BEIRUT: Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s coalition government easily won a vote of confidence in Parliament Thursday following two days of often-heated exchanges between lawmakers over Hezbollah’s arsenal and its military intervention in Syria.
Speaker Nabih Berri said 96 MPs of the 128-member chamber backed the Cabinet after a lengthy debate over its proposed policy statement.
The voting session was attended by 101 MPs, four lawmakers, including three from the Lebanese Forces, voted no confidence while a fifth abstained.
Several lawmakers missed the two-day debate either on security grounds or due to travel outside Lebanon.
The Parliament vote, ending almost a year of political logjam, gave Lebanon a fully empowered government for the first time since Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet resigned in March last year.
France quickly welcomed the vote, saying it was ready to work with the Lebanese government and called for the presidential elections to be held on time.
“This step [confidence vote] is an important stage toward reviving Lebanese institutions,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement.
Salam, aware of the tough security, political and economic challenges facing the country mainly as a result of the repercussions of the 3-year-old war in Syria, told the Lebanese not to expect miracles from his 24-member Cabinet, which includes representatives from the rival March 8 and March 14 parties.
He also promised to hold the presidential election on time in order to prevent into a vacuum in the presidency seat.
“We will not promise anything the government will not be able to fulfill. No one should expect miracles,” Salam told Parliament just before the confidence vote. “We will do all we can to deal with the urgent priorities in the time available to us.”
Salam said the government’s main task was to achieve security and limit damage caused by the fallout of the conflict in Syria.
“We live in an extremely difficult time inside Lebanon and around it,” he said, referring to Syrian crisis.
Despite the parties’ conflicting political stances, Salam said there was an acceptable minimum of consensus within his national coalition government to pass this delicate stage with the least damage.
“We need to boost this consensus to a higher level so it can constitute a permanent protection and safety net for our country,” Salam said.Salam said he agreed with three core demands made by lawmakers in speeches during Parliament’s two-day debate of the Cabinet’s policy statement: achieving security, addressing the tragedy of more than 1 million Syrian refugees who have fled for safety to Lebanon and holding the presidential elections on time.
“These are matters which have been upheld and highlighted in our policy statement,” he said.
He rejected accusations that his government was formed to fill the presidential vacuum if no new president is elected when President Michel Sleiman’s six-year-term in offices expires on May 25.
“No one should think that our government is looking to fill the presidential vacuum. We are looking for revitalizing our constitutional institutions, and we consider that a vacuum is the worst that can hit our political system,” he said.
Perhaps one of the toughest challenges facing Salam’s government is how to defuse sectarian tensions, stoked by deep divisions between the rival factions over the conflict in Syria.
Speeches during the debate were wide-ranging as parliamentarians took advantage of the opportunity to air their grievances with the state of the country and their political rivals.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, said the new Cabinet provided a chance for the Lebanese to steer their country toward safety amid severe storms lashing the region.
“The formation of the new Cabinet constitutes a challenge and at the same time a chance in which the government along with the people tries to steer Lebanon’s ship amid these rough storms in the hope to succeed in overcoming them,” Siniora said, adding that the Future Movement would cooperate with the government to ensure the success of its work.
“Our participation in the current government is meant to ensure the continuity of the country and the state, boost the hopes of the Lebanese in the future and ward off the specter of chaos and collapse,” Siniora said. He added that the Future bloc voted confidence in the “Cabinet of national interest because it is a rare opportunity to overcome a crisis and save a country on the edge of the abyss.”
MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, told the Parliament session that the government policy statement affirmed “the right of the Lebanese to resistance against the Israeli enemy.”
“We don’t want a vacuum in power. This government provides an opportunity for everyone to understand the others’ proposals,” Raad said. “A boycott and a break [between rival factions] cripple matters, close doors and weaken the state.”
Future Akkar MP Khaled Daher caused a stir when he took the podium to accuse the Lebanese Army of double standards in dealing with armed groups.
“The shabbiha in Tripoli are being supported by Army Intelligence officers while one of my bodyguards was arrested near my home without being guilty of anything,” he said, using the word for Syrian paramilitary gangs.
Berri reprimanded Daher, telling him “Your army is righteous, even if it is unjust.”
Future MP Ahmad Fatfat blamed Mikati for the deteriorating situation in the country.
“We heard a former prime minister and lawmakers criticizing the dark picture in the country; who is responsible for this dark picture? Who took part in the government after the black-shirt coup?” he said in reference to Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2011.
“He [Mikati] is the first to be held responsible for the deterioration of the security, economy and political situation in the country,” Fatfat said.
Fatfat’s criticism drew a sharp retort from Mikati, who defended the performance of his government.
Salam also intervened, saying that security and military agencies should be held accountable if they make mistakes. “However, we should keep them separate from our political differences.”