By Maha El Dahan and Laila Bassam
BEIRUT -Lebanon’s new government won a vote of confidence on Monday for a policy programme that aims to remedy a devastating economic crisis, despite the parliamentary session being delayed when the lights went off due to power shortages.
The programme drawn up by Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government promises to revive talks with the International Monetary Fund and initiate reforms that donors want to see before they will unlock badly needed foreign assistance.
When the session finally began, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri urged Mikati to keep his remarks short because of the power cuts, part of a nation-wide energy crisis which has crippled normal life as hard currency reserves have run out.
“From the heart of the suffering of Beirut … our cabinet was born to light a candle in this hopeless darkness,” Mikati said, as he read out the programme.
“Let’s not bother you and read it all out, let’s save time because of the electricity issue,” Berri, head of the Shi’ite Amal movement, told the Sunni Muslim prime minister.
Nevertheless, the session lasted for more than seven hours.
Lebanon is stuck in a deep depression, with fuel shortages leading to few if any hours of state-generated power and leaving people largely dependent on privately-run generators.
The cabinet won the vote with a majority of 85 over 15.
Mikati, a billionaire tycoon, faces a tricky path to solid economic ground.
“We will start with the IMF this is not a choice it is something we have to go through,” he said in a speech, before votes were taken.
To unlock aid and turn around the economy, his government must succeed where numerous forerunners have failed in delivering politically difficult reforms, including measures to address corruption and waste.
While some doubt whether Mikati can achieve much, with parliamentary elections scheduled for next Spring to be followed by a change of government, others think the gravity of the crisis may lead to some reforms.
Mikati’s government was finally agreed after a year of political conflict over cabinet seats that worsened the crisis.
Its draft policy programme said it would renew and develop a financial recovery plan drawn up by the previous government, which set out a shortfall in the financial system of some $90 billion – a figure endorsed by the IMF.
The plan was shot down by Lebanon’s political elite and the banking system, helping to kill off IMF talks last year.
Lebanon’s financial system unravelled in late 2019. The root cause was decades of profligate state spending and the unsustainable way in which it was financed.
Wealthy Gulf states, which had traditionally channelled funds into Lebanon, have been reluctant to come to its rescue for years, alarmed by the influence of Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
Mikati has pledged to bring Lebanon back into the Arab fold but he faces a delicate balancing act, with Hezbollah last week successfully bringing in a first shipment of Iranian fuel oil to alleviate the power shortages.
On Friday, Mikati, whose government includes Hezbollah-backed ministers, said the Iranian fuel was a breach of his country’s sovereignty.