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Lebanon braces for general strike as MPs mull Parliament extension

Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun appears for the first time after he underwent a minor surgery in the arm. He headed his parliamentary bloc's meeting at his residence in Rabieh on Wednesday, August 20, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Lebanon geared up for a general strike Thursday aimed at bringing government institutions to a standstill as politicians continued to debate whether to extend Parliament’s mandate and postpone elections scheduled for November.

The Union Coordination Committee is expected to hold a protest at 11 a.m. in front of the Economy Ministry in Downtown’s Azarieh Building, as part of a general strike “in all ministries, administrations, governorates, qadas and municipalities.”

The strike, aimed at pressuring lawmakers to raise the salaries of public sector workers, comes as Speaker Nabih Berri urged MPs to shoulder their responsibilities and pass key legislation including the wage scale, stressing his opposition to extending the legislature’s mandate.

“Making laws is the duty of the Parliament,” Berri said during his weekly meeting Wednesday with lawmakers, and reiterated the need to hold parliamentary elections on time.

Berri has rejected the extension of Parliament on the grounds that lawmakers have failed to address the growing problems that the country is facing. With the exception of a burst of activity after the formation of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s Cabinet in February, Parliament has convened only a handful of times since it extended its term last year by 17 months.

The legislature is currently deadlocked over the election of a new president, with many Christian and March 14 MPs boycotting legislative sessions in protest over the presidential vacuum, while Hezbollah and March 8 lawmakers are boycotting the electoral sessions.

This deadlock has left Parliament unable to address a rash of urgent issues, including the drawn-out battle over a new salary scale for public-sector workers that has led to a wave of protests and strikes over the last several years.

Berri reportedly insisted Tuesday that parliamentary approval of a controversial salary raise was a “must” before approving official certificates for Grade 9 and Grade 12 students.

“Official certificates ... inevitably require Parliament to pass the law,” visitors of Berri quoting him as saying. “If Parliament convened for a legislative session, no items on its agenda would be discussed, including the certificates draft law, unless [lawmakers] first approved the salary scale bill.” Parliament’s Education Committee Tuesday recommended that lawmakers draft a law to legalize the passing certificates.

Education Minister Elias Bou Saab decided to issue passing certificates for Brevet and Baccalaureate students after the Union Coordination Committee said it wouldn’t end its boycott of official exam corrections.

The results of the official exams, required for students to enroll in university, have been caught up in the ongoing battle over a new ranks and salary scale for Lebanon’s public workers.

Civil servants and teachers are demanding a 121-percent raise, matching one given to judges, and have held a series of protests and strikes over the last several years to pressure Parliament to approve the draft law. Lawmakers have come out in support of a new salary scale; however, the bill is being held up over disagreements on the size of the wage hike and the means to finance it.

Though the last two days have seen little progress on the elections issue, negotiations may pick up after Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s expected speech at 7 p.m. Thursday during a festival in Tariq al-Jadideh celebrating unity between the Army and the population.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said after a meeting with Salam, ahead of a Cabinet session scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m., that there was still no political consensus on extending Parliament’s mandate.

“There is movement toward postponing the elections as a result of the security situation,” he said. “But this movement is clashing with the lack of political consensus on the extension.” Abu Faour added that Lebanon must not accept the presidential vacuum, warning that it could lead to political, constitutional and security-related “dangers.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil echoed the condemnation of the presidential vacuum, going further and arguing that the climate in Lebanon’s political arena has done much to marginalize Christians.

“Is it time for administrative, parliamentary and presidential partnership, or is it time for ISIS-like policies?” Bassil asked rhetorically in an interview after the weekly Free Patriotic Movement’s meeting.

The foreign minister likened the exodus of Christians from Iraq to the vacancy in the top Christian post in Lebanon, saying that the FPM rejects the absence of “indigenous Christians” from Mosul and Baabda Palace.

With regard to the electoral law, Bassil said the FPM was trying to offer laws that achieve partnership, but the failure to approve these laws have revealed the illegitimacy of Parliament and the Constitutional Council.

“Let us live in an extension that is nominated for another extension that extends with it the absence of partnership, the absence of compromise and [preserves an] imbalance”

With regard to the presidency, he implied that consensus candidates were as weak as the presidential post itself after the Taif Accord stripped the office of many of its powers.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Lebanon geared up for a general strike Thursday aimed at bringing government institutions to a standstill as politicians continued to debate whether to extend Parliament's mandate and postpone elections scheduled for November.

Berri has rejected the extension of Parliament on the grounds that lawmakers have failed to address the growing problems that the country is facing.

The legislature is currently deadlocked over the election of a new president, with many Christian and March 14 MPs boycotting legislative sessions in protest over the presidential vacuum, while Hezbollah and March 8 lawmakers are boycotting the electoral sessions.

Berri reportedly insisted Tuesday that parliamentary approval of a controversial salary raise was a "must" before approving official certificates for Grade 9 and Grade 12 students.

Parliament's Education Committee Tuesday recommended that lawmakers draft a law to legalize the passing certificates.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said after a meeting with Salam, ahead of a Cabinet session scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m., that there was still no political consensus on extending Parliament's mandate.


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