Lebanon News

Cabinet cracks appear over power-plant law

Cabinet Council - Archive

BEIRUT: A heated debate during a Parliament session Wednesday over a draft law to allocate $1.2 billion to the Energy Ministry to build 700 megawatt power plants has shown cracks in the 2-month-old government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

The session demonstrated the extent to which the government suffers from a serious lack of unity among its 30 members, while the blocs of MPs who support the government are unable to impose their presence, or at least speak with a single voice.

The draft law, designed to improve power supply in a country suffering chronic electricity rationing, particularly in summer, was forwarded to Parliament by Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, whose son-in-law, Jibran Bassil, is the energy and water minister.

However, Aoun was absent from the Parliament session to defend his draft law in the face of blistering attacks by the opposition March 14 MPs. This happens only in the Lebanese Parliament, where an MP does not show up to defend his proposal.

When Speaker Nabih Berri asked the prime minister to outline the government’s position on the draft law that calls for allocating $1.2 billion to Bassil to implement a plan to resolve the electricity dilemma in Lebanon, Mikati – rather than throwing his full weight behind the plan – said that it had been approved by the government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

In response to the opposition MPs who said that Parliament should refrain from placing the huge sum of money at the disposal of a minister to spend it without oversight, Mikati did not say whether he trusts a minister in his Cabinet to spend the money properly.

Aley MP Akram Chehayeb, from Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, which is represented in the Cabinet by three ministers who were absent from the session, opposed the electricity draft law. This meant that the government did not come to Parliament fully confident that parliamentary blocs represented in it would defend any bill put forward by any minister.

For his part, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi addressed the draft law issue during the session but his comments mostly conformed to the opposition MPs’ statements, drawing applause from these MPs several times.

Mikati eventually agreed that the government would study the draft law and re-submit it to Parliament.

Aoun, who has seven ministers in the Cabinet, was irked by Parliament’s failure to approve his proposal. He said what happened in Parliament was a witness that governance in Lebanon was “revengeful” and “corrupt.”

Addressing the Lebanese, Aoun said: “If you want electricity, occupy Parliament and I will be with you. We have exhausted all the means.”

At the political level, Mikati’s stance on the developments in Syria and on Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz’s speech during the Cabinet meeting Tuesday was totally different from the position of Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, a Hezbollah official, who indirectly criticized Saudi Arabia’s stance on the five-month-long unrest in Syria.

Yet, the big confrontation inside the Mikati Cabinet, according to statements made by heads of Parliamentary blocs, will burst out into the open when discussion of the draft 2011 state budget begins in September. Aoun and the party [Hezbollah] supporting him reject the government’s commitment to pay its financial share to the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mikati has repeatedly announced that his government is committed to implementing all U.N. resolutions.

There is also the issue of “false witnesses” linked to the U.N. investigation into Hariri’s killing which is sometimes brought up in statements by Mikati and a number of ministers, before it once again vanishes from the radar.

A number of opposition MPs say that the success they have achieved in Parliament – blocking the approval of the electricity bill – can be attributed to lack of Cabinet solidarity with the steps or draft laws, or even the stances taken by this Cabinet team.

These MPs expected the issue of Lebanon’s payment of its share to the STL’s budget, the issue of false witnesses and the government’s position on the developments in Syria to be a major test for the government’s ability to confront these issues. They expected the government to fall or at least split because of one of these sensitive issues.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 14, 2011, on page 2.

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