06/24/2022, 18.10
LEBANON
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Prime Minister-designate Mikati faces an uphill battle

by Fady Noun

Parliament picked the incumbent prime minister with 54 votes vs. 25 for his main rival, Nawaf Salam (out of 128). His immediate future includes a reform plan and a potential presidential vacancy. While Christian parties are jockeying for power, Maronite Patriarch Rahi calls on parties to form a government.

 

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Incumbent Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati was asked yesterday to form a new government more than a month after legislative elections resulted in a hung parliament.

Some 54 MPs (out of 128) voted for Mikati, far less than the required 65-vote majority. His main rival, former ambassador to the UN Nawaf Salam, who is little known to the general public, got only 25 votes.

So far, Mikati has benefitted from a certain “neutrality” on the part of the international community and Saudi Arabia, which did nothing to block his way. Above all, his task will be both easy and difficult.

It will be easy because he can “play it both ways”. Until he puts together a new government, he will be in charge of current affairs as the incumbent. An expert in this balancing act, Mikati could play it one way vis-à-vis the various groups in parliament.

However, forming a new government will also be very complex, coming four months before the end of President Michel Aoun’s term in office (31 October). In fact, without a clear majority in parliament, the country could be without a president once the current office holder leaves.

In such a case, the constitution says that the cabinet assumes the president’s prerogatives. And it is not hard to see what this could mean.

Without speculating too much about will happen in the coming months, it should be noted that the prime minister-designate will hold talks next Monday and Tuesday (27-28 June) with the various groups represented in parliament as a first step to forming his new cabinet, conscious that some of current members could be reappointed.

The tasks of the next cabinet

It goes without saying that Mikati will face again a huge, some might say impossible, task, which he has had to deal already in the past few months, namely adopt reforms to counter the country’s deep financial crisis that has plunged most Lebanese into poverty.

In April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced an agreement in principle with Mikati’s government for a three-billion-dollar aid plan to extricate Lebanon from its crisis.

The prime minister-designate will be called to put the final touch to the deal, which will require a strong commitment to ambitious reforms to restructure the country’s banking industry, as well as clamp down on corruption.

Electricity, which is part of the recovery plan, will be a stumbling block to picking a new cabinet. On this issue, Mikati will be facing off President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), now led by his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil.

Relations between the prime minister-designate and the FPM on this issue are fractious, as evinced by the war of press releases that broke out at the end of May between Mikati himself and the Minister of Energy and Water, Walid Fayad, who is close to the FPM.

Mikati has accused Fayad of delaying vetting an offer by Siemens and General Electric to produce electricity. What is more, with respect to a new cabinet, the FPM wants to keep the Energy and Water portfolio as well as build a power plant – considered unnecessary by many – near the coastal city of Batroun, an FPM stronghold.

In addition, as a precondition for backing the government, the FPM wants central bank governor Riad Salameh fired as well as an end to the investigation into the catastrophic explosion of 4 August 2020, at the Port of Beirut.

The two hot issues will be difficult to solve at the switch of a button. And Mikati is not alone in fearing the FPM’s demands. Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi shares such concerns.

Indeed, since there is no clear majority in the National Assembly and a presidential vacancy is a real possibility, in the event of an impasse, Cardinal Rahi wants Christian political parties, in particular the Lebanese Forces (19 seats vs. 17 for the FPM), to join the government.

Through its leader, Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces, which did not back Mikati during parliamentary consultations, said it was not interested in being part of a government of "national accord", which it deems will end in a “deadlock and paralysis”.

Above all, Patriarch Rahi fears that the FPM enjoys a monopoly on Christian representativeness, since it is Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, against which he has been campaigning for months, in an effort to get an UN-sponsored conference on Lebanon’s neutrality.

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