BEIRUT: Parliament unanimously endorsed a $ 1.2 billion electricity bill Thursday, ending six weeks of political wrangling with both March 8 and March 14 camps declaring victory.
It took only minutes for the MPs to pass the bill in a calm Parliament, although Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun expressed reservations over some amendments.
“We agree on the draft law to preserve solidarity inside the Cabinet but we express our reservations on the inclusion of items from the Cabinet proposal in the draft law, out of respect for the principle of separation of powers,” Aoun said during the session.
Prior to the vote, Aoun met a closed-door meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri, delaying the legislative session for 30 minutes.
“What is important is that the draft law will be passed and Lebanon will have its electricity. But everyone has to stop creating obstacles,” Aoun added.
Emerging from Parliament a few minutes later, Aoun claimed the Parliament’s endorsement of the bill as a victory for FPM.
“This is the achievement of the energy minister and his team, along with Parliament which endorsed the bill; it is a victory for all the Lebanese and all those who want electricity,” Aoun said.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, praised Mikati during the session for his decision to seek Arab and international funds to finance the electricity plan.
“What has been reached contradicts claims that some people and some MPs want electricity and others do not,” Siniora told reporters. “The introduction of all the items included in the Cabinet proposal into the draft law is a victory for all the Lebanese.”
Addressing a news conference later at the Energy Ministry, Energy Minister Jibran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, described the unanimous vote as “a great achievement,” and dismissed accusations by the March 14 coalition that he was using the draft law to become involved in illegal dealings.
“The bill passed without deals … and exposed the lies of the other side which claimed that it [the bill] lacked transparency,” Bassil said. “They initially objected to the cost of the bill but endorsed it, what’s changed?”
The draft law is designed to boost Lebanon’s electricity supply by 700 MW to end the chronic power shortage.
Opposition lawmakers had been demanding the introduction of amendments which they argued would ensure transparency and proper spending for the project, but March 8 MPs, particularly those from the Change and Reform bloc, said that these amendments infringed on the prerogatives of Bassil.
The bill was passed after rival lawmakers at Parliament’s Joint Committees session agreed Wednesday to introduce two amendments demanded by the March 14 coalition. These oblige Bassil to form the Electricity Regulatory Authority within three months and a new board of directors for Electricite du Liban within two months of the bill’s endorsement. Under the Cabinet proposal, Mikati was tasked with contacting Arab and international funds to finance the draft law, a step that was also demanded by March 14.
The agreements reached in the committees’ session paved the way for the proposal to become the draft law that was passed Thursday.
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh joined the session when MPs began discussing the electricity bill and left once it had been put to a vote. Aley MP Talal Arslan, who attended Parliament for the first time since the legislature resumed meeting following the formation of Mikati’s government, left after casting his vote as well.
Lawmakers also passed an urgent law proposal to subsidize taxi drivers for gasoline and diesel prices, by paying them the equivalent of the price of 250 liters of gasoline or diesel once a month over a period of three months. The Cabinet has promised that, after the three-month period, there would be other means to address the demands of taxi drivers.
Hezbollah MP Nawwaf Moussawi called for issuing a Cabinet decree guaranteeing that the subsidies would be paid only to individual taxi drivers and transportation companies would not be eligible.
Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi said that this concern was addressed in a joint decision taken by the Interior and Transport ministries to only pay registered drivers, who number around 55,000.
Aridi assured Parliament that taxi fares would not increase, saying that such a decision could only be taken by the transport minister.
Meanwhile, Batroun MP Butros Harb called for introducing an amendment allowing only taxi drivers currently using their taxi plates on their own cars to be benefit from the subsidies. The proposal was passed with Harb’s amendment.
The session heated up when lawmakers started to discuss a law proposal forwarded by Minister of State Nicholas Fattoush to amend Article 93 of the Shura Council’s bylaws. Under the amendment, a mechanism to implement decisions made by the council would be established.
The council has issued a decision obliging the state to pay Fattoush and his brothers $250 million in compensation for suspending activity at their stone quarries. Fattoush said during the session he has owned no quarries. But March 14 MPs argued that the law was uniquely designed to serve Fattoush’s interests.
Siniora proposed that the Cabinet study the cost and repercussions of such a decision under the supervision of Parliament.
In response, Hezbollah MPs defended the law proposal. Nawwar Saheli said that the law was not related to one person. “It is related to municipalities and to many other people and its [the Shura Council’s] decisions are not always implemented,” he said. “Unfortunately, this law proposal is being politicized.”
The discussion of the proposal, the longest during the session, came to an end when some other lawmakers joined March 14 MPs in voting down the bill.