BEIRUT: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s declaration that a demand for veto power had blocked the government formation was coordinated with French President Emmanuel Macron, a Future Movement MP said Tuesday.
In a statement breaking his long silence on the Cabinet formation deadlock, now in its sixth month, Berri said Monday a demand for veto power had prevented the formation of a new government, in what appeared to be an indirect spike at President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, who were reported to have insisted on such a demand.
Berri also said no party should be granted veto power, otherwise a government of nonpartisan specialists proposed by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri would be worthless.
“Speaker Berri issued his statement after the phone contact that took place between President Macron and Berri. According to the contents of the statement, it is clear that Speaker Berri is seeking an initiative aimed at pulling the stalled government formation out of the cycle of obstruction in which the Baabda team and Gebran Bassil have put it,” Future MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star.
“Berri’s signal to the blocking third [veto power] is at the root of the [Cabinet formation] problem. Although he did not name him, Berri clearly meant Gebran Bassil,” he said.
According to Hajjar, before issuing his statement, Berri had sent an envoy to Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, to discuss a possible solution to the Cabinet formation crisis. “But Berri was met with Bassil’s intransigence and his insistence on acquiring veto power in the government, which subsequently led to disrupting things,” Hajjar added.
Hariri has previously accused Aoun and Bassil 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.
Since his designation on Oct. 22 to form a new government, Hariri has insisted on setting up an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Former Future MP Mustafa Alloush said Tuesday that most probably Macron, who had already spoken by telephone with Aoun and Berri on the Cabinet formation crisis, had also spoken with Hariri.
“Let’s wait to see if the French initiative will include some amendments. This might emerge this week,” Alloush, a member of the Future Movement’s politburo, said in a TV interview.
Berri disclosed that he had made a proposal for the formation of a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists but it faltered over a demand for “a blocking third,” or veto power.
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.
“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 interests on the other,” the statement added.
Despite denial of Aoun’s demand for veto power, the statement on the president’s right to name ministers in the government drew criticism from Future officials, threatening to ignite a new constitutional row between the president and the premier-designate.
“What President Aoun said [on his right to name ministers] does not exist in the Constitution,” an aide to Hariri told The Daily Star.
Hajjar viewed the statement on Aoun’s right to name ministers as part of the “violations” of the Constitution that have been happening under his mandate.
“He [Aoun] is seeking to put new obstacles [to the Cabinet formation] and interpret the Constitution to serve his private interests and those of his political team,” Hajjar told The Daily Star.
He said while Aoun used sectarian clauses such as “I preserved Christian rights and I restored Christian rights,” he was trying to transform the rift with Hariri over the government formation into a “Muslim-Christian clash.”
“In his position, Aoun should be the president of all of Lebanon. He has called himself ‘a father of everyone.’ Therefore, he must exercise this fatherhood and avoid being biased toward one section of the Lebanese at the expense of another,” Hajjar added.
MP Anwar Khalil, a member of Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc, said it was “a fatal mistake” to continue blocking the formation of a new government while Lebanon stood on the “crater of a social volcano.”
“In the hope that the scream issued by Speaker Berri in the face of obstruction hitting the government formation for reasons that are known from their sources, it is a national duty to tackle the collapses threatening Lebanon and it is a national fatal mistake to continue the methods of obstructing the formation of a salvation government to begin reforms. Lebanon stood on the crater of a social volcano that might destroy the entity,” Khalil, an outspoken critic of Aoun, tweeted.
Commenting on the raging row over the veto power, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt, also a harsh critic of Aoun’s presidency, posted on his Twitter account a picture showing a person climbing a mountain and trying to bring a huge stone ball to the top of the mountain. Commenting on the picture, Joumblatt wrote: “The blocking third.”
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.
The mounting tensions between Aoun and Hariri have brought the already-stalled Cabinet formation process back to square one.
However, hopes for breaking the Cabinet deadlock that has defied local mediation attempts for months rose after 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.
Macron’s visit will be the third to Lebanon since the Aug. 4 port blast. He was originally set to travel to Lebanon in December but postponed the trip after contracting COVID-19.
The visit is designed to revive the French initiative to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic downturn that has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 80 percent its value since 2019, and subsequently put half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.