Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam speaks to the media outside the parliament building in Beirut on Nov. 5. Lebanon's parliament extended its own mandate until 2017, a move critics said denies citizens their democratic privileges. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

Lebanon’s frenetic but relatively functional democracy suffered what many here describe as an ominous setback as lawmakers decided Wednesday to postpone parliamentary elections for the second time in less than two years.

Amid fears of rising instability linked to the civil war in next-door Syria, Lebanon’s 128-member legislative body voted overwhelmingly to extend its mandate for an additional two years and seven months. The elections had already been pushed back from June 2013 because of similar security concerns.

Recent attacks by militants linked to the Syrian conflict have shaken the fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon, where a 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Rights groups and activists warned that the vote’s postponement could sow further instability in one of the few democracies in the Middle East, a region beset by chaos and dominated by monarchies and authoritarian leaders.

“This is unprecedented for Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, director of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch. “There have been major upheavals throughout Lebanon’s history, and yet we’ve still managed to hold elections during worse times than this.”

The decision, he said, reinforced an “oligarchical” system in Lebanon in which “a handful of men are increasingly deciding on how things are run.”

Lebanese army soldiers surround and push back protesters trying to throw eggs at the convoy of the Lebanese parliament speaker, not seen, which was passing near them. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Lebanese lawmakers have been at odds over formulating a new electoral law as well as selecting a new president, a position that traditionally has been held by a Maronite Christian and has been vacant for five months.

The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which has fighters battling in Syria alongside the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and its parliamentary allies back one candidate. Supporting a different candidate are the parties in the March 14 Alliance, which is close to Saudi Arabia, which in turn supports the rebellion against the Assad regime.

All of this makes for convoluted politicking and, according to critics, convenient excuses by politicians to curtail the democratic rights of Lebanese voters.

“If they’re all waiting for what is happening in Syria to sort itself out, does that mean that we, Lebanese people, have to wait 10 or 20 years before we can have a parliament that we can elect?” said Yara Nassar, executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections.

She spoke during demonstrations near parliament Wednesday afternoon. More than 100 people turned out, with some trying to halt traffic on busy downtown thoroughfares.

Ahmad Fatfat, a lawmaker with the March 14 coalition, said he voted in favor of postponing the elections because Lebanon’s security services were not prepared to help conduct such a vote.

That put him in rare agreement with his Hezbollah rivals, who he said voted to postpone the elections because their forces were busy fighting in Syria.

Fatfat represents an area in northern Lebanon whose primarily Sunni residents are fuming over Hezbollah’s decision to fight against the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria.

The irony was not lost on him.

“Today, you could say that our regular parliamentary alliances were violated and mixed up in that we agreed with rivals in extending parliament’s mandate,” he said.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.