|Date: May 23, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Lebanon: ‘Calm and love’ but still no budget after 18 sessions|
|Timour Azhari| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: Cabinet once again missed a self-set deadline to complete study of the draft 2019 budget Wednesday during a session that lasted barely three hours, after new proposals were put forward by Free Patriotic Movement ministers.
Media reports suggested that the session’s atmosphere grew tense over the additional delays that study of the new proposals would incur, though Information Minister Jamal Jarrah denied this, saying it was “probably the quietest session.”
“There was no tension or loud exchange or clash. On the contrary, from the beginning we were discussing and debating and proposing, but in complete calm and love,” he told reporters following the session, which was the 18th held on the budget over a period of more than three weeks.
Jarrah announced that proposals put forward during a session the day before had reduced the projected deficit-to-GDP ratio from 7.68 percent to 7.5 percent. He said the new proposals could reduce it further.
“The more we can reduce from the budget, the better,” he said.
The additional delay in endorsing the 2019 budget, which is already nearly six months overdue, came after ministers had said the day prior that Wednesday’s meet would be the final reading. Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil repeatedly said the budget was “finished.” A joint news conference had been scheduled, during which Khalil and Prime Minister Saad Hariri were supposed to announce its contents.
But in a last-minute move, Hariri called ministers representing the country’s main political factions into a meeting ahead of Wednesday’s session. Several were mystified as to why they were there.
“The budget has been finalized, and I don’t know why this meeting is being held,” Khalil said. “I am not sure why we have been called for a ministerial committee after 17 Cabinet sessions to discuss the draft budget,” Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos told reporters before heading in.
Asked what had been discussed at that meeting, Jarrah told The Daily Star, “It’s normal for us to consult with each other as political factions. ... There will come a time when you know [what was discussed].”
Local media reported that the meeting had seen a split between Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and other ministers, chiefly Khalil, over the inclusion of a series of additional proposals. Unresolved, these differences were then carried into the Cabinet session, causing tensions between those opposed and those in favor, reports suggested. Seeing that these proposals required further study, Hariri gave ministers 48 hours to discuss them with either himself or Khalil, and set the next meeting for Friday at 1:30 p.m., Jarrah said.
“A minister cannot be prevented from suggesting a new thing next Friday if it contributes to the reduction of the deficit and the improvement of the budget. But I think that we exhausted all the suggestions,” Jarrah said.
“The deadline is not open, but if a serious matter arises, why not give ourselves 48 hours? If the deficit is reduced from 7.5 percent to 7.4 or 7.3, then that is something important.”
Such a reduction would mean the deficit would be slashed by about 4 percent of GDP, or more than $2 billion, from last year’s deficit, which was estimated to have stood at 11.2 percent of GDP.
The Finance Ministry has not yet released final figures for 2018.
Justice Minister Albert Serhan, one of the FPM’s 10 ministers, told The Daily Star that the proposals put forward by his FPM colleagues Wednesday could see a reduction of the deficit-to-GDP ratio to 7 percent.
Why hadn’t these proposals been put forward before? “It just so happened that they came up during the discussion and a final decision wasn’t taken,” Serhan said. He declined to provide specifics on what the proposals were, instead saying they “bring together austerity and reforms.”
“Between giving it a couple more hours of study and endorsing the budget today, we said let’s give it a couple hours,” Serhan said.
Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumjian, who was appointed by the Lebanese Forces, which regularly spars with the FPM, told The Daily Star that the quality of proposals put forward Wednesday were “so-so.”
Reports suggested that one of Bassil’s proposals had called for cutting the Social Affairs Ministry’s budget.
Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman, also appointed by the LF, said in a tweet Wednesday, “If there are proposals to reduce the deficit more, we are not against this.”
“However, it is not permissible to delay more because the country and its international classification can’t handle much more,” he said, in an apparent reference to ratings agencies that have in recent months downgraded Lebanon’s credit rating.
Meanwhile, employees in public administrations Wednesday suspended a strike ahead of Cabinet’s session, vowing to “return to striking if necessary,” a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency said.
Members of the League of Public Administration Employees returned to work following two consecutive days of strike action.
Many public sector workers have staged paralyzing strikes and protests over the course of Cabinet’s budget talks, fearing austerity measures proposed in the budget would cut into their wages and benefits.
Asked whether Friday’s session would be final, Interior Minister Raya El Hassan said, “God willing.” She told The Daily Star, “I think we are all aware that there shouldn’t be any more disagreements.”