BEIRUT — Lebanon’s parliament Tuesday voted to extend the terms of local officials, paving the way to postpone municipal elections for up to a year for a second time. Some lawmakers were concerned the government wouldn’t be able to secure the needed funding in time for polling.
The likely delay came as Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure continue to crumble, with legislators in the deeply divided parliament unable to reach a settlement to end a presidential vacuum for almost six months.
Lebanon’s municipal elections were originally slated for May last year but were postponed for a year because they coincided with parliamentary elections, which brought in a dozen reformist lawmakers running on anti-establishment platforms. Tuesday’s vote extended the terms of local officials by another year,
Opposition and reformist groups would likely continue this momentum and win additional seats if local elections were held, as living conditions across the country continue to deteriorate. They have called for municipal elections to take place as planned in May, and most have boycotted parliament’s session.
Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government for nearly a year as Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a caretaker Cabinet with limited functions. The country has also been in a severe economic crisis since late 2019, with three-quarters of the population now living in poverty.
Riot police lobbed tear gas Tuesday at hundreds of protesting retired soldiers who broke down a barbed wire fence near government headquarters in downtown Beirut as the Cabinet met. Protesters burned tires as scores of riot police and army soldiers surrounded the area.
Retired military personnel have frequently protested the country’s dire economic conditions and wage and pension hikes that are adjusted to the country’s soaring inflation.
Before the value of the national currency started spiraling in late 2019, the country’s monthly minimum wage was 675,000 pounds — about $450 dollars — but today is worth less than $7.
Mikati’s Cabinet on Tuesday agreed to increase the private sector’s minimum monthly wage from 2.6 million to 9 million pounds, worth $92.50 at the country’s black market rate, which dominates the market. They also raised the exchange rate used for calculating customs fees from 30,000 pounds to the dollar to the central bank’s Sayrafa platform, where the dollar is valued at 86,700 pounds.
Meanwhile, top political groups and leaders continue to quarrel. Mikati’s government and various major political groups in parliament, notably the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, have accused each other of stalling the securing of funding and logistics that caused the delay.
“If you really didn’t want to postpone municipal elections, why did you attend today’s session and secure a quorum?” The prime minister said at parliament in a heated dispute with several parliamentarians.
Just 65 of Lebanon’s 128 lawmakers attended, the bare minimum needed for a legislative session to secure a quorum.
Earlier this month, caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, whose ministry oversees elections, said Lebanon was ready to hold timely municipal elections, and that he had secured funding from the European Union and the United Nations to ease the burden on the country’s shoestring budget.
Both the EU and the U.N. have urged the crisis-hit country to hold elections on time. However, legislators have yet to pass a draft law that would secure an advance to the Interior Ministry.
Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab said in a parliamentary committee session on funding that holding the vote on time would be “impossible” and added that Mawlawi’s representative had told lawmakers they could not secure the funds despite the interior minister’s claims.
Lebanon’s last municipal elections in 2016 saw low voter turnout. In Beirut, local media reported a 20% voter turnout, whereas 48% of voters in Baalbek near the Syrian border cast their ballots.
In Lebanon’s sect-based power-sharing system, citizens only directly vote in parliamentary and municipal elections. Parliamentarians, split evenly between Muslim and Christian sects, vote for a Maronite Christian president, who then negotiates alongside them to bring in a Sunni Muslim prime minister. The speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim.