BEIRUT: A parliamentary debate on Lebanon’s 2024 draft budget broke out into a row on Wednesday, with MPs accusing the government of “starving citizens” and promoting corruption.
The parliament’s General Assembly began discussion on the budget after the government’s initial version was radically amended by the Finance and Budget Committee.
The opening of the session — which was broadcast live and attended by members of the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati — was marked by heated argument.
About 40 out of 128 MPs requested to speak, revealing deep parliamentary divisions.
An argument broke out between reformist MP Melhem Khalaf and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Khalaf objected to the passing of legislation in the absence of a president — which has affected Lebanon for more than 15 months — demanding that the session be turned into a presidential election debate.
The MP stormed out of the hall, warning: “I will not violate the constitution.”
Another row also took place between MP Ali Hassan Khalil (Amal Movement) and reformist MP Firas Hamdan. Khalil described Hamdan as “insignificant” and labeled the reformist MP bloc a “mafia group.”
In response, reformist MP Paula Yacoubian accused Khalil of hypocrisy, saying: “You are wanted for justice in the port explosion case, and you talk about mafias.”
Chairman of the Finance and Budget Committee, MP Ibrahim Kanaan, said that the draft budget “lacks economic and social vision, has insufficient allocations for capital expenditures, and is characterized by randomness in introducing taxes and fees, as well as in some allocations.”
He added: “The finance committee has rejected articles related to tax amendments and the introduction of new taxes and fees, citing constitutional violations.”
Kanaan said: “The lack of vision coincides with the absence of unity of standards in the proposed amendments to existing fees.
“Some fees were raised tenfold, such as traffic fees, while others saw an increase by 40 times, such as fiscal stamp fees, and others were raised by 180 times, such as fees on locally produced alcoholic beverages.
“The Finance Committee removed Article 10, which allowed covering the interest of development loans after it became clear the extent of the favoritism in the loan allocation process. The governor of the Bank of Lebanon was the only person to report on it. There is a lack of knowledge regarding the recipients and details of the subsidized loans.”
Lebanon’s deputy speaker of parliament, Elias Bou Saab, said: “If we had not discussed this budget, we would have returned to the 2022 budget.”
A financial source told Arab News: “The draft budget drawn up by the caretaker government was based on taxes, and revenues were hidden in the project, and this allows for waste and corruption.”
The source added: “The state’s expenses amount to $2 billion a year, most of which are salaries for state employees, military agencies and public services. This is because Lebanon has stopped paying its foreign debts and limited its expenses to basic supplies. Therefore, the revenues of its facilities, especially the port, for example, can cover these expenses.”
Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Justice Committee, MP George Adwan, warned during the debate that the draft budget would fail to “settle the bills,” and that “accounts were not completed within the specified deadline.”
Adwan highlighted “the crises of the lack of accountability, the burden posed by Syrian asylum in Lebanon, the non-independence of the judiciary, and the failure to see any judge being questioned in the file of the former governor of the Bank of Lebanon, Riad Salameh.”
He warned that the draft document would result in “67 percent of taxes affecting the general public and only a small percentage for the wealthy.”
MP Jamil Al-Sayyed said: “This budget seeks to take the money from the citizen’s pocket, while we are a corpse on the side of the road and the state is a corpse on the road to disintegration.”
Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah used the debate to turn attention to the violence on Lebanon’s southern border.
He said: “Israel was preparing a preemptive strike on Lebanon before the Al-Aqsa Flood. Hezbollah is committed to the right of self-defense and the right of the Lebanese to resist the occupation, according to the ministerial statement of successive governments.”
Opposition MP Michel Moawad described the budget as a project to “starve the citizen and strike the legitimate private sector in favor of smuggling champions.”
He said the document was a “budget of beating public sector employees and state institutions in favor of clientelism.”
In response to Fadlallah’s statement on the south, Moawad said: “The war can turn into a comprehensive war at any moment. That will destroy all of Lebanon, and the Lebanese are left unable to determine their fate.”
In September, the caretaker government approved the 2024 draft budget. Prime Minister Najib Mikati said at the time that it was “the first draft budget to be approved on time as per the constitution since 2002.”
Since 2019, Lebanon has witnessed an economic collapse that the World Bank has classified as “among the worst in the world,” with the local currency losing about 95 percent of its value.