BEIRUT (AP) — The Lebanese parliament postponed upcoming elections on Friday, extending its term 17 months because of deteriorating security conditions related to Syria's civil war.
The decision, which had been expected, marks the first time that parliament has had to extend its term since Lebanon's own 15-year civil war ended in 1990, and underlines the growing turmoil in the country spilling over from the conflict in its neighbor.
It is widely seen as a blow to Lebanon's tradition of free elections, but it may help lower tensions at a critical time for the fragile and deeply divided country.
Dozens of people have been killed in Lebanon over the past two years in clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian Lebanese groups, making it difficult to hold elections amid tension.
Ninety-seven legislators in the 128-seat body voted in favor of extension in a session that lasted 10 minutes, state-run National News Agency said. The parliament postponed elections from June until November 2014.
Friday's decision also comes after rival blocs in the legislature failed to agree on a new elections law.
Both pro- and anti-Syrian blocs in parliament agreed on the extension, with one exception being the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian leader Michel Aoun. The FPM is the second largest bloc in parliament.
Aoun and President Michel Suleiman have said they will challenge the extension, although that is unlikely to affect Friday's decision given the size of the majority.
Defenders say the decision was a necessary evil.
"In order not to reach a (political) vacuum, it became necessary to see the extension of parliament's term as a good thing, although it is not," said legislator and former prime minister Fuad Saniora. "This step became necessary to avoid a vacuum as well as security breaches."
About 100 meters (yards) from the parliament building, dozens of pro-democracy activists held a protest and threw tomatoes at some lawmakers' cars. They carried three fake coffins draped in Lebanese flags.
"With deep sadness and shock we declare the death of democracy," read a banner.
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.
At least 28 people have been killed and more than 200 wounded this month 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.
UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly said in a statement that while it was "clearly important to ensure the continuity of institutions - it was a matter of regret that no agreement had been reached on elections."
He added that the United Nations would continue to encourage all parties in Lebanon to work for the "expeditious conduct of parliamentary elections in line with the country's longstanding democratic tradition."