BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Parliament passed the 2018 state budget after 50 MPs voted in favor while two opposed the bill following a marathon session.
11 lawmakers including Hezbollah MPs abstained from the vote as the government sought to finalize the budget ahead of the Paris IV donor conference next week.
The state budget has been marred by controversy, with some contesting its constitutionality as the previous years' accounts have yet to be audited.
Lebanon’s constitution stipulates that previous years’ accounts must be audited before passing a new budget, a requirement that has been bypassed for both the 2017 and 2018 budgets.
On Wednesday, MPs concluded the first of round of budget discussions, yet failed to approve the bill due to a lack of quorum.
Kataeb leader and MP Sami Gemayel said the budget could not be passed over a lack of quorum, with reports indicating that the heads of parliamentary blocs had been in contact with their MPs in an effort to secure the requisite number of votes.
Speaking at the beginning of Thursday's session, Prime Minister Saad Hariri urged his fellow lawmakers to put aside their political differences in order to pass the budget.
“It is true that the budget is in violation of Article 87 of the constitution, yet it is an achievement nonetheless,” he said.
Cabinet has put forth a draft budget within 15 days, seen as a prerequisite for Lebanese officials vying to secure pledges at the upcoming donor conference in Paris on April 6.
“Why are we being criticized for completing the budget in such a short period of time?” Hariri asked.
While in Paris, Lebanese officials will seek to raise over 16 billion dollars for a 12-year investment program, as Lebanon’s economy continues to reel under the burden of the refugee crisis.
The country’s debt has risen to an all-time high, with its deficit estimated at LBP 8 trillion, signifying a hindrance to officials’ objective in Paris.
Earlier this month, both Hariri and Finance Minister Hassan Ali Khalil assured that the 2018 budget includes cuts that would decrease the deficit by LBP 220 billion compared to 2017, adding that no new taxes would be introduced. "The 2018 budget includes numerous reforms and incentives for different sectors needed to curb our deficit," Hariri said on March 12.
Yet Hariri maintained that Lebanon "is not broke", even though "we have found it difficult to pay back what has been lent to us."
Lebanon's economic struggles have hit an all-time high in recent weeks, becoming the world's third most-indebted country as the government revenue fails to keep pace with spending.
"The projects we are presenting in Paris have been on the books for a long time but have yet to be implemented," He said, before telling those gathered that the "international community is on our side."
Addressing the country's unbridled plight with corruption, which has bled the state's coffers, Hariri vowed to "hold those accountable, yet no one has put forth a name," he said.
Lebanon continued to slip down Transparency International's corruption ranking this year, coming in at 143rd of 180 countries, reflecting the increasingly dire state of the economy and declining governance.
"If anyone shows me evidence of a corrupt official, I will refer him to the judiciary, even if they're part of the Future Movement," he said. "If you have information please come forward."
By Thursday midday, Speaker Nabih Berri reportedly ordered that the chambers be locked to ensure that MPs vote on the draft budget by the end of the day.
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