|Date: Jul 19, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Lebanon: Hariri, Khalil defend budget on eve of vote|
|Timour Azhari| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri Thursday defended the 2019 draft budget as a serious effort to put Lebanon’s finances on the right track, dismissing abrasive criticism of the document in the past three days as “political outbidding” made for television.
“Our [budget] cut the deficit by 4 points of gross domestic product. This move is serious by all international standards and must be completed in the next three years,” he told lawmakers in the evening session on the third day of Parliament meetings devoted to discussing the budget. “After 31 committee sessions and 19 Cabinet sessions devoted to the budget, we destroyed our work in front of public opinion ... for reasons of political outbidding.”
Hariri spoke after Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil gave a near-hourlong speech defending the budget, in which he announced its final estimated deficit as a percentage of GDP would be 7.49, down from 11.1 last year. “This budget does not satisfy our ambitions at all, but it is the best that was possible,” he said.
Khalil noted that no ministers had objected to the budget as a whole in Cabinet, in an apparent criticism of the Lebanese Forces, whose ministers have said they noted their reservations, and whose parliamentary bloc has said it would vote against the budget.
The minister also said that the budget could not be expected to “solve all the problems in the country.”
Khalil addressed the fact that the budget was more than seven months late, and was set to be endorsed without an audit of the previous year’s spending, as constitutionally required. “All constitutional limits were broken by political disagreement,” he said, citing the nine-month Cabinet formation delay and the recent deadly shooting in Aley that has obstructed Cabinet for more than two weeks.He also noted other shortcomings on the state level. The minister stunned Parliament by revealing that state security agencies had charted 136 illegal border crossings across the country in astonishing detail, including the names of the crossings, those that operated them, the items smuggled and how they were smuggled. But little had been done to combat them, Khalil said.
This led MP Hagop Terzian to shout incredulously: “136 illegal border crossings? Let them remove all taxes from this budget in that case.”
“It’s not OK for decent people to pay taxes while thugs get away with this,” he said.
Thursday’s sessions were the rowdiest of the three days to pass so far.
It concluded with the endorsement of a controversial measure that would simply postpone the need for the closure of accounts until the 2020 budget was endorsed, thereby paving the way for the 2019 budget’s ratification.
All MPs, including Speaker Nabih Berri, agreed that the measure they were voting on was unconstitutional, but most also agreed it was necessary. Parliament has already violated the constitution at least twice this year, with two extensions of an emergency spending measure that was only supposed to be used for the first month of the year.
Nay votes were registered on Thursday’s extension from the Lebanese Forces bloc’s 15 MPs and the three Kataeb MPs, in addition to MPs Paula Yacoubian, Jamil al-Sayyed, Michel Moawad, Jihad al-Samad and Faisal Karami.
Asked how he felt that the government was de-facto forcing Parliament into ratifying unconstitutional legislation, Justice Minister Albert Serhan told The Daily Star: “Necessities permit overlooking illegalities.”
“The Constitution is there to serve state institutions, and we’re trying to correct the situation, but we’re all admitting that there is a clear violation [of the Constitution],” he said.
The understaffed Court of Audit, which is carrying out audits going back more than two decades, will be given the human and technical resources necessary to hopefully complete audits in time for study of the next budget, Serhan said.
MPs are now set to begin voting in a session scheduled at 3 p.m. Friday.
As MPs convened for the evening session, retired military personnel scuffled with security forces during an attempt to march toward Parliament.
The morning session saw a brief spat between Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel and Free Patriotic Movement MP Salim Aoun, who have sparred in at least one previous session. The latter began his remarks by saying he would not make his statement, but before he could say why, Gemayel interrupted: “So what are you doing right now?”
Aoun frowned and told Gemayel to “go play next to your house.”
“I don’t want to play near my house or your house. It does not concern you where I play,” Gemayel retorted, before Aoun told him to “shut up.”
MP Elias Hankash, also a member of the Kataeb, then joined in to defend Gemayel. Aoun again told Gemayel to “go play next to your house.”
Berri tried to intervene, calling on MPs to calm down.
Aoun then apparently accused Gemayel, the son of late President-elect Bachir Gemayel, of becoming an MP because of his father’s political weight.
“I’m not here because I’m my father’s son. 5,000 [people] voted for me in Ashrafieh,” Gemayel hit back, to which Aoun replied, “5,000 you say? 6,000 voted for me in Zahle.”
Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab had to intervene to calm down Aoun, and order was restored. But Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour, who is not an MP, snuck in the comment: “Mr. Speaker, I got seven [thousand votes],” eliciting laughter from the lawmakers, including Gemayel.
The repartee concluded with Gemayel saying to Aoun, “My father is tougher than yours.”
Before Aoun took to the podium, MP Neemat Frem had called on the government to study and adopt a five-year plan that aims to reduce the budget deficit to zero, and said the current budget was not enough.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result,” the lawmaker said.
“To all our political zaims [chieftains]: This is a moment of truth, at the edge of a collapse. If you don’t work to establish a new era, you will be the devils of Lebanon’s history.”