Lebanon News

Cabinet assured of wide Parliament support for policy statement

MPs attend a parliament session in Beirut, May 22, 2021. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament, HO)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new Cabinet is set to gain vast support from Parliament during a session Monday to debate the government’s policy statement before a vote of confidence is held, giving a boost to ministers to get down to work to tackle a series of urgent problems facing the crises-hit country.

Speaker Nabih Berri will chair the general parliamentary session in the morning and evening at UNESCO Palace, which will open with Prime Minister Najib Mikati reading out the policy of his 24-member Cabinet made up of specialists before MPs take the floor to debate it.

Berri was reported to have asked heads of parliamentary blocs to be content with one speech for each bloc on the government’s policy statement so that the confidence vote session could be wrapped up in a single day.

The government is expected to win the votes of more than 90 MPs out of the 128-member legislature after declarations by a number of independent MPs and the Lebanese Forces’ 13-member parliamentary Strong Republic bloc that they will not vote for the government, a political source told The Daily Star Sunday.

Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hasan said he expected the government to win the votes of 94 MPs during the Parliament session. “This hope will lead to a new positive push in the Lebanese street,” Hajj Hasan, one of three ministers representing Berri’s parliamentary bloc in the Cabinet, said in a statement.

The Free Patriotic Movement’s 21-member Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest in Parliament and the biggest in Christian representation, headed by MP Gebran Bassil, has praised the government’s policy statement, in a clear signal it would grant confidence. Eight MPs resigned from Parliament last year in the wake of the devastating Beirut Port explosion, while three others passed away. The 11 have not been replaced.

“The policy statement contained the FPM’s demands that were contained in the [Strong Lebanon] bloc’s recent statement, particularly concerning the financial and monetary reforms, restructuring the banking sector, fighting corruption, ensuring a social safety network, a forensic audit [of the Central Bank’s accounts], recovering the money transferred abroad, [approving] the capital control law, the cash subsidy card, [holding parliamentary] elections with the participation of the expatriates, investigation into the Beirut Port explosion and rebuilding it and approving an administrative decentralization law,” said a statement issued after the weekly online meeting of the FPM’s political committee chaired by Bassil Saturday. The statement did not say whether the FPM would grant confidence to the government.

But MP Simon Abi Ramia from the Strong Lebanon bloc told FPM officials and supporters in his hometown of Jbeil Sunday: “Based on the policy statement which intends to fight corruption and proceed with the forensic audit, the Free Patriotic Movement will grant confidence to the government provided it adheres to productivity and all the provisions contained in the policy statement.”

The planned Parliament session comes four days after the Cabinet unanimously approved a draft policy statement that pledges to enact reforms, a key demand of donors, and resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package to rescue the debt-ridden nation from the worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War. The policy statement said the government will also resume negotiations with creditors over a restructuring of public debt on which Lebanon defaulted last year.

In addition to outlining internal and external policies, the policy statement also sets the government’s priorities and plans to deal with the economic depression, including severe food, fuel and medicine shortages and chronic power cuts that have paralyzed normal life in the country. The government pledged to hold parliamentary elections, scheduled in May 2022, on time.

The speed with which the policy statement was drafted and later endorsed by the Cabinet without differences over thorny sensitive issues, such as Hezbollah’s arms, and an expected swift vote of confidence less than two weeks after its formation clearly reflected the government’s resolve to quickly move forward to tackle a series of crises facing the Lebanese, including an unprecedented financial downturn that has propelled more than 70 percent of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty amid a crashing currency that has lost around 90 percent of its value since late 2019.

IMF RESCUE PACKAGE

Since the Cabinet formation on Sept. 10, President Michel Aoun and Mikati have underscored Lebanon’s need to resume talks with the IMF on a rescue package to help it out of its economic and financial depression, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, posing the gravest threat to the country’s stability since the Civil War.

In welcoming the new government, the United States, France and the European Union have urged it to undertake reforms quickly that would pave the way for a deal with the IMF to halt the country's economic collapse. Lebanon began talks with the IMF on a $10 billion bailout package in May 2020, but the negotiations have been stalled by a dispute between different interest groups representing Lebanese banks and the government over the size of losses at the Central Bank.

The new government faces a host of tough challenges that begin with halting the country’s economic collapse, embarking on essential reforms, resolving the severe food, fuel and medicine shortages and end with supervising next year’s parliamentary elections. This is in addition to restoring confidence between the people and the state and also with the international community, which has linked its financial aid to implementing structural reforms.

This is the third government formed by Mikati, a billionaire businessman, since 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive suicide truck bombing that also killed 21 others.

Ahead of the Parliament session, Mikati said in an interview with CNN broadcast Friday that the government’s main mission is to halt the collapse and put the country on the path to recovery as a first step to cope with the economic, financial and daily life files.

A number of independent MPs and the LF’s Strong Republic bloc have announced they would not vote for the government. The LF’s decision was taken after the bloc’s meeting through the “Zoom” app chaired by LF leader Samir Geagea.

In justifying its decision, the Strong Republic bloc said in a statement: “The bloc asks how can confidence be granted to a government in which the same party, which had brought Lebanon to darkness, again takes over the Energy Ministry?” It was referring to the FPM, which has held the Energy Ministry for more than 10 years, during which Lebanon has suffered and continues to suffer from severe electricity rationing and chronic power cuts.

Meanwhile, Aoun promised the Lebanese that his last year in office, which ends in October 2022, would be the “year of genuine reforms.”

“During the past [five] years, it was not possible to achieve what the Lebanese aspired for because some concerned officials prioritized their personal interests at the expense of the public interest and those formed a system that closed the doors to any reform, thus providing protection for corrupt people and wrongdoers,” Aoun said in a statement.

Aoun also hailed the signing by Finance Minister Youssef Khalil Friday of a new contract with restructuring consultancy Alvarez and Marsal (A&M) to carry out a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts. “A forensic audit of Banque du Liban’s accounts is the door to the desired reforms and it must be coupled with a recovery plan to compensate the time lost and begin the real rescue which the new government has taken as its slogan,” Aoun added.

Aoun said the forensic audit, to begin with the Central Bank’s accounts, would later include public institutions, administrations, councils, funds and bodies, “especially those that had suspicions on the performance of those responsible for them in the past 30 years.”

 

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