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Lebanese MPs give Lahoud 3 more years

Amendment passes despite objections


By Nayla Assaf

Daily Star staff

Saturday, September 04, 2004



BEIRUT: With 96 votes in favor, 29 votes against and three absentees, the Lebanese Parliament amended the Constitution Friday night, and President Emile Lahoud will remain in power for three more years.

Just minutes after the amendment was passed, fireworks illuminated downtown Beirut for nearly half an hour, as MPs left the three-hour session.

The amendment of Article 49 of the Constitution, which will extend Lahoud's term, was passed amid international and local objections. Lahoud, whose term was to end in November, will remain president until November 2007. Until then, the country will not be able to hold a presidential ballot.

"Today is a black day in Lebanese history," said Zghorta MP Nayla Mouawad - herself a former candidate for the presidency - as she described Parliament's compliance with the Syrian-orchestrated amendment, which took place less than 24 hours after the UN Security Council passed a resolution urging respect for the Lebanese Constitution and calling for a halt to foreign interference.

"This was a revolt against the Constitution, and not even a white revolution, since many MPs received threats," Mouawad charged.

Article 49 bars presidents from running for two consecutive terms - or from having their six-year term extended. However, since the 1990 end of the civil war, the Constitution has been amended for every presidential election: once in 1995, allowing then President Elias Hrawi an extra three years, and again in 1998 - allowing Lahoud, who was army commander at the time and thus inelegible, to seek the post.

The 43 "no" votes required to defeat the amendment did not materialize, as more than the required two-thirds of the 128 MPs backed the amendment.

The extension, though initially opposed by many MPs, including Prime Minster Rafik Hariri and members of his 18-MP bloc, was later adopted by most MPs following reports of alleged arm-twisting. After a weekend visit to the Syrian security chief in Lebanon, Hariri shifted positions and voted for an extension during an extraordinary Cabinet session Saturday that lasted for just 10 minutes.

As expected, the major parliamentary blocs against the amendment were those of Chouf MP and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and the Christian opposition represented by members of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering.

Unexpectedly, Beirut MP Ghattas Khoury broke with his colleagues in Hariri's bloc, eliciting gasps of surprise from MPs and reporters at the session when he said, "I object." His fellow bloc member, Beirut MP Nabil de Freije, said Khoury had received a series of threats over the past 10 days, urging him to back the amendment, and thus his "no" vote was "exceptional."

Khoury's vote "was to show he will not give in to such tactics," said de Freije, who backed the amendment, but nonetheless dubbed the parliamentary session "a sad masquerade."

"Of the 96 people who voted for the amendment, I can guarantee not even seven are really for it," he said. "I am one of those but, given the circumstances I could not give up on (Hariri)."

Prior to the vote - registered by a show of hands - many MPs noted their objections to both the amendment and the way in which it was formulated. Former presidential candidates Boutros Harb and Mikhail Daher said the modification should have passed through Parliament's Administration and Justice Committee before being voted on.

Other MPs presented anti-extension statements, among them Mouawad, Baabda MPs Salah Honein and Antoine Ghanem, both of whom are member of Jumblatt's bloc and Qornet Shehwan; Kesrouan MP Fares Boueiz; Aley MP Akram Chehayeb, also a member of Jumblatt's bloc; Tripoli MP Mosbah Ahdab; and Metn MP and Qornet Shehwan member Nassib Lahoud.

Former presidential candidate Robert Ghanem read a statement justifying his last-minute shift in position by citing the international pressure from the Security Council resolution and the threat that it might represent for Lebanon and Syria.

Many MPs also denounced the blunt Syrian interference in the elections, saying that the issue was being dealt with as in authoritarian regimes.

Nassib Lahoud objected to the fact that since the end of the civil war "every presidential election has been exceptional, and not once have we been allowed to have a normal presidential election."

Harb slammed the regional-tension response that many MPs gave when justifying the extension: "If the logic is that Palestine and Iraq are in danger, then we cannot keep extending and renewing mandates until those conflicts, some of which are more than half a century old, are resolved."

After the vote, Speaker Nabih Berri took a copy of the amendment to Lahoud, saying, "The president and Lebanon have proved they have always been able to handle challenges. And, God willing, we will be up to the coming challenges."

Berri, however, refused to answer questions as to whether there will be a Cabinet reshuffle in the near future.

For the past six years, the feud between Lahoud and Hariri has become chronic, and crippled the country. Observers say that, following this extension, Lahoud could call for a Cabinet reshuffle. Other reports, however, say Syria - the driving force behind the amendment - wants both men to remain in power.

Also after the vote, Jumblatt and members of his bloc visited Hariri at his home. Jumblatt said he would meet with his bloc to discuss "the necessity for it to remain in Cabinet."