SUN 26 - 5 - 2019
 
Date: May 8, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: Strikes suspended, Cabinet to endorse budget by Friday
Timour Azhari| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Cabinet will endorse Lebanon’s 2019 draft budget by Friday at the latest, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah announced Tuesday after the sixth session devoted to its study.

The announcement came as crippling dayslong anti-austerity strikes were suspended, following the intercession of the country’s top officials.

“We announce the suspension of strikes in independent establishments and public and private institutions,” Bechara Asmar, head of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, said Tuesday night.

Employees at Beirut’s Port, the National Social Security Fund, Electricite du Liban and Ogero would return to work Wednesday, he said. Banque du Liban employees earlier Tuesday also announced a three-day suspension to a historic strike they had begun over the weekend to protest against proposed reductions to their salaries.

Their decision came as a goodwill gesture, though workers at BDL, the country’s central bank, have warned the strike may resume Friday if their demands are not met.

Jarrah said after Tuesday’s Cabinet session that ministers “are moving seriously and responsibly and we will soon announce all the decisions that we reached.” He added: “We hope to finish the draft budget by Friday or earlier.”

Cabinet is set to reconvene Wednesday at 7 p.m. to continue working on the budget.

Jarrah said Wednesday’s session would be devoted to studying legal provisions in the draft document, which ministers hope to wrap up the same day before they “get into the numbers.”

And although Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said talks in Cabinet have not yet touched on the budget’s most controversial issues, Jarrah said ministers would finally broach them Wednesday.

Cabinet has repeatedly postponed studying these provisions, which deal with cuts to public sector wages and benefits and increased taxes on interests from bank deposits, among other issues.

“There are some financial data and figures that we will ask for from the Central Bank and the military services to study and analyze them tomorrow and make decisions regarding the articles that were postponed,” Jarrah said.

He also described a “positive atmosphere” around reducing the wages of some “public officials” in an apparent reference to the country’s former and current top leaders, ministers and MPs “because one should start with himself.”

At the same time, the budget is set to include “incentives, exemptions and encouragement for citizens to pay their fees,” Jarrah said.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has promised to refer the budget to Parliament quickly so that it can be ratified before the end of May, when an extraordinary spending measure is set to expire. Officials are looking to reduce the country’s deficit to below 9 percent of GDP, down from more than 11 percent last year.

Head of the BDL employees syndicate, Abbas Awada, said Tuesday that they had decided to suspend their strike “as a result of our patriotism and our feelings of responsibility toward society and the Lebanese economy.”The syndicate will meet Friday to determine whether to resume its strike, which is the first of its kind since the Central Bank was established in 1963.

Their strike has disrupted trading on the Beirut Stock Exchange since Monday, though work is set to resume Wednesday.

At the same time, Army veterans announced Tuesday they were formally suspending their weekslong protest action against budget articles that would see their retirement wages or benefits cut.

Their announcement came after a delegation of retirees met with Hariri, and after Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab said all ministers had agreed that there should be no reductions in what is set aside for so-called “equipment compensation” for veterans, which includes remunerations for expenses accrued during their service. He said that Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil would instead submit “alternatives.”

But Jarrah indicated Wednesday that discussions on the matter had not yet come to a close.

“The issue of security and military services will be studied as one bundle, which includes equipment, retirement and salaries. The defense minister will bring the final figures with him tomorrow,” Jarrah said.

While most public institutions have ended their strikes, full-time Lebanese University professors announced they would continue theirs until the 2019 budget is endorsed, at which point they will decide their next move.

Hariri has repeatedly criticized the strikes, calling over the weekend for public institutions to hold accountable those who either participated in or called for them. Late Monday evening, the premier criticized the strikes as being “pre-emptive.”

Speaking after meeting with President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri, Hariri also made assurances that Lebanon was far from bankruptcy, but he said failure to pass a “realistic” budget that reduces the state deficit would amount to a “suicide operation” against the economy.

The Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc Tuesday also condemned strikers in a statement following its weekly meeting. “Taking to the streets, cutting off roads and paralyzing state institutions won’t resolve the real [reasons] behind the [economic] problems,” the bloc said.

The bloc went on to throw its support behind Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh and the banking sector at large, saying they were the targets of a “suspicious campaign that distorted facts and turned public opinion against monetary and banking policies.” The bloc did not specify who it was referring to.

In a similar vein, President Michel Aoun Tuesday called on unions to take into consideration the country’s dire economic situation and ensure Lebanon does not bear any more “damage and risk.”

“Unions should assess the new situation and work not to put additional risks on the country,” Aoun said during a meeting with union heads, including Asmar.

Aoun also reiterated that he would not accept any budget measures “that affect the incomes of the poor and middle classes.”

Meanwhile Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee is set to hold its last session Wednesday dedicated to a sprawling monthslong investigation into illegal public sector hiring that took place before last year’s parliamentary elections.


 
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