Lebanon opposition in crucial talks to save polls

BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s anti-Syrian opposition met for crucial talks ahead of disputed polls later this month, amid growing rifts and warnings from the Maronite Church over constituency boundaries and calls for elections to be delayed.

The meeting, which opened mid-morning, was marred by the absence of key opposition figures like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Sunni candidate Saadeddin Hariri, the son of slain prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Christian heavyweights such as hardliner Michel Aoun and former president Amine Gemayel also failed to attend the meeting which was expected to adopt a common strategy for the four-stage elections due to start May 29.

“The opposition will end up by agreeing on a solution that satisfies everyone,” Christian MP Nassib Lahud told AFP on the sidelines of the meeting.

Deputy Bassem Sabeh of Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc insisted that “postponing the polls is out of the question … sacrifices must be made to secure our independence and keep unity between Christians and Muslims”.

The powerful Maronite Church, led by Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, warned Wednesday that elections held on the basis of a Syrian-tailored law will further marginalise the Christians and return a pro-Syrian parliament to Lebanon.

Sfeir reiterated the church’s views Thursday saying the 2000 electoral law, which stipulate large constituencies preferred by the pro-Syrian and Muslim camp, is unfair to Christians who want smaller, more representative, constituencies.

“It is out of the question to hold elections under such conditions. We want a law that guarantees the representation of all the Lebanon,” Sfeir said, stopping short from calling for a delay.

But the Lebanese press, and some politicians who boycotted the opposition meeting, saw in those statements a threat to holding elections on time.

Christian MP Ghassan Moukhaiber told AFP “elections should be postponed by a few weeks, in order to agree on a law acceptable to all, or reduce the (four-year) term of parliament to one year and task it with drafting a new one”.

Simon Karam, a former ambassador to Washington, told AFP he quit the Christian opposition Qornet Shahwan movement, to protest the law “which exacerbates sectarian strife”.

An editorial in the English-language Daily Star said: “The sane thing to do would be to delay the elections until October and have parliament work on a proper electoral law.”