Lebanon Parliament Passes 2020 Budget amid Protests
Lebanon's parliament on Monday passed the 2020 budget, state media said, as the debt-saddled country struggles to redress a plummeting economy and address anti-establishment protests.
Dozens of protesters tried to prevent lawmakers from attending the session and some threw stones at police who retaliated with tear gas to disperse them and carried out arrests, an AFP journalist said.
Lebanon has since October 17 been gripped by a cross-sectarian street movement that toppled the government and created a three-month political vacuum until a new cabinet was announced last week.
The Mediterranean country committed in 2018 to slashing public spending as part of reforms to unlock more than $11 billion in desperately needed international aid.
The new budget aims to reduce deficit to around 7 percent of gross domestic product, parliament budget committee chairman Ibrahim Kanaan said.
That would be only a tiny drop from the planned deficit of almost 7.6 percent of GDP for last year, after a shortfall of 11.2 percent in 2018.
The last government had promised a deficit of just 0.6 percent for 2020, but Kanaan said that was now impossible as the unravelling economic crisis had caused projected revenues for the year to decrease.
In recent months, thousands of Lebanese have been laid off or seen their salaries slashed as the value of the Lebanese pound has fallen by more than a third on the parallel exchange market.
Only 70 of the 128 members of parliament attended Monday's vote, just days after Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his new team, the state-run National News Agency said.
The budget was passed with 49 lawmakers in favor, 13 against, and eight abstaining, the agency said.
Diab, who attended the session but whose cabinet still needs to be approved by the legislature, said his team would not hamper the budget prepared by the former government.
Kanaan however said the new cabinet could carry out amendments.
Some parties boycotted the session, with critics arguing that the government should have presented its policy statement, won a vote of confidence in parliament and then presented the budget itself.
Some protesters have rejected the new cabinet and accuse the political elite of ignoring demands that include an independent government and fighting corruption.
"After more than 100 days in the streets, we can see that this government is the same as before, it didn’t hear our demands," said Hassan Noureddine, 30, among several dozen protesters in central Beirut.
The protesters have been demonstrating for more than three months against the ruling elite that has run the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The protesters have rejected the new 20-member government.
The protest movement broke out on Oct. 17 over government plans to impose new taxes. Protest organizers say the movement will not accept anything less that the resignation of the ruling elite, who they blame for widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Lebanon has one of the world's highest public debts in the world, standing at more than 150% of gross domestic product. Growth has plummeted and the budget deficit reached 11% of GDP in 2018 as economic activities slowed and remittances from Lebanese living abroad shrank.
The national currency that has been pegged to the dollar since 1997 lost about 60% of its value in recent weeks, raising alarms among many Lebanese who have been losing their purchase power.