Lebanon News

Communication intensifies over Cabinet formation

More than a week after the elections, contact between the heads of major parliamentary blocs is deepening as the contentious issue of government formation moves to the fore. Before those consultations take their course, the new Parliament will convene later this month to elect a new speaker, the day after the current Parliament’s mandate expires.

It’s almost certain that Speaker Nabih Berri will be re-elected to his post, which he has held since 1992. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s tenure as the head of government also seems a near-certainty. Parliamentary sources with knowledge of the consultations told The Daily Star that discussions were focused on ensuring Berri is elected by an absolute majority, if not unanimously, to the post of speaker. Though the support of the Future Movement and Hezbollah for Berri is certain, a unanimous agreement on Berri would require improved relations between the Free Patriotic Movement – set to form the largest parliamentary bloc with its allies – and the speaker’s Amal Movement.

The two parties have been embroiled in a monthslong feud that can be traced back to the election of President Michel Aoun in 2016, which was opposed by Berri. The FPM has not said whether its MPs would cast their ballots for the speaker in the upcoming vote, but reports suggest they may abstain or cast ballots against him.

FPM parliamentary sources told The Daily Star that discussions with Berri over the speaker position would have to include serious back-and-forth on ministerial portfolios, so as to prevent surprises later on. Berri is expected to form alliances with opponents of the FPM in the Marada Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party and potentially even the Lebanese Forces, a move sure to weaken the FPM’s negotiating power.

In a bid to achieve a rapprochement between Amal and FPM, parliamentary sources said General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim was acting as a mediator, shuttling surreptitiously between the two poles. Ibrahim was having difficulty aligning the two sides with a solution that satisfies everyone, the sources said.

They did not rule out a meeting between FPM leader Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, in a further bid to reconcile the FPM and Amal. Hezbollah and the FPM have been allied since 2006 – when they signed a memorandum of understanding known as the Mar Mikhail agreement – while Amal is a major ally of the Iran-backed group.

Although uncertainty prevails on this issue, sources said it would be crucial to make headway on improving the relationship in order to prevent a prolonged political crisis, which they said would serve neither the interests of the president nor any party.

With regards to the formation of government, some parliamentary blocs have begun raising the stakes. According to sources, the Lebanese Forces has asked for five out of the around fifteen ministries of those earmarked for Christians.

Sources involved in government formation said the LF had the right to four ministries, and that the LF would potentially agree to this number. The LF has already publicly voiced its ambition to secure the Energy Ministry, currently held by the FPM, while FPM’s Bassil has dismissed this goal.

Observers say that the Marada Movement’s three-MP bloc – along with their alliance with incoming independent MP Farid Haykal-Khazen – would be able to secure one Christian ministry, maintaining their current share.

FPM sources said that the FPM and President Aoun, who founded the party, would seek to take all the remaining Christian ministries. Aoun would reportedly make an exception to let go of two Christian ministers if they were replaced with both a Sunni and a Shiite minister.

Hariri will likely sweep the Sunni ministries, given that he has the largest bloc of Sunnis in Parliament, with 20 MPs. Despite losing more than ten seats in the recent elections, the premier is still the undisputed Sunni leader.

Sources said that if Ibrahim is successful in persuading Berri to relinquish the Finance Ministry from the hold of his close aide Ali Hasan Khalil, it would make it easier for the position to be retained in the Shiite sphere of influence.

Berri has insisted the ministry be held by a Shiite in the new government, saying this was stipulated in the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War.

There were few real concerns over an impasse between Hezbollah and Amal over ministerial portfolios, sources said, given the parties’ closeness.

Recent developments in Syria involving Iran and Israel – and Hezbollah’s possible involvement in these developments – may be a potentially major consideration outside the realm of internal political power play, political sources said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2018, on page 2.

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