BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to extend their mandate by another two years and seven months, skipping scheduled elections for the second consecutive time amid deteriorating security conditions in the country.
The vote now gives parliament eight full years in power— double its allowed mandate — to June 2017. Ninety-five lawmakers among those who showed up voted in favor of the extension, while two opposed.
The decision came despite a boycott by two major Christian parties. A small group of protesters blocked roads to Lebanon's parliament in a last-ditch attempt to halt the session, hurling tomatoes at lawmakers' passing cars in downtown Beirut.
"Thieves!" the crowd shouted through loudspeakers near parliament. They carried placards that read: "Go Home" and "Your extension is an occupation."
Skipping the vote yet again is a blow to Lebanon's tradition of free elections in a region known for autocratic governments.
"They are slowly eroding the right to vote, and that's very important. It's a right not a luxury," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. He said the excuse that it's not a good time for security reasons "rings a bit hollow."
The parliamentarians claim they need to extend their own term in office because Lebanon's security situation is too dire to allow holding elections amid neighboring Syria's civil war. They also say extending parliament's mandate will prevent another power vacuum from forming in a country already divided along sectarian and regional lines.
Lebanon has been without a head of state since May, when President Michel Suleiman stepped down after his six-year term ended without a replacement. The presidency is the country's top Christian-held position.
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale said the United States is "deeply concerned about the paralysis of Lebanon's political institutions." He urged Lebanese leaders to hold parliamentary elections as soon as possible.
The extension is the second in less than two years.
Parliament extended its term in May last year, skipping scheduled elections also because of the country's deteriorating security. It marked the first time that parliament has had to extend its term since Lebanon's own 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Clashes tied to Syria's war have broken out with increasing regularity in Lebanon, a country with a religious and political divide that mirrors that of its neighbor. Rockets fired across the frontier have struck Lebanese border villages with frequency and the Lebanese army is since August battling Sunni extremists in areas near the border with Syria.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.