|04 November, 2019

Aoun strategy risks delaying government formation

Protesters called for a general strike Monday

BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun is seeking to reach consensus with various parties on the shape of the next government before he moves on to designate a new prime minister, official sources said Sunday, an unprecedented move that threatens to delay the formation of a new Cabinet.

Aoun has yet to set a date for holding binding consultations with lawmakers to appoint a new premier, nearly a week after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned under pressure of nationwide anti-government protests demanding major political and economic reforms. Aoun has asked the government to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new Cabinet is formed.

“President Aoun is holding behind-the-scenes consultations with all the parties, including [caretaker] Prime Minister Hariri, in an attempt to agree on the shape of the next government, whether it should be a technocratic government, or a mixed politico-technocratic government,” an official source told The Daily Star.

“A solution to the problem of the shape of the next government will definitely facilitate the designation of the next prime minister,” the source said. He recalled remarks attributed to Hariri in which he was quoted as saying that he refused to head a new government representing the major political parties, as is the case with his resigned 30-member Cabinet, and preferred a technocratic government, as demanded by protesters.

A statement issued by the president’s media office Saturday explained the delay behind setting a date, saying Aoun was making “necessary contacts” before the binding parliamentary consultations to resolve some obstacles aiming to facilitate the designation of a new prime minister.

“Since Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, President Michel Aoun has been making necessary contacts ahead of setting a date for the binding parliamentary consultations, on the basis that the current circumstances in the country require a calm solution to the Cabinet situation that will lead to eliminating some obstacles in order for the designation to be normal, which will subsequently facilitate the formation process,” the statement said.

“The president sees that the great challenges that will face the next government require a quick, but not hasty, approach to the designation process, because a rush in this case might have negative repercussions,” it said, adding that a date for the consultations would be set soon.

Future Movement officials contacted by The Daily Star declined to comment on Aoun’s move, saying they were waiting for the president to set a date for the binding parliamentary talks.But Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt, whose party is at odds with the Free Patriotic Movement headed by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, warned that the president’s move violated the Constitution under the banner of forming a Cabinet and later appointing a new prime minister.

“At the peak of the political crisis facing the country and its socio-economic consequences, and after the popular movement had brought down most, if not all, of the political class, someone [Aoun] comes to undermine the Constitution under the slogan of [Cabinet] formation and later the designation [of a new prime minister] to serve the interests of the despotism of one person and a useless political movement. Note: an observer,” Joumblatt tweeted. He was clearly referring to the FPM and Bassil, who has been the target of harsh slogans by protesters who accused him of corruption.

Hariri has emerged as the favorite candidate to form the next government, judging by statements from leaders of major blocs over the past few days, who expressed firm support for his return to the premiership.

Addressing the nation Thursday night on the third anniversary of his six-year presidential term, Aoun called for the formation of a “homogenous” government capable of fulfilling the protesters’ demands for change, fighting corruption and returning looted public money.

In a show of force after more than two weeks of mass street protests that brought down the government, thousands of FPM supporters gathered Sunday near Baabda Palace to express support for Aoun and Bassil, waving Lebanese and FPM flags. Aoun and Bassil addressed the crowd.

In a live televised speech from the presidential palace, Aoun called on FPM supporters and anti-government protesters to unite behind reforms.

Warning that a popular protest should not act as a counter to another protest, Aoun said: “I call on you all to unite because the new squares [of protests] need support and struggle. Corruption cannot be easily eliminated because it has been entrenched for decades. We have drawn up a three-point road map: Fighting corruption, revitalizing the economy and establishing a civil state. These cannot be achieved easily. We need your efforts.”

Bassil said the uprising, launched by anti-government protesters on Oct. 17, should not end while corrupt officials remain in their posts. “We have warned our partners that we will get to this stage ... and we are here to tell [the people who protested] that we are with them and let’s continue together,” Bassil told the FPM crowd. Bassil appeared to say that the 2016 political settlement that led to Aoun’s election as president and brought Hariri back to the premiership had not been affected by the street protests.

“We are proud of the settlement with a main component [Future Movement] in our nation to fortify our country, without the settlement being at the expense of financial accounts or a compromise over the nation,” Bassil said.

In his second public appearance since the uprising began, Bassil criticized protesters blocking roads, saying, “We should block roads for MPs who refuse corruption-combating laws, politicians who escape accountability and judges who do not implement the law.”

He also called for lifting banking secrecy on officials’ accounts and holding them accountable, as well as the return of looted public funds.

The FPM demonstration was viewed as a counterprotest to hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who have staged a popular uprising demanding the overthrow of the regime. Commenting on speeches delivered at the FPM rally, Joumblatt tweeted: “We are back to square one with hollow populist words that are 30 years old.”

In response to the FPM rally, tens of thousands protesters filled squares across Lebanon for the third week of anti-government demonstrations, dubbed the “Sunday of Unity” and the “Sunday of Pressure.”

Protesters gathered in the streets and central squares of Beirut and other cities including Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre, waving Lebanese flags and blasting revolutionary anthems through loudspeakers.

Protesters called for a general strike Monday to exert pressure on Aoun to speed up the appointment of a new prime minister and the formation of what they termed “a government of independent technocrats” to fulfill their demands for change and reforms, local media reported.

Hariri’s surprise resignation came at a critical time when Lebanon, one of the world’s most heavily indebted countries, is under mounting international pressure to carry out essential reforms urgently needed to avert a much-feared economic collapse.

Lebanon is burdened by a soaring national debt of over $85 billion - more than 150 percent of GDP - an endemic budget deficit, slow growth and unemployment over 25 percent. The country also risks a financial and monetary crisis, with the near-22-year-old currency peg faltering on the unofficial market. In addition to the government’s resignation, protesters are demanding the end of the sectarian political system, the removal of the ruling political elite, early parliamentary elections, the formation of a technocratic government and the return of stolen public funds, among other basic demands such as electricity, water and jobs.

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