Lebanese leaders show new optimism on ending government deadlock

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri (R) meets President Michel Aoun (L) and Parliament speaker Nabih Berri(C) at the presidential palace in Baadba on November 22, 2017.
Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri (R) meets President Michel Aoun (L) and Parliament speaker Nabih Berri(C) at the presidential palace in Baadba on November 22, 2017.

BEIRUT/LONDON  – Lebanese leaders expressed fresh confidence on Wednesday about reaching a deal to form a new government, with President Michel Aoun saying results of his efforts to break the months-long deadlock would appear this week.

Heavily indebted and with a stagnant economy, Lebanon desperately needs a new government to implement economic reforms that are required to put its public finances on a more sustainable footing and unlock pledges of foreign aid.

A general election in May gave rise to months of wrangling between the rival parties to form a coalition government under the country’s sectarian system, with Saad al-Hariri designated as prime minister.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was cited as saying he was “optimistic for the possibility of a solution soon” and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said Lebanon would definitely form a new government “despite all obstacles”.

On Tuesday, Aoun said the government formation could not be resolved in the traditional way between the prime minister-designate and other parties, and that he had to get involved to avoid “catastrophe” – an apparent reference to the economy.

He said on Wednesday the results of his new effort would appear “in the next two days”.

Bassil, who is also Aoun’s son-in-law and head of the political party he founded, said partnership between Aoun and Hariri would “certainly lead to the formation of a new government, despite all obstacles”.

He was speaking at a London conference which the Lebanese government hopes will garner investor interest in a capital investment program that aims to tap into billions of dollars of aid pledged at a donors’ conference in April.

HIGH PUBLIC DEBT

But foreign governments and international institutions first want Lebanon to implement long-stalled economic reforms. The country has the world’s third largest public debt compared to its GDP, at more than 150 percent.

Hariri, also attending the London roadshow, told reporters he was “always optimistic” when asked about the prospects of forming a new government.

Parliament Speaker Berri’s optimism stemmed from Aoun’s intervention in the process, lawmaker Ali Bazzi said.

Agreement on the make-up of the new cabinet has met a series of obstacles as Hariri has sought to forge a deal parceling out 30 cabinet posts among rival groups according to the sectarian system.

The final hurdle has been over Sunni Muslim representation, with the powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah demanding a cabinet seat for one of its Sunni allies who gained ground in the election.

Analysts believe one compromise could be for Aoun to nominate one of the Hezbollah-aligned Sunnis, or a figure acceptable to them, among a group of ministers named by the president.

Hariri said on Twitter that the new government would be firmly committed to reforms agreed at the April donors conference, including fiscal reforms.

 

 

(Reuters)