Incumbent Lebanese PM keeps post as economic crisis deepens

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati won the support of more than 50 legislators Thursday to keep his post following last month’s parliamentary elections as the country’s multiple crises deepen with no solution in sight.

After a day of binding consultations between President Michel Aoun and parliamentary blocs, Mikati was named by 54 lawmakers while his main rival for the post got less than half that figure. Forty-six legislators abstained from naming anyone.

The new government’s main mission will be to continue talks with the International Monetary Fund over an economic recovery plan for Lebanon, which is in the grips of the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history.

The nearly three-year-old economic meltdown — rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon’s ruling class — has been only getting worse with no serious steps taken to start getting the country out of its problems. The economy has been shrinking, power cuts last for much of the day and most people have no access to their savings in banks.

“Without a deal with the International Monetary Fund there will be no opportunities for salvation. This (deal) is the main gate for salvation” Mikati said after he was chosen, adding that “we will not let Lebanon collapse.”

“We are now facing the challenge of total collapse or gradual salvation,” Mikati said . He said he extends his hand “to everyone without exception. The nation needs our arms.”

In April, Lebanon and the IMF reached a tentative agreement for comprehensive economic policies that could eventually pave the way for some relief for the country after Beirut implements wide-ranging reforms.

The staff level agreement between Lebanon and the IMF listed five “key pillars” that should be implemented, including restructuring the financial sector, implementing fiscal reforms, and the proposed restructuring of external public debt, anti-corruption and anti-money laundering efforts.

Mikati said his government will continue talks with the IMF adding that the deal reached in April could be used as a roadmap.

Mikati was widely expected to get the largest support from legislators to form a new Cabinet that will be in power until the end of October when Aoun’s six-year term expires. Such a short tenure could make it difficult for the billionaire premier to form a Cabinet since it usually takes months to form a government in Lebanon due to political bickering.

The other candidate for the post was Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nawaf Salam, who is backed by independents, the nationalist Kataeb Party and the bloc backed by Druze leader Walid Joumblatt. Salam was chosen by 25 legislators.

Mikati had the backing of the powerful Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group and its Shiite ally, the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, as well as some Sunni legislators.

The two largest Christian blocs, the Saudi-backed Lebanese Forces party and the bloc of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, did not name anyone.

“We chose not to name anyone because we are not for choosing Prime Minister Mikati since it will be difficult to form a government during this short period,” said Gebran Bassil, who heads the movement.

Mikati’s previous government, which was formed in September, became a caretaker Cabinet after the May 15 parliamentary elections that gave the majority of the legislature’s seats to mainstream political groups blamed for decades of corruption and mismanagement that led to the economic meltdown.

Last month’s vote for the 128-member legislature also saw Hezbollah and its allies lose majority seats in parliament that they had held since 2018.

Since the economic meltdown that began in October 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and many have left the small nation of 6 million, which includes 1 million Syrian refugees.

Lebanon’s crisis was made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and a massive blast in August 2020 that killed more than 200, injured thousands and destroyed Beirut’s port and damaged parts of the country’s capital.

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