Rival factions Tuesday engaged in horse-trading and jockeying for key ministerial portfolios as Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stepped up his efforts to form a Cabinet of specialists to enact reforms.
Hariri met with President Michel Aoun for the third time in four days, in a move underlining the premier-designate’s intention to hasten the formation of a new government made up of nonpartisan experts as he had pledged. Such a government would be tasked with implementing a string of structural economic and administrative reforms outlined in the French initiative designed to steer the crises-ridden country out of its catastrophic economic and financial crunch, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Hariri, who had met twice with Aoun over the weekend since he was designated for the premiership with a parliamentary majority of 65 MPs last week, did not speak to reporters after the 45-minute meeting with the president at Baabda Palace.
“Aoun and Hariri agreed to follow up on the progress that had been made in the Cabinet formation process,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star. The source did not give further details, apparently in line with the shroud of secrecy imposed by the presidential palace and Hariri on the Cabinet formation efforts.
Aoun and Hariri reviewed the “Cabinet situation in an atmosphere of understanding on the progress that has been made in the process of forming a new government,” the state-run National News Agency said.
“The Cabinet formation bid so far appears to be on the right track. The positive atmosphere in the Cabinet formation process that has begun since Hariri’s designation is boosting hopes for the formation of a new government soon,” a political source familiar with the process told The Daily Star Tuesday.
The source said that in their meetings since Hariri’s re-appointment to the premiership, his fourth in the last decade, the president and the premier-designate had resolved the rift over the size of the next Cabinet.
“The next Cabinet will be made up of 18 or 20 specialists who do not belong to political parties,” the source said.
While Hariri preferred a small 14-member Cabinet of nonpartisan experts in line with the French initiative, Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Hezbollah were pushing for an expanded Cabinet of 20 or 22 members, arguing that each minister should be assigned only one ministerial portfolio.
“What needs to be addressed now is the issue of the rotation of the sectarian leadership of the three remaining "sovereign ministries" -- Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs – and the distribution of the other coveted ministerial portfolios among the political forces,” the source said.
The issue of the Finance Ministry, one of the four so-called sovereign ministries, had been settled after Hariri earlier said he agreed to assigning it to the Shiite sect only for one time – a key demand of the two main Shiite groups, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
Yet, Hariri needs to resolve the problem of Christian representation with Aoun, a thorny issue that delayed the Cabinet formation in the past.
As the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party have opted to stay out of the next government, the distribution of key and low-ranking ministerial portfolios allotted to the Christian sect should be divided among the president’s share, the Free Patriotic Movement led by MP Gebran Bassil and the Marada Movement headed by Sleiman Frangieh.
In tandem with Hariri’s intensified flurry of activity to quickly form the government, rival factions appeared to be locked in a fierce jockeying to acquire key ministries.
The Progressive Socialist Party headed by Walid Joumblatt, who had previously said the PSP’s parliamentary bloc would not nominate Hariri but later supported his return to the premiership after the premier-designate telephoned Joumblatt, is seeking to acquire the Health Ministry, currently held by a minister affiliated with Hezbollah, local media said.
Hezbollah is seeking to either retain hold of the Health Ministry or be allotted the Public Works Ministry, media reports said.
Similarly, Bassil, who heads the FPM’s Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest Christian bloc in Parliament, is reportedly seeking to retain hold of the Energy Ministry, which has been controlled by FPM ministers for more than 10 years.
MP Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party and a Druze rival of Joumblatt, met Tuesday with Aoun at Baabda Palace, discussing the Cabinet situation, the NNA said. Arslan, whose four-member bloc is an ally of Bassil’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc, did not nominate Hariri for prime minister as did Bassil’s bloc, the LF bloc and Hezbollah’s bloc.
Arslan’s visit to Aoun appeared to be aimed at securing a ministerial post for his bloc in the face of Joumblatt’s push for a key ministry.
Bassil, who has called after an ice-breaking meeting with Hariri Friday for the formation of a techno-political government that would include independent specialists and political figures, Tuesday renewed his request for the adoption of unified criteria in the Cabinet formation.
“The bloc stressed that priority be given to the swift Cabinet formation in order to rescue the financial and economic situation and implement the reform program contained in the French initiative as the first part of the comprehensive reform program,” said a statement issued after an electronic meeting of the Strong Lebanon bloc chaired by Bassil.
“The bloc affirmed its commitment to facilitate to the maximum degree the Cabinet formation and the unity and justness of criteria toward all blocs and components,” the statement said. The bloc was clearly referring to the two Shiite groups’ request to name Shiite members of the new Cabinet.
The bloc said it was betting on the success of the ongoing consultations between the president and the premier-designate on the Cabinet formation in “respecting the National Pact’s criteria and the Constitution and appointing ministers capable of implementing the reform program quickly.”
Hezbollah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem said his party was ready to facilitate the government formation.
“We hope the government will be formed at the earliest time and to gain the confidence of the broadest segments and parliamentary blocs,” Qassem said in a statement carried by the NNA Tuesday.
“We are positive and open to the steps that will finalize the government formation on the basis of an economic, financial and social rescue program that will put an end to the rise of [of the dollar], restrain the soaring prices, benefit from the international support in the framework of reforms, close the sources of corruption, recover the looted and smuggled money ... and deal with the health problem resulting from the coronavirus,” he added.
Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab submitted his Cabinet’s resignation on Aug. 10 following the deadly explosion that devastated Beirut Port.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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