Lebanon News

Cabinet set to approve policy statement, clearing way for confidence vote

Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a Cabinet session in Beirut, Sept. 15, 2021. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: The new Cabinet is set to meet Thursday to discuss and approve a draft policy statement, clearing the way for a Parliament session to seek a vote of confidence from MPs, Information Minister George Kordahi said Wednesday.

Kordahi made the announcement after a ministerial committee tasked with drafting the government’s policy statement Wednesday endorsed the draft document that had been discussed by ministers over the past three days.

The speed with which the committee finished drafting the policy statement less than a week after the Cabinet formation without differences among ministers over sensitive issues, such as Hezbollah’s arms, clearly reflected the government’s determination to quickly move forward to tackle a series of crises facing the Lebanese, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has pushed more than half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line amid a crashing currency that has lost more than 90 percent of its value since late 2019.

“The committee [charged] with drafting the policy statement approved a draft statement that will be discussed at a Cabinet session to be held at 4 p.m. tomorrow [Thursday] at Baabda Palace and later approved,” Kordahi told reporters after the committee’s third meeting chaired by Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail.

Kordahi said he hoped that the 24-member government unveiled by Mikati last Friday, ending 13 months of political deadlock that aggravated the worst economic and financial crisis in the country’s history, would appear before Parliament at the “beginning of next week to seek a confidence vote from MPs on the basis of this policy statement.”

Kordahi denied that there were differences among ministers over some items in the draft policy statement, including the one dealing with Hezbollah’s arms.

“All matters are contained in the draft statement that will be discussed tomorrow [Thursday] at Baabda Palace and the policy statement will be approved. There is understanding among all ministers contrary to what had been said about differences,” the information minister said.

“I reassure everyone that there is no rift, but solidarity and love among all ministers. A positive spirit is prevailing. God willing, this is a government of determination and hope. There is determination to deal with all the country’s problems with the utmost speed,” he added.

Headed by Mikati, the 12-member committee includes the deputy premier and ministers of justice, interior, energy, finance, social affairs, information , culture, labor, agriculture, administrative development affairs and the displaced.

Kordahi said the draft policy statement did not touch on the issue of the Central Bank’s plan to totally lift fuel subsidies by the end of this month amid severe gasoline and diesel shortages that have left hundreds of gas stations shuttered across the country and thousands of motorists queuing to fill up their vehicles at operating stations. A decision on removing subsidies will be taken by the Cabinet, he said.

Asked if a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts is contained in the draft policy statement, Kordahi said: “All matters and anything relating to judiciary, justice and investigations [into Beirut Port explosion] are possible. But I cannot talk about these issues before [the draft statement] is officially approved by the Cabinet.”

Since the Cabinet formation, both President Michel Aoun and Mikati have underlined Lebanon’s need to resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package to help it out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Lebanon began talks with the IMF on a $10 billion bailout package in May 2020, but the negotiations have been stalled by a dispute between different interest groups representing Lebanese banks and the government over the size of losses at the Central Bank.

The new government faces a host of tough challenges that begin with halting the country’s economic collapse, embarking on essential reforms, resolving the severe food, fuel and medicine shortages and chronic power cuts and end with supervising next year’s parliamentary elections. This is in addition to restoring confidence between the people and the state and also with the international community, which has linked its financial aid to implementing structural reforms.

Plans to deal with the severe economic and financial crisis, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the Civil War, are likely to be highlighted in the policy statement.

REFORMS, REFORMS, REFORMS

In welcoming the new government, the United States, France and the European Union have urged it to undertake reforms quickly, with Washington calling on Mikati to address the "dire needs and legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people." The EU Sunday urged Lebanon's new government to move quickly to adopt reforms that would pave the way for a deal with the International Monetary Fund to halt the country's economic collapse.

To cope with the unprecedented economic depression that is hitting the Lebanese hard and threatening them with poverty, hunger and unemployment, the policy statement is expected to underline the urgency of resuming negotiations with the IMF on a bailout package and commitment to carrying out reforms, curbing cross-border smuggling with Syria and a plan for economic and financial

The draft policy statement said the government would begin implementing reforms as it resumes talks with the IMF. It said the government would resume negotiations with creditors to reach an agreement on "a mechanism to restructure the public debt" and put in place a plan to reform the banking sector.

The statement said the government was committed to all the provisions outlined in the French reform initiative and would "renew and develop" a financial recovery plan that was drawn up by the previous government.

The government will also work with Parliament to pass a capital control law, the draft document said. It will hold parliamentary elections, scheduled in May 2022, on time, the draft said.

Among other things, the policy statement will highlight Lebanon’s commitment to UN Security Council resolutions, the National Accord Document [the 1989 Taif Accord], and affirmation of Lebanon’s right to recover parcels of lands still occupied by Israel in the south and its offshore oil wealth through the maritime border negotiations with Israel.

As in previous policy statements, the document will also underline the right of displaced Syrians to return to their country and the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland.

An official source ruled out any major problem within the Cabinet over the approach to Hezbollah’s arms, a divisive issue that had delayed the government’s policy statement in the past.

“There will be no change in the government’s policy statement regarding the approach to Hezbollah’s resistance. The new government will adopt the same formula adopted by the previous government,” the source told The Daily Star.

Rather than adopt in its policy statement Hezbollah’s controversial tripartite equation: “The Army, the people and the resistance” as a means of facing any possible Israeli attack on Lebanon, the new government is expected to adopt the same formula upheld by the two previous governments.

That formula, viewed as a compromise solution between supporters and opponents of Hezbollah, underlined the citizens’ right to resist Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory. It emphasized that the government will spare no efforts to liberate remaining occupied land, while stressing “the right of the state with its institutions and people to resist Israeli occupation and repulse its attacks.”

Meanwhile, Mikati Wednesday paid what he called “a protocol visit” to Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, who had welcomed the formation of a new government by the billionaire businessman.

Derian urged Mikati to “quickly find solutions to the crises from which the people are suffering and begin practical steps to revitalize the state and its institutions.”

Mikati was to meet at his Beirut Downtown residence Wednesday night with a delegation from the Free Patriotic Movement’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc headed by MP Gebran Bassil. The meeting comes a day after the bloc linked granting the government a confidence vote to the policy statement.

The bloc stressed that granting confidence to the government is linked to “a real commitment and a clear pledge in its policy statement” to carry out a series of reform measures, including a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts, drawing up a financial recovery plan, and fighting corruption, said a statement issued after the bloc’s weekly online meeting chaired by Bassil Tuesday.

 

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