| 09 October, 2017

Lebanon's parliament set for smooth vote, leaders stress stability

Lebanese members of parliament gather to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut April 23, 2014.

Lebanese members of parliament gather to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut April 23, 2014.

REUTERS/Joseph Eid/Pool

BEIRUT: Armed with “national consensus” reached within the Cabinet, Parliament is set to pass Monday a new tax law, seen as the key for the continued implementation of the public sector’s salary hike law, two ministers said Sunday.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the parliamentary session, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and MP Walid Jumblatt agreed on the significance of maintaining the country’s stability.

Jumblatt welcomed the two leaders to his Clemenceau residence in Beirut late Sunday evening.

Hariri arrived at Jumblatt’s residence shortly before Berri, where the three leaders met together to discuss the Parliament session’s plans to ratify the 2017 draft state budget later this month before the Progressive Socialist Party leader hosted a dinner for his guests.

“A meeting for dialogue, conciliation and agreement on the importance of stability and approaching matters with realism,” Jumblatt wrote under a photo he published on his Twitter account showing him along with Berri and Hariri.

“Shielding Lebanon must remain a priority above any other consideration,” he added.

Upon arriving, Hariri told reporters: “We are always on good terms,” in reference to a recent warming of ties with Jumblatt after the two leaders’ relationship appeared frosty.

Asked if he came to sponsor a reconciliation between Hariri and Jumblatt, Berri told reporters upon arriving accompanied by Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil: “What reconciliation? MP Jumblatt is a dear friend.”

The three leaders’ blocs along with that of the Free Patriotic Movement are expected to vote for the Cabinet’s new tax law.

“I expect Parliament to vote on the tax amendment draft law because there is national consensus over this matter. There is no problem over the salary scale law, which has been put on the right track,” Khalil told The Daily Star.

Khalil, a staunch supporter of the salary and tax hike laws approved by Parliament in July, said that a settlement to past years’ extra-budgetary spending, which is essential for the endorsement of the 2017 draft budget, would be examined and passed during the discussion of the budget later this month.

A similar optimistic tone was echoed by a Hezbollah minister and a Future Movement MP about a Parliament session, slated for 11 a.m. Monday, where lawmakers are set to discuss three draft laws: tax amendments previously approved by Cabinet, permitting the government to delay the implementation of the public sector salary hike until new taxes are approved, and passing the 2017 draft budget without the auditing of extra-budgetary spending in past years.Lebanon has not had a state budget since 2005 due to political bickering, leading to extra-budgetary spending in billions of dollars.

“I expect the tax amendment draft law to be voted tomorrow [Monday], thus clearing the way for the implementation of the salary scale law,” Sports Minister Mohammad Fneish, a Hezbollah minister, told The Daily Star.

He ruled out the possibility of major parliamentary blocs opposing the new tax law. “Consensus has been reached within the Cabinet that will pave the way for Parliament’s endorsement of the three draft laws presented by the Cabinet. The ministers who have agreed on the three draft laws represent the main blocs in Parliament,” Fneish said.

MP Atef Majdalani, whose Future Movement bloc is the largest in Parliament with 32 lawmakers, sounded confident of a smooth parliamentary vote on the new tax law. “The atmosphere is positive and things are heading toward the endorsement of the amended tax law,” Majdalani told The Daily Star. He said lawmakers would discuss and amend the draft laws listed on the agenda before voting on them.

Unlike the last time when lawmakers voted for the salary and tax hike laws by raising their hands in July, this time the vote will be through a roll call.

At end of September, thousands of civil servants, public schoolteachers and the military, who stand to benefit from the wage increases, received their paychecks based on the new salary law.

Parliament’s approval of the tax amendments to fund the salary hike law is deemed essential for its continued implementation after the Cabinet has signaled it would halt the payment of public sector employees’ wages based on the new salary scale law if revenues were not secured from taxes.

This prompted labor and teachers unions, which have staged street protests and strikes over the past five years to pressure the government into implementing the salary increases, to threaten to resort to more strikes and street demonstrations.

The Cabinet’s tax amendments came in response to the Constitutional Council’s decision last month to revoke the tax hike law in its entirety because it violated the Constitution. The new proposed taxes have raised eyebrows among the public sector and economic bodies.

Meanwhile, Berri confirmed that parliamentary elections, planned in May 2018, would be held on time. “Holding the elections on time has been decided. The elections will inevitably take place, and no one can stop this,” Berri said in remarks published by Ad-Diyar newspaper Sunday. “Preparations for the elections would be carried out at the highest level without any stumbling blocks.”

Also, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah called for parliamentary elections to be held on time and for rival factions to maintain political dialogue. “We want security, peace, stability and elections to be held on time and for political dialogue to continue,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech addressing a ceremony in the Bekaa Valley to mark one week since the deaths of two party fighters in Syria.

Rival factions are still split over the use of biometric voting cards in the elections. Some political blocs oppose the implementation of biometric cards for this election cycle, arguing that issuing the cards for all Lebanese would be a costly and time-consuming procedure, meaning that the cards wouldn’t be ready in time for the elections.

But Hariri last month confirmed his government’s commitment to adopting the biometric cards and holding elections on time.

There are also differences over the voter preregistration process.

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