BEIRUT — Parliament approved the 2022 budget with a 63-vote majority Monday night, a little more than three months before the end of the year.
According to the National News Agency, 37 MPs voted against the budget while six abstained.
A spokesperson for Berri's office told L'Orient Today that the parliamentary blocs and MPs who voted in favor of the budget include Hezbollah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement, Tashnag, the National Moderation Bloc (former Future Movement MPs), two MPs with the Progressive Socialist Movement, as well as independents Michel al-Murr, Imad al-Hout, Melhem Tawk and Tony Frangieh.
Those who voted against the budget include the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb party, Forces of Change MPs, as well as independents Osama Saad, Charbel Masaad, Abdel Rahman Bizri and Michel Moawad.
Six MPs abstained from the vote: Adnan Trabolsi, Taha Naji, Ashraf Rifi, Jamil al-Sayed, Faisal al-Sayegh and PSP's Marwan Hamadeh.
The head of the Finance and Budget Committee, Ibrahim Kanaan, told L'Orient Today that the exchange rate used to calculate the budget was set at LL15,000, though it is still unclear how the rate is applied. The International Monetary Fund previously demanded that the calculations be based on Banque du Liban's Sayrafa platform rate, which was LL29,800 to the dollar as of Monday evening.
Reuters reported that the budget expenditures amount to a little less than LL41 trillion while revenues amount to a little less than LL30 trillion. The yearly deficit is therefore slightly over LL10 trillion.
The salaries of public employees — including security forces, retirees and contractors — were increased threefold by Parliament, provided each raise ranges between LL5 million and LL12 million.
According to the NNA, these salary increases are a temporary solution and will not be calculated into employees' end-of-term compensations.
Earlier, Parliament approved an exemption of military pensions from income tax, according to NNA. The MPs also extended on Monday the law issued after the Aug. 2020 Beirut port blast aimed at protecting heritage buildings that were damaged by the explosion for two additional years, the state-run National News Agency reported.
According to the NNA, Law No. 194/2020, which safeguards and bans the selling and demolition of heritage buildings affected by the Beirut blast, was extended at the request of caretaker Culture Minister Muhammad Wissam al-Mortada.
Nine months behind, third meeting to vote on budget
The MPs met to adopt the annual state budget, which should have been finalized by the end of 2021 or at the latest the beginning of 2022, constitutionally. The adoption of a budget is one of the reforms required by the International Monetary Fund to release $3 billion in aid over four years to help lift Lebanon's financial crisis.
The first in a three-day series of sessions was originally scheduled for Sept. 14 but was postponed due to a lack of quorum. The Sept. 15 meeting was marked by speeches from several deputies, and on Sept. 16 MPs attempted to make a vote.
During that last session, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati proposed to adopt a rate of LL15,000 to the dollar in order to calculate the budget, and to allow the government to modify that rate later. The proposal spurred several MPs to leave the session, torpedoing quorum. Before the meeting was adjourned, the deputies had only dealt with the second article of the 2022 budget, which dealt with expenditures. The next meeting was postponed until Monday, Sept. 26.
At the beginning of the parliamentary session, dozens of demonstrators gathered in front of the Parliament building to protest against the adoption of the 2022 budget.
Among the protesters were retired military personnel demanding improved retirement conditions amid the country’s economic crisis.
Demonstrators pushed their way close to the Lebanese Parliament building in downtown Beirut Monday morning to protest against the potential adoption of the 2022 draft budget, which MPs are scheduled to vote on today, local TV channels reported.
Less than an hour after the start of the session, local television showed demonstrators, including retired soldiers demanding an improvement in their retirement conditions, pushing their way through an entrance blocked by security forces leading to Nejmeh Square, where Parliament is located. Police and soldiers were seen launching tear gas toward the protesters.
Local TV channel LBCI's footage showed MP Jamil Sayyed among the crowd in front of the Parliament, visibly affected by tear gas fumes. Forces of Change MP Cynthia Zarazir left the parliamentary session to join the protesters, according to Al Jadeed TV channel footage.
Caretaker Defense Minister Maurice Slim left the Parliament to address the military retirees who have been protesting since the morning. "We have decided today that the salary [of the military] will be multiplied by three, at least. But the technical details are left to the competent financial authorities," he told local media. Slim also defended the military's record of providing aid to retirees saying "we have asked for the maximum" in their favor. Earlier this month, Slim announced that he would increase the military's transport allowances to LL1,800,000 per month.
'Parliament and I are not subject to the IMF'
Speaking during the session, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, MP for Batroun, lamented "a lack of seriousness" in dealing with the 2022 budget. "We want clear figures. The Finance Ministry's report does not include all figures, and today the government came forward with new figures for each ministry," he said.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said during the Monday session that "the IMF is committed to closing the deficit after the agreement, otherwise we will see inflation," according to local media outlets. Berri reportedly responded: "Parliament and I are not subject to the IMF or anyone else ... The Parliament is sovereign. What we are doing today is to avoid what happened outside," continued Berri, referring to the protests around the Parliament building.
"All the incomes mentioned [in the budget] are unrealistic," said Kataeb leader Samy Gemayel on the sidelines of the parliamentary session. "The increase in salaries will only activate the money printing press and increase inflation, thus decreasing purchasing power."
He denounced a "lack of reflection on the reforms" and what he termed a "collective suicide operation" by legalizing tax evasion and the parallel economy through the budget vote.
"We decided to attend the session to show the unity of the opposition," Gemayel added.
Passing a budget is one of the reforms required by the International Monetary Fund to release $3 billion in aid over four years to help lift the country’s unprecedented financial crisis.
Last week, an IMF delegation led by Ernesto Ramirez-Rigo visited the country for three days and left with a critical assessment of the economic situation. The delegation said in a statement that, “despite the urgency,” little progress has been made to implement the necessary reforms, some of which were listed in the April 7 preliminary agreement between Lebanon and the organization.
No budget was passed by Parliament for the year 2021, and the delay in passing the 2022 budget law does not bode well for the passage of the 2023 budget.
Monday’s meeting takes place as some banks decided to resume work after more than a week of closure due to the holdups earlier this month. On Sunday afternoon, a banking source confirmed to L'Orient-Le Jour that at least one bank has armed its security staff, while another has hired a private armed protection company.