Parliament reconvenes Tuesday to resume the debate on the 2001 budget after a 19-day hiatus, with the weekend Syrian troop redeployment seen as having removed the most potentially divisive issue for opposition MPs.
Nonetheless, the government’s decision last week to end build-operate-transfer contracts with Cellis and LibanCell, as well as issues like unauthorized tapping by security bodies, stalled administrative reform, poor electricity bill collection, and less-than-satisfactory funding for development projects in rural areas, could prompt lively debate. However, political sources indicated that the budget would receive a smooth ride in the end.
At least eight MPs will address the house when it tackles the budget for a fourth session.
Several more MPs might receive permission to speak and Premier Rafik Hariri is scheduled to deliver an answer to MPs’ comments and criticisms.
Hariri has reportedly spent much of the last 48 hours preparing his response to MPs’ criticisms, and is expected to respond vigorously to attacks on his government’s performance on administrative reform and the economy.
Parliament last debated the budget from May 29-31. The debate ended with the close of Parliament’s ordinary session, requiring President Emile Lahoud and Hariri to sign a decree authorizing an extraordinary session.
Although the parliamentary blocs of Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri, Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt, and a number of independent MPs will vote yes on the budget draft, the overall total might be slightly lower than last November’s vote of confidence in the government, when Hariri’s Cabinet won the support of 95 MPs.
Hizbullah’s Mohammed Fneish, a Bint Jbeil MP, said that his 12-member bloc was undecided as to whether it would approve the budget, vote against, or abstain as it did last year.
On Sunday, eight MPs in Baalbek-Hermel, where the party has five bloc members, threatened that they and the area’s mukhtars and mayors would tender their resignations if the government failed to address their demands. The threat has not been taken seriously by most observers.
For his part, Kesrouan MP Neamatallah Abi Nasr told The Daily Star that seven MPs from Jbeil and Kesrouan would vote no “because the budget ignored the interests of our region,” a reference to discontent that an area with a high percentage of taxpayers was receiving less than its fair share of infrastructure and other projects.
“We’ve only received promises, so we’ll vote no,” Abi Nasr added. “Perhaps we’ll vote yes on next year’s budget.”
The only MP from the Jbeil and Kesrouan areas expected to cast a yes vote is Industry Minister George Frem.
Other blocs with reservations about the budget, like the Baath Party and Syrian Social Nationalist Party, should approve the budget because they have ministers in the government.
Political observers expect at least three MPs from Zahle to vote no, while a handful of MPs affiliated with the Qornet Shehwan gathering are expected to vote no or abstain.
But unlike the vote of confidence, four Armenian MPs in Hariri’s bloc will vote yes, unlike their abstention in November because they objected to the lack of a second Armenian minister.