Lebanon News

Making gasoline policy by telephone

“Keep up the pressure! You’re in a good negotiating position!”

These were the encouraging words by a union official as he expressed his support, over the telephone, to his colleagues in the country’s taxi driver confederations, as they spent a long day negotiating with government officials to avoid a one-day strike Thursday.

The union official had earlier paid a visit to one minister involved in the gasoline price negotiations, and completed a telephone call to another minister, also involved in the multi-sided “negotiation process,” such as it is.

The union official described the gasoline price saga as an example of cost-of-living problems putting pressure on union leaders to act, while dismissing any notion that the latest labor-related crisis was being manipulated by political leaders.

“It’s simply that taxi and service drivers are under pressure from their base,” the official said, while adding that union leaders were failing to act with any long-term vision. “They’re acting in their own interests, just to secure a government subsidy,” the official continued. “Instead, they should be trying to get an across-the-board reduction in gasoline prices, which would benefit everyone, not just a tiny percentage of the population.”

“They’re thinking about the small amount of money each driver could put in his pocket.” But the households of taxi drivers, the official said, contain more than one car in most cases.

“They should be thinking that a general fuel price reduction would mean more money for the driver, and his wife, and his son, and daughter and so on – whoever has a car would be benefiting.”

The problem is that an across-the-board reduction, as proposed by caretaker Energy Minister Gibran Bassil, would be seen as a “victory” for the minister and his party, the Free Patriotic Movement.

A few months ago, Bassil reduced gasoline prices by LL5,000 per 20 liters, and is championing a second reduction, of nearly the same amount.

Ironically, Baabda Palace – occupied by Michel Aoun’s rival President Michel Sleiman – has seemed amenable to the across-the-board price cut.

“But it would be interpreted as Sleiman supporting something championed by Aoun,” the official said.

Meanwhile, a number of ministers have been involved in negotiating the gas price issue – mostly by telephone calls to the various sides – and most support the subsidy for drivers that is supported by Raya al-Hasan, the March 14 caretaker minister of finance.

Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri is in Riyadh, while caretaker Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi is in Paris, and both have been involved in the mediation efforts by telephone. Caretaker Minister Butros Harb has also been active, along with Baabda Palace.

The official said whatever the drivers’ confederations decide, their strategy would probably backfire. For one reason, any agreement to provide a subsidy to drivers might be taken away after a certain period of time, under the pretext that the government can’t afford it.

“Of course, it’s a bit ridiculous to be giving a subsidy to the private sector, represented by the drivers. What they should be doing is giving a subsidy to the private sector, to pay for things like a decent system of public transport.”

The official blamed the taxi drivers as well, despite his words of support for them as they conducted their negotiations.

“A big problem is that service prices aren’t going to rise above LL2,000, even if they get what they want. They’ve locked themselves in to this rate, no matter what happens to fuel prices later on,” he said.

With the government in caretaker status, and the political divide between rival parties preventing officials from holding comprehensive discussions on energy and fuel policies, the country limps on, from crisis to crisis, as mediation efforts take place via telephone and meetings with individual ministers.

The official said several suggestions floated by officials, such as selling gasoline at reduced prices to drivers, or providing them with a subsidy, weren’t exactly feasible or wise.

“You would have to install a huge supervision and control apparatus, which the country lacks. Who is going to confirm that a driver who receives government assistance is actually working full-time in the first place?” he asked.

“Oops – I have to take this call,” the official said. “It’s Baabda Palace.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 19, 2011, on page 2.

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