BEIRUT: Lawmakers are almost certain to ratify the draft 2019 state budget this week despite near-unanimous agreement among MPs that it did not do enough to address Lebanon’s dire financial situation or kick the country’s stagnant economy back into gear.
Wednesday marked the second day of back-to-back speeches by MPs that may continue into Thursday and beyond, before voting begins.
Throughout the session, lawmakers said the government had failed to tap into many potentially lucrative revenue streams, such as combatting illegal smuggling or tax evasion, instead choosing to reach into the pockets of state employees and ordinary citizens.
But most of the MPs who criticized the budget were members of the same political parties that had put it together and endorsed it in Cabinet - a fact that was not lost on those who opposed the draft.
“It’s the budget of ghosts. Why? Because we don’t know how it was endorsed if everyone is against it,” Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel said. “If you all disagree with the budget this much, then why didn’t you make another one?”
He added: “If the Parliament session wasn’t televised, would we see what we’ve seen the past two days?”
Opposition to the budget caused a brief spat between Free Patriotic Movement MP Alain Aoun and Lebanese Forces lawmakers, because the latter’s bloc has decided to vote against the budget despite having four ministers in the government. “This is political schizophrenia,” Aoun said.
“You can’t have ministers in government, from deputy prime minister and on, and require the money to run your ministries, but then vote against the budget.”
“Why not?” LF MP Eddy Abillama fired back, after which a brief verbal dispute ensued until Speaker Nabih Berri asked Aoun not to invoke any specific blocs.
After being interrupted several times, Aoun said: “If one more person cuts me off, I’ll have to get into a debate that you won’t like.”
Lebanon has for almost three months been gripped by the budget process, with regular strikes by public sector workers and crippling protests by pensioners who fear the budget - described by Prime Minister Saad Hariri as the most austere in Lebanon’s history - would harm their interests.
Last week, Finance and Budget Committee chair Ibrahim Kanaan said the budget’s deficit-to-GDP ratio stood at 6.7 percent, down from 11.1 percent last year. But many MPs questioned the basis for the figure, and the International Monetary Fund has said the deficit would be closer to 9.75 percent.
Many vital state institutions, some already underfunded, have been caught up in the budget cuts: The public Lebanese University, for example, is set to have its budget slashed by about $27 million.
Several MPs called for the LU to be spared. “The Lebanese University should be a red line, because it is the space that brings all Lebanese together. Politicians, take your hands off the Lebanese University,” MP Paula Yacoubian said.
At the same time, several MPs pointed to the 94 institutions that dealt with public money but did not fall under the purview of the Finance Ministry - meaning their budgets enjoyed no state oversight.
“We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here,” Aoun said, adding that “a rude amount of corruption” was involved.
There have also been serious questions about due process with the 2019 budget. Discussions of the document have stretched far beyond when it was constitutionally required to have been completed, and without a closure of accounts for the previous year’s spending, as is mandated.
The latter issue stems from the fact that Cabinet, which was ready to forward the audit to Parliament earlier this month, hasn’t met since the deadly Aley clashes on June 30, which caused a split among ministers. Cabinet is expected to meet next week, but in order to ratify the budget this week, Parliament is set to vote on a controversial measure that would simply postpone the need for the closure of accounts until the 2020 budget is endorsed.
LF MP George Okais noted that if the 2019 budget had been given to any law student in its current form, they would quickly understand that it must be voted down.
In addition to the brief LF-FPM spat, other forms of less-than-cordial behavior by lawmakers were on display. MP Inaya Ezzeddine, who heads Parliament’s Women and Children Committee, devoted a large part of her address to the importance of ratifying laws relating to women’s status. But almost from the get-go, many MPs began to chat loudly among themselves.
Ezzeddine at one point asked, “Do you want to listen?” and Berri intervened on several occasions to quiet MPs, all but six of whom are men.
A visibly frustrated MP Rola Tabsh said: “Respect for women starts from Parliament,” adding soon after in an aside to FPM lawmaker Hikmat Dib, “You’re not listening!”
As was the case the day before, protests had greeted MPs near Parliament in Martyrs’ Square Wednesday during the morning session. They included retired primary and secondary education teachers who were protesting a budget article that would impose an income tax on their pensions, and a delegation from the National Union on Intellectual Disabilities who were calling for greater financial support for NGOs in the budget.
Military veterans gathered for the second straight day against proposed cuts to their pensions and end-of-service benefits. Veterans are set to be subject to a new 1.5 percent tax on their pensions.
MP Chamel Roukoz, himself a retired brigadier general, called for all articles related to the military and veterans to be removed. “They were asked to sacrifice; we are called upon to have loyalty to their sacrifices.”
Meanwhile across the country, some public-sector workers went on strike to oppose budget articles affecting them, including those reducing annual vacation days from 20 to 15 and requiring them to work for 25 years before retiring instead of 20.
In Hermel, many state workers, including at state-run telecoms company Ogero, attended work but did not provide any services. The case was the same for employees at the personal status registry and the qaimaqam’s office in Koura.
In south Lebanon, employees in the education, agriculture, industry, public works and health administrations went on strike, as did employees in the finance and land registry administrations in Baabda.
Protests are set to continue Thursday, when MPs should begin voting on the budget article by article.