Is the extension of parliament’s term constitutional?

17-month delay on elections proving controversial

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On May 31, Lebanon’s parliament agreed to a 17-month extension of its own mandate. The decision was clearly unpopular with some Lebanese — as MPs were on their way to vote, demonstrators threw tomatoes at their vehicles. Soon after the extension was passed, President Michel Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun declared they would appeal to the Constitutional Council as they thought the extension was unconstitutional. But are they correct?

The dispute largely revolves around one of two main reasons given for extending the mandate — that Lebanon is in crisis. The country is currently faced by sporadic violence in the second city of Tripoli, as well as along the border with Syria. Parliamentarians argued that the situation constituted a force majeure, or extraordinary circumstances, thus making the suspension justified.

Rabih Kays, professor of law at Sagesse University, agrees that there could be legal justification for the suspension if the situation is severe enough. “Lebanese law does not say that Parliament can extend its mandate, but de facto when the country is in the condition of war or invasion or earthquake…then due to the extraordinary theory, the parliament meets and votes for an extension for a logical period [until] the extraordinary circumstances will be over.” Shafic Masri, professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, agreed, stating that in “certain exceptional cases, [Parliament] prolongs their mandate in order to satisfy certain urgent needs.”

What is in dispute, therefore, is whether the current circumstances constitute a significant enough obstacle to justify the suspension. Parliamentary leaders cited Tripoli and the encroaching Syrian crisis as the cause, but Sleiman and Aoun have disputed this. FPM MP Ibrahim Kanaan said that his party did not accept the decision, adding “there is no force majeure preventing us from holding the elections.”

The second, and less important, justification used by parliamentarians for extending its mandate was the failure of MPs to agree upon a new electoral law. Different political parties have spent months trying to reach a deal on a system of electing parliamentarians, but none has been agreed.

As such, proponents of the extension argued that until there was an agreed upon law for voting the elections could not be held, but Masri believes this argument holds little legal weight — pointing out that elections could be held under the existing 1960 electoral law, which was amended in 2008.

Taking it to the courts

The final decision as to whether the decision is constitutional will be made in the courts, with Sleiman and Aoun filing separate challenges at the Constitutional Council. Comprised of 10 members, the Council will assign each of the claims to two members, who will review them and then report their findings to the rest of the council within a month. “The repertoire, or assigned member, has to get back to the general assembly of the Constitutional Council within a maximum period of 30 days,” explains Kays. Afterwards the council will then vote on whether to accept or reject the claim. “The decision made needs [the backing] of seven out of ten of the council’s members in order to pass,” he adds.

There is, however, the possibility that the court will not reach an agreement or even reach quorum. Three members of the Constitutional Council are currently boycotting the body, thus depriving it of quorum. In the event that no agreement is reached, parliament’s decision will automatically be ratified – with the full 17-month extension valid.

The claims made to the council vary somewhat in content. Sleiman stated in his challenge that some time was needed in order to create a new electoral law, but argues this extension should just be a couple of months rather than the 17 months passed by Parliament. Aoun, on the other hand, completely refuses any extension.

The Constitutional Council could either accept or reject the claims. Accepting the petition would mean the council “will declare the new law of extending the mandate as unconstitutional,” states Masri, and “the Ministry of Interior will carry on the process of election according to the Law of 1960 and 2008.” However if the Council rejects the appeal, “Parliament’s mandate will be extended until autumn 2014,” he explains.

Masri suggests that it is possible the Constitutional Council will opt for a compromise agreement, with the council allowing for a shorter extension of Parliament’s mandate. “I personally think that the Constitution Council will say no to the extension for that long of a period,” says Masri. “It will accept the extension but within a shorter period — enough time to make another [electoral] law.” The Constitutional Council has declared that a decision could be announced in the coming weeks. The Lebanese public will be waiting, tomatoes at the ready.

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