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Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (L) meets with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Lebanon April 12, 2017. Dalati Nohra/Handout via Reuters(reuters_tickers)
By Ellen Francis
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Aoun suspended parliament for a month on Wednesday, temporarily blocking plans to extend the assembly's term without election for the third time since 2013 to try to push politicians to agree election law reforms.
Parliament was expected to vote on Thursday to extend its own mandate again until 2018, officials said. The lawmakers were elected in 2009 for what was meant to be a four-year term.
The president's move eased tensions simmering after activists had called for protests against the planned extension, which they decried as a blow to democracy. The two previous extensions triggered massive protests in central Beirut.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said that it marked the first time a president had used the procedure and that the session had been postponed until May 15.
In a televised address to the nation, Aoun said the delay would give politicians more time to agree on a new electoral law and help protect the Lebanese people's right to vote.
He said there would be no room for another extension "in the era of the revival of the state, its authorities and its institutions".
Parliament elected former army commander Aoun in October, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum in a deal that secured victory for his Lebanese Shi'ite ally Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.
The power-sharing deal saw leading Sunni Muslim politician Saad al-Hariri, whose Saudi-backed coalition opposed Hezbollah for years, appointed premier.
The Lebanese government has often struggled to make basic decisions and feuding lawmakers have repeatedly crippled parliament.
Since the formation of a new unity cabinet in December that includes nearly all the main parties, politicians including Aoun and Hariri have promised to end institutional paralysis.
For years, the parties have been unable to agree on a new electoral law - resulting in parliament twice extending its own mandate, moves that critics including the European Union have condemned as unconstitutional.
Most political parties have rejected holding parliamentary elections based on the existing system, a sectarian-based electoral law that dates back to 1960. The next round of elections had previously been scheduled for May.
Some politicians say the law divides up the population into constituencies that do not fairly represent the sectarian or political preferences of their supporters. Christian lawmakers have been the most vocal in demanding a new law.
Lebanese politics have long been dogged by sectarian divisions, exacerbated by the war in neighbouring Syria and complicated by regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Critics and activists accuse Lebanese politicians of using regional upheaval as an excuse to dodge elections.
Civil society groups and some parties opposing an extension called off the protests that had been planned for Thursday. A few dozen demonstrators gathered in Beirut on Wednesday evening.
"The Lebanese president's move today remains incomplete" without political parties setting a new date for elections, said activist Hadi Mounla. "It postponed the problem for a month, but did not radically solve the problem."
Another protester, Atallah Slim, said this should serve as "the last warning" for lawmakers.
Anger at Lebanon's government has fuelled repeated protests in Beirut, particularly in the summer of 2015, when politicians failed to agree a solution to a trash disposal crisis, leaving piles of garbage festered in the streets.
(Editing by Alison Williams)