Lebanon News

Lebanon languishes with still no progress on PM candidate

Anti-government protesters march toward Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, Dec. 1, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Amid an escalation of the popular uprising against the ruling political elite and a deterioration of Lebanon’s economic and financial situation, no progress was reported Sunday in the flurry of political activity aiming to clear the way for parliamentary consultations on naming a new prime minister.

Binding parliamentary consultations to designate a new premier, originally planned to take place last week, were postponed to this week as political adversaries failed to agree on a unified candidate or the shape of the next government.

“For the parliamentary consultations to appoint a new prime minister to begin this week, this depends largely on the results of ongoing contacts being made by Samir Khatib, as well as among the major political parties to agree on a candidate who will form a techno-political government,” a political source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star Sunday.

The source said if any progress or consensus were reached among political rivals on the name of a candidate, this would prompt President Michel Aoun to set a date, probably this week, for the binding consultations with parliamentary blocs.

“So far, Samir Khatib is still the favorite candidate to form a new government after [caretaker] Prime Minister Saad Hariri withdrew his candidacy. Khatib has been in contact with all the main parties,” the source said.

Khatib, a prominent contractor, has emerged as a strong candidate for prime minister after Hariri bowed out of consideration and after signs that the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc was inclined toward supporting Khatib. Khatib is an executive vice president of engineering company Khatib & Alami, according to the firm’s website.

He met separately last week with Hariri and caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a key aide to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and held talks Saturday night on the Cabinet situation with caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Al Jadeed TV reported Sunday. No details of the talks were available.

In order for Hariri to support and nominate Khatib or any other candidate for the premiership, “he [the candidate] must fulfill four requests: Form a technocratic government that excludes representatives of political parties; seek extraordinary legislative powers from Parliament; redistribute key ministerial portfolios; and hold early parliamentary elections,” Mustafa Alloush, a member of the Future Movement’s politburo, told The Daily Star Sunday night.

Commenting on the reported request for exceptional powers from Parliament, visitors to Berri quoted the speaker as saying: “This request is entirely out of the question because it means obstructing Parliament’s legislative and oversight role.”

Hariri resigned on Oct. 29 under pressure of nationwide street protests against the ruling elite, bringing his 30-member Cabinet down with him.

His Cabinet has since been serving in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.

More than a month after Hariri’s resignation, Aoun has been criticized, mainly by Future Movement officials, for failing to set a date for the binding parliamentary consultations with MPs to designate a new prime minister.

Hariri’s surprise resignation came at a critical time when Lebanon, one of the world’s most heavily indebted countries, is under mounting international pressure to enact key economic reforms deemed essential to unlock over $11 billion in grant and soft loans pledged by donors at last year’s CEDRE conference to bolster the weak economy and finance key infrastructure projects.

Aoun Friday chaired a meeting at Baabda Palace that agreed on measures to ease the dire financial and economic crisis and reassure worried depositors, amid a scarcity of dollars in the market that has sent the Lebanese pound tumbling.

In the latest sign of the growing crisis, which stems partially from a dollar shortage in the country, the Lebanese pound traded last week at 1,700-2,300 against the dollar in the unofficial market.

A dollar liquidity crunch has meant that importers of products such as fuel, medicine and food have struggled to obtain the currency to purchase goods at the official pegged rate of LL1,507.5 to the dollar.

Banks in Lebanon have been rationing dollar withdrawals, forcing people to resort to exchange dealers and pushing the unofficial exchange rate above LL2,000 to the greenback.

The unprecedented popular uprising has swept the country since Oct. 17, paralyzing life and prompting businesses and shops in Beirut and other cities to close down.

Yet a resolution to the monthlong Cabinet deadlock appears to be elusive, given enduring differences between the parties over the shape of the next government.

Since his resignation, Hariri has insisted on the formation of a government of “specialists” or “technocrats,” a key demand of the protesters, saying otherwise he preferred to bow out. But Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement headed by Bassil, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, have all been pushing for a techno-political government.

Future lawmaker Mohammad Hajjar had told The Daily Star that any candidate to be nominated by Hariri “must form a government of specialists, which is a major demand of the protesters and is the only solution to the Cabinet crisis.”

But in a new position that is likely to further complicate the Cabinet issue, the head of Hezbollah’s 13-member bloc in Parliament said the only solution crisis was through the formation of a national unity government as stipulated by the 1989 Taif agreement that ended the 1975-90 Civil War.

“The current crisis can only be resolved by the formation of a national unity government according to the Taif Accord formula. Otherwise, the country will remain under a caretaker Cabinet,” MP Mohammad Raad told a memorial ceremony in south Lebanon.

In another speech, Raad said Hezbollah demanded that the next government represent all the political parties.

Responding to the demonstrators’ demand to combat widespread corruption in ministries and state institutions, Raad said: “We are with the people in fighting corruption and enacting laws that curb the sources of theft and the squandering of public funds and money, and recover the looted money.”

Protesters are demanding the end of the decades-old sectarian political system, the removal of the ruling political elite, early parliamentary elections, the formation of a government of independent technocrats to carry out reforms and combat corruption, and the return of what they call stolen public funds, among other basic demands such as electricity, water and jobs.

More than a month into the anti-government demonstrations, the Army intervened Sunday to de-escalate tensions between protesters and supporters of Aoun as both sides rallied on a road leading to the presidential palace in Baabda.

The demonstration in support of Aoun came after multiple groups, including the Sabaa Party, called for a protest near Baabda Palace to demand that the president call for parliamentary consultations to name someone to form the new government.

Hundreds marched toward Martyrs’ Square in Beirut for a “Sunday of Clarity,” marking the 46th day of the uprising. After calls for protests to stress national unity and apply pressure to speed up the Cabinet formation, dozens gathered in Mathaf, holding olive branches and calling for people to stop warning of a new civil war.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 02, 2019, on page 1.




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