BEIRUT: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Monday a demand for veto power had blocked the formation of a new government in what appeared to be an indirect jab at President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, who were reported to have made such a demand.
In a statement breaking his silence on the Cabinet formation crisis, now in its sixth month, Berri said no party should be granted veto power otherwise, a government of nonpartisan specialists proposed by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri would be worthless.
He disclosed that he had made a proposal for the formation of a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists but it got bogged down over a demand for “a blocking third”, or veto power.
“No one should be granted veto power at all, otherwise there will be no value for specialization, or the presence of partners or the presence of a government that can be trusted inside and outside [the country],” Berri said in his statement that was carried by the state-run National News Agency.
“In fact, based on this understanding, I made this proposal to the parties as a solution that is fair to everyone, at the forefront of which is Lebanon. But unfortunately it was scuttled while approaching the blocking third,” Berri said.
He added that despite the rejection of his proposal to break the Cabinet impasse, he would pursue his efforts.
Although Berri did not say who requested veto power, his remarks drew a quick response from Aoun’s media office, which said in a statement that the president did not demand veto power in the next government but insisted on naming Christian ministers.
“Political and media circles insist on spreading that President Michel Aoun is demanding to acquire veto power in the next government, which has led to delaying its formation, despite the statements and attitudes issued by Baabda Palace on different dates, the last one was on Jan. 22, which confirmed that such allegations were not true,” the statement said.
“In the face of persistence in spreading such allegations, the presidency’s media office again reminds that President Aoun, who has not requested veto power at all, is keen on exercising his right to name ministers in the government who have specialization and competency and are trustworthy inside and outside [the country] in order to maintain national partnership on the one hand, and Lebanon’s supreme interest on the other,” the statement added.
Since his designation to form a new government on Oct. 22, Hariri has insisted on setting up an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with a French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Hariri has previously accused Aoun and Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, of seeking a 20-member Cabinet with the aim of acquiring veto power in the government, or seven ministers, one-third plus one. Hariri has vowed to neither grant veto power to any party, nor to include representatives of political parties in the next government.
The widening rift between Aoun and Hariri over the distribution of key ministries and naming of Christian ministers has stalled the formation of a new Cabinet and left the country without a fully functioning government for nearly six months since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the massive explosion that devastated Beirut Port, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.
In his statement, Berri maintained that it was internal obstacles, rather than external factors, that were hindering the government formation.
Responding to questions as to why he kept silent and did not undertake any moves to help break the Cabinet deadlock, Berri said: “I would like to address public opinion to inform it of the hurdles [blocking the government formation]. The hurdles are not from outside [the country] but from inside.
“Since the agreement is [to form] a government of specialists who do not belong to parties, movements or to persons, this means [parties] should be content with naming [ministers] who are ‘neither against you, nor with you’, the Development and Liberation bloc, for instance, has complied with this criterion and proposed names who do not belong to it and are not against it. This principle must apply to everyone without exceptions, like the choosing of specialist and competent persons,” Berri added.
The Higher Islamic Shiite Council voiced support for Berri’s proposal for the formation of “a government made up of specialists that can gain internal and external confidence and serves only Lebanon’s interest.”
“We call on politicians to support this [Berri’s] initiative to safeguard our nation, protect its stability, rescue its economy and national currency and for the mercy of its exhausted people,” the council said in a statement.
Hopes for breaking the Cabinet deadlock that defied local mediation attempts for months rose after French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that he planned to make a third visit to Lebanon. Macron also said that France's road map for resolving the deepening Lebanese crisis was still on the table.
During a telephone conversation with Aoun Saturday, Macron reaffirmed France’s support for Lebanon and hinted at a French role in helping the formation of a new government.
Asked if Macron relayed a certain message to Aoun, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Monday: “President Macron called for accelerating the formation of a new government. President Aoun explained in detail to President Macron the obstacles and sticking points that have prevented an agreement with Prime Minister Hariri on the Cabinet formation.”
Macron told Aoun he will make contacts with other parties in a bid to reconcile conflicting viewpoints, the source said.
While Aoun said he was committed to the French initiative, Macron said he was happy that the initiative was still in force.
A source close to Hariri could not confirm whether the French president had contacted the premier-designate.