BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s parliament moved Wednesday to extend its term, skipping scheduled elections because of the country’s deteriorating security linked to the civil war next door in Syria.
The decision is a blow to Lebanon’s tradition of free elections in a region known for autocratic governments, but it may help lower tensions at a critical time for the fragile and deeply divided country.
The extension of the 128-seat legislature’s term by up to 18 months, which was set for a vote Friday, marks the first time that parliament has had to extend its term since Lebanon’s own civil war ended in 1975-90, and underlines the growing turmoil as a result of the Syrian conflict.
Sectarian clashes tied to Syria’s war have broken out with increasing regularity in Lebanon, a country with a religious divide that mirrors that of its neighbor. Rockets fired across the frontier have struck Lebanese border villages with growing frequency, killing several people — including a 20-year-old student this week.
At least 28 people have been killed and more than 200 wounded in battles in the northern city of Tripoli recently as supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad lobbed mortar shells and fired heavy machine guns at each other.
That violence, coupled with the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group’s direct intervention in the Syrian conflict on the side of the Assad regime, has deeply shaken Lebanon, and it threatens to throw off the country’s precarious sectarian balance.
The conflict also has forced some 500,000 Syrians to seek refuge in Lebanon, putting a severe strain on the country of 4 million to cope with the influx.
“We live in a very dangerous moment in our history. We have little civil wars going on in parts of the country. Logistically, it’s not feasible to have elections take place right now,” said Kamel Wazne, founder and director of the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut.
He said extending parliament’s mandate removes one logistical issue and will prevent a power vacuum from forming in a country already divided along sectarian and regional lines.
Although most political factions agreed on the action as a way out of the crisis, President Michel Suleiman said he was deeply opposed to it.
“Arab countries are experiencing bloodshed so that they may have elections, and we go and do the opposite? This is not the message that we want to send to the world,” he told Future TV in an interview Wednesday night.
In addition to the security situation, Lebanese politicians have been bickering for months, unable to agree on a law to govern elections, originally set for June 16.
Outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati abruptly resigned in March over a political deadlock between Lebanon’s two main political camps and infighting in his government, dominated by Hezbollah.
Lebanon effectively has been without a government since then, although Mikati’s Cabinet stayed on in a caretaker role.
The decision by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Wednesday to call for a plenary session to extend parliament’s mandate Friday followed an agreement between most political factions that the worsening security situation has made campaigning and voting impossible, and that postponing it may ease soaring tensions.
Parliament’s current term ends June 20.
“The reason for the extension is the current security situation, which does not allow the polls to be held not only in some areas, but also it does not allow freedom of movement for candidates and voters in more than one area,” Berri told The Daily Star newspaper Wednesday.
On Tuesday, three Lebanese soldiers were killed in a drive-by shooting on a checkpoint near the Syrian border in the second attack targeting the army this year. Moreover, the overt involvement of Hezbollah fighters in the war in Syria alongside Assad’s forces has further raised sectarian tensions. Most of the rebels fighting Assad are Sunnis, and many Lebanese Sunni fighters have also joined the fight.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in a weekend speech, urged the Lebanese to keep the fight restricted to Syria.
“We can fight each other there, but keep Lebanon out of the fray,” he said. His opponents accused him of involving Lebanon in the fight.
The increasing violence has raised fears that Lebanon would slide into civil war, and the decision to extend parliament’s mandate brought back memories of that conflict.
Although presidents continued to be elected during the 1975-90 war, Lebanon had the same parliament from 1972 until 1992 — two years after the civil war ended.
The decision to delay the parliamentary election was received mostly with apathy on the street, where most people are angry over worsening security and economic conditions and don’t expect much from lawmakers anyway.
“What do I care if they hold elections or not?” asked Ibrahim Matar, a retired civil servant. “A new parliament won’t bring me electricity, food or security. Better not waste our time with such meaningless things.”
Others warned that the move could hurt Lebanon’s reputation as a country known for regular, relatively free elections.
“Some countries have Arab Spring revolutions to achieve democracy, while in Lebanon we are willingly throwing our democracy aside and taking up guns instead. That’s absolutely tragic,” said Hani Mortada, a clothing shop owner and father of two.
Most hope the extension will help maintain a semblance of peace until a solution to the Syrian crisis is reached.
Beirut-based political analyst Rami Khouri said it was unlikely that Lebanon’s own sectarian conflict will be reignited.
“The differences over Syria will continue to play out in Lebanon, both in the political debate and in armed clashes, but the civil war will remain in Syria,” said Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Beirut and Bassem Mroue in Hermel, Lebanon, contributed to this report.