Ghinwa Obeid| The Daily Star
Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Cabinet will return to work starting next week, after recent tensions among parties contributed to the government’s standstill and threatened to collapse the country’s political settlement. The premier told reporters Wednesday that he and President Michel Aoun agreed that the government’s work should resume and hasten in order to deliver results.
Hariri’s comments came after he met with Aoun at Baabda Palace, where the two were seen taking a walk in the palace’s main hall.
Ministers last met on May 27 to endorse the draft 2019 state budget, which is now being discussed by Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee. The government’s work has been put on hold due to Eid al-Fitr and Hariri’s vacation abroad.
He returned to Beirut Tuesday.
The meeting with Aoun came after tensions erupted between Hariri’s Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Aoun, as well as between Future and the Progressive Socialist Party.
“The meeting was fruitful. There is a new phase of work that we will begin,” Hariri said afterward. “The country doesn’t just need talk – it also needs work and progress.”
He said Lebanon was facing a difficult economic challenge that required everyone’s cooperation.
Hariri also rejected speculation that current tensions were related to the 2016 political settlement that led to the election of Aoun as president and brought Hariri back to the premiership.
The premier instead chalked up the issue to a war of words that had erupted between the different sides in recent days.
“We should return back to calm and work. We have accomplished a lot and we should continue doing so instead of disagreeing with each other,” he said.
A source close to the presidential palace told The Daily Star that “there will be two Cabinet sessions next week and probably two other the week after that.” He said the upcoming sessions would focus on key appointments in state administrations and other items that it hadn’t had the chance to discuss earlier as a result of ongoing budget talks.
After 20 sessions, Cabinet last month approved the draft budget, which contains a string of austerity measures.
Hariri told reporters that approving the budget was one of Cabinet’s main achievements that the government should build on it.
He added that it was democratic if political parties expressed reservations on some of the budget’s articles in Parliament, but reiterated that “what was agreed on in [Cabinet] was already done.”
Hariri appeared to be responding to the head of Parliament’s Finance and Budget committee, MP Ibrahim Kanaan, who Wednesday indirectly criticized Hariri for similar comments he had made a day earlier.
In a news conference Tuesday, Hariri criticized MPs for taking issue with the draft budget after ministers affiliated with the same political parties approved it in Cabinet.
“It’s as if all those who passed the budget in Cabinet are from another political planet. The ministers who approved the budget in Cabinet are opposing the budget through their blocs’ lawmakers in Parliament. What are we doing?” Hariri said Tuesday, upon returning to Beirut.
The premier stressed that passing the budget was essential to enacting financial reforms. “The economic situation cannot wait any longer, and the world cannot wait longer as we go in circles 10 times every day.”
Speaking at a news conference after the Finance and Budget Committee’s morning session ended, Kanaan defended lawmakers and their mandate.
The country’s credibility on the international stage was dependent on Parliament’s role as a monitor of the government’s work, Kanaan said.
“In the name of those who were present in the sessions, I stress that we are not here to give a stamp of approval to [Cabinet’s decisions],” the lawmaker said. “Every budget that leaves Cabinet isn’t set in stone and anyone who wants it to be like that, let them amend the Constitution and shut down Parliament.”
The parliamentary committee had set aside nine meetings this week to ratify the budget, with two sessions daily Monday through Thursday and another Friday afternoon.
In Wednesday’s session, the committee discussed an article in the budget that imposed a new tax on retirement pensions.
Article 22 of the draft budget calls for amending Article 58 of the Income Tax Law, which did not initially include taxes on retirement pensions.
The article also adds a 25 percent tax on net earnings exceeding LL225 million (about $149,000).
“No one is with it and no one will go along with” the article in its current form, Kanaan said in the televised news conference, saying lawmakers were discussing possible amendments to the part of the article that added the pension tax.
Local channel MTV said that the committee ended up suspending its discussions over the article.
In its evening session, the committee approved a series of articles in the budget, including a tax increase on interest on bank deposits from 7 percent to 10 percent for a period of three years.
In a bid to reduce Lebanon’s deficit, the 2019 budget was drafted with a series of austerity measures. These include tax hikes and public spending cuts, including a reduction to public-sector benefits and pensions. Veterans and public-sector employees have protested against these measures on several occasions, particularly during Cabinet’s discussion of the budget.
Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri touched on the draft document, saying that “people are waiting for the budget [to be endorsed].”
Berri, speaking at an event at Al-Zahraa University Hospital in Jnah, called on the government to build trust between the different political sides with the new budget. Hariri had said that he held talks with Berri on the budget on the sidelines of an event earlier in the day at the Justice Palace.
“Parliament is heading toward legislative sessions [on matters related] to the budget, combating corruption, administrative decentralization, municipalities law and electoral law,” the speaker said.