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Parliament dragged into the vacuum

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a session at the Parliament in Beirut, Wednesday, May 21, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The presidential vacuum prevented Parliament legislation Tuesday as a Christian-led boycott forced the postponement of a session intended to discuss and approve the public sector’s controversial salary scale bill in protest at the failure to elect a new president.

Due to a lack of quorum, Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned Tuesday’s Parliament session to discuss a modified salary scale draft law for civil servants and public sector teachers until June 10.

The session was boycotted mostly by Christian lawmakers from the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party and MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc over the presidential stalemate. MPs from the Future Movement also stayed away from the session in a show of solidarity with their March 14 allies.

“If we continue with this atmosphere, there will be no president or a salary scale,” March 14 MP Marwan Hamade told reporters in Parliament.

The presidential void has also cast doubts about the work of the Cabinet, which includes four representatives from Aoun’s bloc and three from the Kataeb Party.

“So far, we have not been informed by any political party of a intention [to boycott Cabinet sessions]. We hope that the political accord that has led to the success of the Cabinet will continue,” a source close to Prime Minister Tammam Salam told The Daily Star.

“We believe that political parties have enough wisdom and patriotism to avoid taking any negative steps that would affect the Cabinet’s work and productivity,” he said.

The Cabinet’s unity will be tested at its next meeting, the first to be held with the presidency seat vacant. Under the Constitution, the Cabinet assumes full executive powers, including those of the outgoing president, until a new president is elected.

Although Berri has called a new Parliament session on June 9 to elect a president, a number of lawmakers who spoke to The Daily Star were pessimistic that a successor to former President Michel Sleiman would be chosen at this session, given the split between the March 8 and March 14 factions over a compromise candidate.

“The June 9 session will be the same as that of previous sessions with no quorum. Speaker Berri will again adjourn this session,” a lawmaker said.

Berri denied media reports that he was planning to call for National Dialogue among rival factions.

Apparently responding to the boycotting lawmakers, Berri was quoted by visitors as saying: “Let them come to Parliament and not obstruct the work of institutions because these institutions are the best place for dialogue.”

He said he had set the Parliament session to elect a president on June 9 because he did not expect “tangible developments” concerning the presidential election.

“All the parties should reach agreement [on a compromise candidate] so that we can hold the election,” he was quoted as saying.

Berri, according to the visitors, warned that a vacuum in the presidency would “expose the ‘Lebanization’ of the presidential vote to danger and invite foreign intervention, signs of which emerged recently in some international positions.”

The speaker urged all lawmakers to attend legislative sessions, saying a boycott of Parliament would entail “grave consequences.”

“A boycott would thwart Parliament’s monitoring authority, thus making the Cabinet a caretaker Cabinet,” Berri was quoted as saying.

Christian parties and lawmakers have pledged to boycott Parliament sessions in the event of a presidential vacuum, saying the legislature’s priority should be given to electing a successor to Sleiman, who left Baabda Palace last Saturday, a day before his six-year term expired.

Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb warned that Lebanon is faced with “a major political crisis” amid the vacuum in the presidency.

Asked why March 14 lawmakers did not attend legislative sessions amid the presidential void, Harb, speaking after meeting the March 14-backed presidential candidate LF leader Samir Geagea at the latter’s residence in Maarab, said: “The March 14 parties have taken a unified decision that in the absence of a president, institutions cannot function as though there is no problem in the country.”Parliament last week failed in five attempts to pick a successor to Sleiman due to a lack of the two-thirds quorum (86) of the legislature’s 128 members required to begin the session.

Lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies have foiled a quorum by boycotting the sessions, apparently to pressure their March 14 rivals into reaching agreement beforehand on a consensus candidate for the presidency.

Civil servants and public teachers returned to the streets Tuesday as part of their ongoing protests to pressure Parliament to endorse the wage hike bill.

However, the demands by the Union Coordination Committee, which represents civil servants and public and private school teachers, have been sidelined by the presidential stalemate after lawmakers boycotted the Parliament session on the salary scale issue.

A parliamentary committee formed to study the controversial salary scale issue earlier this month reduced the total funding from LL2.8 trillion ($1.9 billion) to LL1.8 trillion.

LF MP George Adwan said the March 14 coalition would always support the people’s demands but that it had boycotted the session over the presidential void.

“We came to Parliament to assert the principled position that legislation amid the presidential vacancy is not permissible at all,” Adwan told reporters in Parliament. He said Parliament legislation should be confined only to “utmost extraordinary issues” or the supreme national interest.

Meanwhile, Hanna Gharib, the head of the UCC, slammed lawmakers for their continued failure to act on the salary increases. He warned that Parliament’s failure to endorse the salary scale bill by June 7 would prompt the unions of civil servants and public teachers to paralyze state departments and boycott official exams planned for June 7 and June 13.

“What happened today amounts to Parliament’s boycott of the people’s rights, pain and poverty. The interests of civil servants cannot be boycotted,” Gharib told a rally outside the Education Ministry building in the UNESCO area.

He vowed to stand firm on the civil servants’ demands, including the 121 percent salary increase.

“You should get it very well,” Gharib said, addressing lawmakers. “We want our full rights and the 121 percent increase. We haven’t been taking down the streets for three years to play; we will not back off.”

The rally was accompanied by a strike of public sector employees as well as public school teachers, leaving most government offices nonoperational.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 28, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

The presidential vacuum prevented Parliament legislation Tuesday as a Christian-led boycott forced the postponement of a session intended to discuss and approve the public sector's controversial salary scale bill in protest at the failure to elect a new president.

Apparently responding to the boycotting lawmakers, Berri was quoted by visitors as saying: "Let them come to Parliament and not obstruct the work of institutions because these institutions are the best place for dialogue".

He said he had set the Parliament session to elect a president on June 9 because he did not expect "tangible developments" concerning the presidential election.

Christian parties and lawmakers have pledged to boycott Parliament sessions in the event of a presidential vacuum, saying the legislature's priority should be given to electing a successor to Sleiman, who left Baabda Palace last Saturday, a day before his six-year term expired.

However, the demands by the Union Coordination Committee, which represents civil servants and public and private school teachers, have been sidelined by the presidential stalemate after lawmakers boycotted the Parliament session on the salary scale issue.


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