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March 8 eyes Cabinet vote on overspending

The Lebanese cabinet. (The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: March 8 ministers are expected to put a Finance Ministry draft law on extra-budgetary spending to a Cabinet vote, in light of President Michel Sleiman’s refusal to sign a decree authorizing the Cabinet’s overspending in 2011.

Ministerial sources told The Daily Star that the March 8 coalition was surprised by Sleiman’s rejection of the decree earlier this week, and officials from the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Amal Movement and other parties in the Cabinet are currently holding talks on how to end the government’s budget crisis.

Earlier this week, Sleiman said he would not sign the decree, which would authorize LL8.9 trillion (around $6 billion) in government spending in 2011, “because it is unconstitutional and subject to legal challenge.” He said he arrived at this conclusion after consultations with legal and constitutional experts.

After the failure to achieve quorum in a parliamentary session that would have voted on the budget, and the president’s refusal to sign the decree, some Cabinet ministers fear that the impasse will lead to delays in the payments of civil servants’ salaries.

Ministerial sources said that March 8 politicians are faced with a choice between escalating their rhetoric and pressure against Baabda Palace as a response to the president’s refusal, or simply halting their bid to see the bill endorsed, in order to stave off the prospect of the government’s collapse.

Both options pose challenges for the Cabinet. According to the sources, upping pressure on Sleiman would further polarize the Cabinet, which is already divided on several key issues.

“On the other hand, agreeing with Sleiman and referring the bill to Parliament would require additional months of work,” a source said. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt has backed Sleiman on the budget issue, and some other ministers have voiced support for his stance. Deputy Prime Minister Samir Mouqbel said Friday that Sleiman was right to refuse to authorize the decree.

“Sleiman is right to study the matter constitutionally by consulting with several constitutional experts ... I support him in his rejection ... because it is unconstitutional and against the law,” Mouqbel said.

Sleiman has suggested amending Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi’s bill, but this will mean a time-consuming series of additional steps.

“The bill would first be referred to Parliament for amendment, and then referred back to the Cabinet, which would in turn send it to the parliamentary Finance and Budgetary Committee so that it would finally be placed for a vote in general assembly,” a source familiar with the issue explained.

The source added that fierce parliamentary opposition to the bill in its current form necessitates its endorsement in the Cabinet.

“Jumblatt and the March 14 opposition will not allow the approval of this bill in Parliament,” the source said. March 14 politicians have said they will only approve a more comprehensive extra-budgetary spending bill that takes into account past years.

Meanwhile, Jumblatt, who met with Amal and Hezbollah officials Thursday night, has vowed not to pull out his ministers from the Cabinet.

The Cabinet is divided between 12 ministers who are loyal to Sleiman, Mikati and the PSP, and 18 members of the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc. According to the sources, both Safadi and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel would switch alliances and vote with the March 8 bloc if the law comes to a vote, giving the bill the required two-thirds majority.

However, the sources added that Sleiman could decline to place the bill on the Cabinet’s agenda.

Metn MP Ibrahim Kanaan, of the Free Patriotic Movement, said Friday that Sleiman should avoid politicizing the issue and sign the decree.

“Is it logical for public employees not to be paid because of political bickering in the country? It’s time for Sleiman to place the constitution above everyone else in the country,” Kanaan told MTV.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 28, 2012, on page 1.

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