this country.”
As time runs short for MPs, they say they will continue to work to make the most out of their ending term. “The question is: Do we have the time to make several other legislative sessions? That, I don’t know,” Qabanni said.