BEIRUT: Parliament will vote Thursday on an amended $1.2 billion draft law to boost electricity production in the country, testing a consensus reached by bitter rivals in the March 8 and March 14 camps the day before.
MPs in a session of Parliament’s Joint Committees agreed Wednesday on two amendments to Cabinet’s energy proposal, obliging Energy Minister Jibran Bassil to begin forming the Electricity Regulatory Authority and a new board of directors for Electricite du Liban as soon as Parliament endorses the bill.
The government’s proposal initially stated that Bassil should form the ERA within three months and EDL’s board of directors within two months.
Their decision paved the way for the proposal to become a draft law to put to a vote before Parliament Thursday.
Prior to the session, Bassil and Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc MPs were not informed of the decision endorsed by Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and other parliamentary allies to approve amendments, which were also supported by MPs from Walid Jumblatt’s National Struggle Front bloc
“It was agreed … that the Cabinet’s proposal will become as a draft law to be subject to vote by Parliament tomorrow [Thursday],” West Bekaa MP Robert Ghanem told reporters after chairing the committees’ session.
“It turned out during talks … that there was a consensus over general basics and principles that were in the Cabinet’s proposal but which were not in the draft law [that the committees initially received] or the proposals made by some colleagues [in the opposition],” added Ghanem, chair of Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee.
The session was chaired by Speaker Nabih Berri and attended by Mikati and more than 60 MPs.
Prior to the session, Berri held separate closed-door meetings with Mikati and Ghanem.
Following the session, Bassil seemed to be unconvinced by reasons given by Mikati and Berri for approving the amendments, arguing that such a move contradicted the proposal reached by the Cabinet earlier this month.
The speaker phoned Aoun and briefed him on the reasons for accepting the amendments. He told Aoun securing quorum and enough votes to endorse the bill would be hard without the introduction of these two amendments, which were demanded by the March 14 MPs, especially as three MPs from the majority would be absent during Thursday’s session. Berri also explained to Aoun that agreement did not undermine the prerogatives of Bassil.
The speaker outlined the advantages of the amendments for Bassil following the committees’ session.
“The speaker … said all sides agreed on the core [of the plan] but neither the draft law [referred to the committees] nor the proposals [made by opposition MPs] were written properly,” Ghanem said.
The tense atmosphere from the joint committees spilled into a Cabinet session chaired by Mikati in the Grand Serail in the afternoon, with Change and Reform bloc ministers arriving late amid rumors that they were boycotting the meeting in protest over the committees’ session.
Heated arguments reportedly took place between Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas and Bassil on one side and Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil – who is also a political aide for Berri – on the other, over remarks made by Nahhas during the committees’ session describing the deal reached as a violation of the constitution.
But following the Cabinet session, Khalil denied the reports, and Minister of State Ali Qanso corroborated his version of the session.
The consensus reached Wednesday on the electricity proposal came after two previous sessions ran into dead ends.
Opposition lawmakers had been demanding the introduction of amendments which they argued would ensure transparency and proper spending for the project, which is meant to boost Lebanon’s power supply by 700 MW. They said these guarantees had been mentioned in the Cabinet’s proposal but were missing in the draft law received by committees.
But March 8 MPs accused their rivals of trying to undermine Bassil’s prerogatives, describing the motivation behind their proposed amendments as “spiteful.”
Beirut MP Ghazi Youssef, from the Future bloc, said the Cabinet’s proposal included most of the controls which the opposition has been demanding.
March 14 had requested that the Cabinet approve the specifications handbook for contracts once it’s finalized, and that the Cabinet be briefed on the tenders and carry out the contract-awarding process.
March 14 MPs had also proposed adding a clause that would require that the specifications handbooks for contracts be prepared in line with international standards and be passed on to Arab funds to guarantee their support and facilitate access to easy credit and retroactive financing.
“Our aim is neither to disrupt the draft law nor to politicize it … today we proved to the Lebanese people that it is us who want electricity and additional transparency,” Youssef explained.
Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani, the chair of Parliament’s Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water committee praised Berri for achieving consensus.
The session saw more than two hours of calm discussions, in contrast to the heated debates of previous ones.
March 14 MPs reiterated their call for controls, while Metn MP Ibrahim Kanaan, who spoke on behalf of the Change and Reform bloc, defended the prerogatives of Bassil. He said that following the Taif Accord, the ministry falls under the authority of the minister who supervises tenders under the under the control of the Tenders Management Committee.
Meanwhile, MPs from the Change and Reform bloc told The Daily Star it was the endorsement by Parliament of the electricity plan that matters, while noting that a proposal by the opposition March 14 MPs, which they considered would infringe on the prerogatives of Bassil, did not pass. “Electricity has triumphed in Lebanon over all disruption attempts,” said Baabda MP Ali Ammar, from Hezbollah.