Decision time for Lebanese law makers over pay increases

Published March 21st, 2013 - 11:47 GMT
Zero hour for wage hike quandary
Zero hour for wage hike quandary

The Cabinet meets Thursday under the shadow of a month-long public sector strike and is expected to meet protesters’ demands, but a dispute over the parliamentary elections law might derail the long-awaited session.

Political sources downplayed the possibility that the government would collapse over the election law dispute, while the potentially divisive issue of relations with Syria will also loom large during the session.

The sources said ministers would likely endorse the new salary scale demanded by the strikers, who are scheduled to mount a huge rally near Baabda Palace, where the session will be chaired by President Michel Sleiman.

Ministers are expected to ratify the draft law and send it to Parliament to defuse the strike, although the legislation stipulates that the raise be paid in installments. The total cost of the hike for this year is estimated at LL867 billion, rising to LL1.89 trillion in 2018.

Some ministers, however, said they expected the topic to require a further follow-up session. The meeting has two items on the agenda, the salary hike and appointments to a body to supervise the parliamentary elections.

Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi told The Daily Star that he didn’t expect the government to collapse over the simmering dispute over the parliamentary elections, tentatively scheduled for June.

Qortbawi said ministers from the March 8 camp were determined to vote against the naming of experts to a committee to oversee the elections if it was brought to a vote. March 8 groups want to block the move, which they believe signals an official step to proceed with the polls based on the current election law, which they reject.

Qortbawi and the March 8 ministers are relying on a Justice Ministry legal brief that argues the 2009 polls were held on the basis of a law that was meant to function “one time only.”

The brief, written by Qortbawi, notes that there are two points of view on the matter, but that the majority upheld the one-time-only argument.

Ministerial sources from the pro-Sleiman faction downplayed the notion that the government would resign over the split on how to proceed with the elections.

“What happened in Rome means this isn’t an option, because the Maronite patriarch should be given enough time to conduct contacts with Christian politicians,” one source commented, referring to last week’s meeting among Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Environment Minister Nazem Khoury and Patriarch Beshara Rai, who sought to forge a new agreement over an election law.

Parliament’s Joint Committees have endorsed the controversial Orthodox Gathering election plan, which would see each sect select its own MPs, but Sleiman has vowed to challenge the constitutionality of such legislation.

A source close to Sleiman said the president would refuse to suspend the session if the debate grew heated.

“If the March 8 parties walk out, then they will be responsible for blocking the work of the government and causing paralysis in the country,” the source said.

The government has no option but to solve the impasse over the elections, the source continued, because a caretaker Cabinet could not oversee the polls.

Political sources believe that the patriarch will likely convene a meeting of leading Christian figures Friday to discuss the election law.

Also, politicians are busy studying ways to justify a delay in the elections, with several scenarios currently in play. Sources close to Sleiman said one of these would involve declaring the government’s inability to involve Lebanese in the diaspora in the polls, while another would see the elections called off if fewer than 128 people register their candidacies.

The government could also decline to fund the polls by refusing to transfer money to the Interior Ministry, the sources said.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s tense relations with Syria will provide another potentially divisive issue for the Cabinet.

Sleiman condemned Tuesday a Syrian airstrike in the northeastern Bekaa Valley from one day earlier, and favored sending an official note of protest to Damascus over the incident, while Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry rejected the notion that the airstrikes had taken place, echoing official denials by the Syrian regime.

During Wednesday’s session of the Cabinet, chaired by Mikati, the prime minister said he would ask Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour to follow up on the matter, temporarily defusing the brewing controversy.

Neither Sleiman nor Mansour attended the session. The Syrian strikes might be discussed from outside the Cabinet’s official agenda Thursday. Hezbollah ministers have demanded that Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty be tackled with the same amount of importance.

Several rockets from the Syrian side of the border Wednesday struck near a border town in Hermel.

The five 107-mm rockets fell at around 10 a.m. just west of the border town of Al-Qasr, some 10 kilometers inside Lebanese territory. At around 5:30 p.m. another rocket from the Syrian side of the border fell in the same area.

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