SUN 8 - 12 - 2019
Mar 7, 2019
The Daily Star
Lebanon: House elects Higher Council, approves spending bill
Timour Azhari| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Parliament Wednesday elected lawmakers to a council tasked with holding high-ranking officials to account, and approved a controversial measure to continue extrabudgetary government spending based on last year’s budget for a period of three months.
MPs also ratified a LL794 billion ($526 million) cash advance to Electricite du Liban, and allowed the government to borrow money through the issuance of $4.8 billion in Eurobonds. Lebanon needs to pay some $2 billion to investors in foreign currency debt by the end of May, which the Eurobonds will cover.
Lawmakers also ratified the Paris climate accord and the Kigali accord on protection of the ozone layer, as well as a framework military agreement with Romania. They also agreed to establish a regional office of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Lebanon.
At the outset of the morning session, MPs were elected to the Higher Council, the formation of which is mandated under Article 80 of the Constitution. Its members include: George Okais, (Lebanese Forces), Ali Ammar (Hezbollah), Faysal Sayegh (Progressive Socialist Party), George Atallah (Free Patriotic Movement), Hagop Pakradounian (Tashnag Party), Samir Jisr (Future Movement) and Elias Hankash (Kataeb Party).
Three reservists were also elected: Ali Osseiran (Amal Movement), Rola Tabsh (Future Movement) and Salim Aoun (Free Patriotic Movement).
The members of the body, which consists of seven MPs and eight of Lebanon’s highest judges, are voted on anew by each Parliament. Prosecution of a minister or top official requires first the indictment of two-thirds of Parliament, followed by a verdict issued by 10 or more members. The body has never prosecuted anyone.
Meanwhile, the controversial spending measure adopted Wednesday extended until the end of May the use of an emergency facility in the Constitution known as the “provisional 12th.” However, this runs contrary to the stipulations of the article in the Constitution.
MPs amended the law from its original form in the 37-item agenda, extending the provision’s use till the end of May, and Speaker Nabih Berri gave the government one and a half months to endorse the 2019 budget, after which Parliament will have the same amount of time to ratify it.
During prolonged debate on the item, Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said in no uncertain terms: “This law requires a constitutional amendment ... I’m saying that it’s a violation of the Constitution.” But he followed up by saying that it was necessary given the fact that Lebanon had to base expenditures on some kind of legislation. “We are making order in an unconstitutional situation,” MP Alain Aoun told The Daily Star after the conclusion of the morning session. “The only really constitutional thing to do is to pass a budget.”
Debate on the item saw several MPs lambasting the new Cabinet. “After all the promises we heard that there would be no expenditure without a budget, we’re going back to those black days today,” MP Sami Gemayel said. Successive governments and parliaments used the rule for 12 years between 2005 and 2017 instead of endorsing a budget.
Other MPs wondered aloud why the government had only held two sessions since its formation three weeks ago, none of which included any study of the budget. Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Cabinet would begin study of the budget next week, and would work “night and day” to approve it as quickly as possible.
Hariri also said that it was not the government’s fault the budget had been delayed, blaming it instead on “political blocs” who spent eight months bickering over their respective Cabinet shares.
Many MPs noted the government has so far not worked toward the reforms it committed to implementing in its policy statement in order to unlock more than $11 billion in funding pledged at the CEDRE donor conference. This included a 1 percentage point reduction in the budget deficit-to-GDP ratio every year. But Khalil said in the evening session that he was “uncomfortable” with the draft budget and noted the current projections actually showed an increase by about 0.5 percentage point, due to “decreasing state income and increasing expenditures.”
Lebanon will spend some $4.7 billion on its debt servicing this year alone, an increase in $660 million over last year, he said.
The debate on state finances was compounded by Hariri’s insistence that Parliament endorse the Eurobond item. Khalil noted he had asked MP Yassine Jaber to put forward the bill, which addresses an issue usually covered by state budgets.
Jaber later formally asked to withdraw the item from the agenda after many MPs noted their rejection, but Hariri then sponsored the bill himself, noting it had to be endorsed else the state go “bankrupt.”
MP Aoun later wondered how Parliament could “end this hellish cycle” where it is forced to make decisions under the threat of perilous consequences.
Hariri also intervened to push the endorsement of the cash advance to EDL, promising to submit to the Cabinet a new comprehensive plan for the electricity sector within three months. Energy Minister Nada Boustani said the plan would include a lowering of energy subsidies, an updated strategy and an effort to remove violations from the Lebanese grid.
The Kataeb MPs, Paula Yacoubian, Jamil al-Sayyed and Osama Saad noted their opposition to the EDL and Eurobonds items.
Perhaps the most surprising feat at Wednesday’s session was the election of Hankash to the Higher Council. At its outset, Berri presented seven names that included all those eventually elected, but with Albert Mansour instead of Hankash.
Mansour stood up, thanked Berri for putting his name forward, a move of which he said he had no previous knowledge, and promptly noted he actually wanted the Higher Council to be eliminated via constitutional amendment because, he said, officials should be tried in normal courts.
“So I imagine you don’t want to be on it,” Berri quipped.
MP Faisal Karami interjected: “If he’s not willing, I’m up for it.”
Hankash, Yacoubian and MP Ali Darwish proceeded to put their names forward for election alongside the seven names already submitted.
The vote was held via secret ballot, with only six candidates receiving the simple majority required to be elected. One blank vote was registered, as well as one for MP Estefan Dweihi, who was not a candidate. Berri then announced a run-off would be held for the seventh post between Hankash, who received 63 votes, just short of the 64-vote threshold, Mansour, Yacoubian and Darwish. However, all those opposing Hankash withdrew, allowing him to be elected unopposed.
Hankash later told The Daily Star that he had not planned ahead of time to have other blocs vote for him, but that MPs from the LF, Future, FPM, PSP and others including Yacoubian later told him they had done so.
Hankash is the only MP on the council who is not a member of a political bloc represented in Cabinet.
The legislative session is set to continue from the 16th agenda item out of 37 at 11 a.m. Thursday. Cabinet meanwhile is set to meet at 3:30 p.m. to appoint four members to the Military Council. Other posts set to be filled include the secretary-general of the Higher Defense Council, a general inspector, a full-time council member and a replacement for Cabinet Secretary-General Fouad Fleifel, who reached retirement age last month.
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