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Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) chats with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (C) as Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh (L) looks on during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon June 14, 2017. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS(reuters_tickers)
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon is likely to hold long-delayed elections in May 2018, ministers said on Wednesday, after the cabinet approved a new law for a legislative vote that has spared the country a major political crisis.
Recent disputes over an election law that is at the heart of the nation's sectarian political system had pushed Lebanon to the brink of crisis, threatening to leave it without a parliament for the first time.
The new law will extend parliament's term by almost a year until next May, avoiding a legislative vacuum when the chamber's current term ends on June 20.
It will create a proportional representation system for parliament and alter the number of districts from which lawmakers are elected, among other changes.
"Today, cabinet approved the law ... with an extension of parliament's term by 11 months for technical reasons" to prepare for the polls under the new law, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said. Parliament, which is set to meet on Friday, must now also approve the law.
Elections are likely to take place on May 6, 2018 and parliament could extend its term until May 20, Information Minister Melhem Riachy told journalists earlier on Wednesday.
Lebanon's rival parties agreed this week on the draft electoral law after months of political wrangling, paving the way for the first elections in eight years.
Parliament has extended its own mandate twice since current lawmakers were elected in 2009 for what was meant to be a four-year term.
Sectarian divisions have long plagued politics in Lebanon, exacerbated by the Syrian conflict and complicated by rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which back different groups in the country. Lebanese activists accuse politicians of using regional upheaval as an excuse to dodge elections.
Protesters took to the streets of Beirut after the two previous parliamentary extensions, which critics, including the European Union, condemned as unconstitutional.
Politicians had been unable to agree on a new law for years because of fundamental disagreements between the parties, including over representation and how to conduct the vote.
Most political parties had rejected holding new legislative elections based on the existing system, a sectarian-based law that dates back to 1960.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Issam Abdallah and Ellen Francis; editing by Mark Heinrich)