Lebanon government wins confidence vote as Parliament hit by power cut

Cabinet won the vote with a majority of 85 to 15

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati attends a plenary session of Parliament at the Unesco Palace in Beirut. EPA
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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 out due to power shortages.

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 began, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri urged Mr Mikati to keep his remarks short because of the power cuts, part of a nationwide energy crisis which has disrupted 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,” Mr Mikati said, as he read out the programme.

“Let's not bother and read it all out. Let's save time because of the electricity issue,” Mr Berri, head of the Shiite Amal movement, told the Sunni Muslim prime minister.

Nevertheless, the session lasted 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 to 15.

Mr 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 the economy around, 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 Mr 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.

Mr Mikati's government was finally agreed upon 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 the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah.

Mr 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.

Updated: September 20, 2021, 8:12 PM