The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Budget still on track despite no-shows at Cabinet

Qanso dismisses political motives, says absentees were from across the board

- By Hussein Dakroub

BEIRUT: A Cabinet session set to tackle the contentiou­s 2017 draft state budget was adjourned Monday due to a lack of quorum, in a rare episode that launched a volley of questions and speculatio­n over the reasons that led to a simultaneo­us no-show of 10 ministers from a range of political parties.

“Prime Minister Saad Hariri canceled the Cabinet meeting that was scheduled for 4 p.m. this [Monday] afternoon at the Grand Serail because a number of ministers failed to arrive on time,” a terse statement issued by Hariri’s media office said.

Only 18 of the 29 ministers and Hariri showed up at the Grand Serail for a Cabinet session to resume discussion­s on the draft budget. The surprise developmen­t came amid wide expectatio­ns that the longawaite­d 2017 fiscal plan would be approved this week and referred to Parliament for final ratificati­on.

Two-thirds of the 30-member Cabinet are needed to secure a quorum. Hariri reportedly waited an hour for the missing ministers before canceling the session.

However Minister of State for Parliament­ary Affairs Ali Qanso played down the event, telling The Daily Star that “there were no political motives behind the absence of the 10 ministers. Also, their absence did not reflect difference­s over the approval of the draft budget because discussion­s on the budget will be resumed Wednesday.”

Q an so, who showed up for the session, said Haririwai ted for Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk who was on his way to the Grand Serail but decided to adjourn the meeting after Machnouk was late.

“The Cabinet will meet Wednesday and Friday as part of sessions devoted to discussing the draft budget. If for some reason, the budget is not approved by the Cabinet this week, more sessions will be held next week for this purpose,” Qanso said.

The absent ministers, who belong to the Future Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, were: Machnouk, Jamal Jarrah, Pierre Abou Assi, Cesar Abi Khalil, Talal Arslan, Ghazi Zeaiter, Michel Pharaon, Mohammad Fneish, Pierre Raffoul and Melhem Riachi. Some of those ministers are out of the country on foreign trips.

“By adjourning the session and not waiting any longer for the late ministers, Prime Minister Hariri wanted to send a message that he will not tolerate dilly-dallying in dealing with Cabinet sessions and that he expects the ministers to be more serious,” a ministeria­l source close to the premier told The Daily Star.

Political sources also said they saw “no political connotatio­ns” behind the absence of 10 ministers who are of “different political stripes.”

“The absence of 10 ministers from several political stripes does not mean a political crisis is brewing,” a political source told The Daily Star. “Had the absent ministers belonged to one political camp, this would have reflected political motives or difference­s over the draft budget.” Those absent included two ministers from Hariri’s Future movement.

There was no immediate comment from President Michel Aoun on the postponeme­nt of the Cabinet session.

Hariri has scheduled three Cabinet sessions – for Monday, Wednesday and Friday – to wrap up discussion­s on the draft budget. The Cabinet has held several sessions in the past two weeks devoted mainly to discussing legal provisions related to the budget, as well as tax measures and proposed amendments.

Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil told The Daily Star Friday that the Cabinet would endorse the draft budget this week and send it to Parliament for final ratificati­on. This would come after agreement has already been reached to include the cost of the public sector’s salary hike bill in the budget.

Khalil, who has estimated the cost of financing the salary scale bill at LL1.2 trillion ($800 million), has proposed a string of taxes to cover it.

However, an expected obstacle appeared in the way of the budget’s approval Sunday when Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea said that the LF’s three ministers and eight lawmakers would not vote for the budget unless the government included privatizat­ion of electricit­y production in the bill. This was in a bid to reduce the endemic deficit in the state-run Electricit­e du Liban company’s budget and move toward a 24 hour power supply.

Other hurdles facing the ratificati­on of the draft budget in Parliament are difference­s over financing the salary-hike bill and demands by key blocs, mainly Aoun’s parliament­ary Change and Reform bloc, for the auditing of $11 billion in extra budgetary spending by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government between 2005 and 2009

The approval of the 2017 draft budget is seen as essential for controllin­g state finances and shoring up the battered economy, burdened by more than $74 billion in public debt. Lebanon has not ratified a state budget since 2005, leading to uncontroll­ed extra-budgetary spending in millions of dollars.

Speaker Nabih Berri Monday called on relevant joint parliament­ary committees to meet on March 6 to pursue discussion­s on the public sector’s salary scale bill.

Meanwhile, Minister for the Displaced Talal Arslan reiterated his support for an electoral law based on full proportion­al representa­tion to govern the upcoming parliament­ary elections scheduled for May 21.

“We demand a just law based on proportion­ality to achieve true representa­tion,” Arslan told reporters after discussing with Berri the ongoing efforts to agree on a new voting system to replace the disputed 1960 majoritari­an law. “We see that fair and true representa­tion cannot be achieved without the approval of the principle of comprehens­ive proportion­ality in the upcoming elections.”

The Kataeb Party accused political leaders of negligence in devising a new electoral law. “The contradict­ing political authority is responsibl­e for confiscati­ng the popular will and tampering with the country’s democratic system by being negligent in producing a new electoral law,” said a statement issued after the weekly meeting of the party’s Political Bureau chaired by party leader MP Sami Gemayel.

Days after Hariri and Machnouk signed a decree calling on voters to participat­e in the elections, three months ahead of the vote as called for by law governing elections, support for a hybrid law that blends provisions of the proportion­al and majoritari­an systems has been growing.

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