January 30, 2019 / 8:53 AM / 23 days ago

Some Lebanese politicians foresee new government this week

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon appeared to move closer on Wednesday to forming a new government after months of wrangling, with politicians from rival factions indicating it could happen this week, but the head of one party said not all points had been settled.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon, November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

Lebanon urgently needs a government to start addressing its extensive economic woes, which include a public debt equal to around 150 percent of national output and years of low growth.

Discussions over a unity government began after a national election last May, the first in nine years, and aimed to distribute cabinet positions among Lebanon’s main political blocs and according to its delicate sectarian balance.

Asked if the government would be formed within 24 to 48 hours, one politician, Abdul Rahim Mrad, told al-Jadeed TV: “I believe it will have been formed, I believe so because that is the atmosphere today.”

Mrad is one of six pro-Hezbollah Sunni Muslim members of parliament whose representation in the cabinet has been an obstacle to forming the government, to be led by prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri, also a Sunni.

Hariri said on Tuesday that this week would be decisive in efforts to form the government, but warned it was “a last chance” to settle things.

Caretaker information minister Melhem Riachi, of the anti-Hezbollah Christian Lebanese Forces party, wrote on Twitter: “And finally it is concluded on Friday Feb 1 2019,” without elaborating.

However, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was cited by a group of his lawmakers as saying there were two more issues to settle - how to represent the six pro-Hezbollah Sunnis and the apportioning of some cabinet places.

“There were contacts and good news last night, but a small point remains,” he told lawmakers from his Amal party, a Hezbollah ally, according to the NNA news agency.

“A SERIOUS ATMOSPHERE”

Lebanon has come close on several occasions to agreeing a new government, including in December when Hariri indicated a breakthrough might be hours away.

Lebanon’s economy and financial system have shown resilience during previous periods of political paralysis, but Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said last month the country faced an economic crisis that had started to turn into a financial one.

Concerns over the economy have been reflected in Lebanese bond prices and the costs of insuring against its public debt.

The International Monetary Fund warned last June that urgent measures are needed to put Lebanon’s finances on a sustainable footing.

The Hezbollah-aligned Sunni MPs late on Tuesday met Hussein Khalila, a senior official of Hezbollah, the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi’ite group that is the most powerful in Lebanon.

FILE PHOTO: People hold flags and chant slogans as they take part in a protest over the country's economic and political troubles, in Beirut, Lebanon January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

Asked how the latest efforts differed from previous failed attempts to form the government, Mrad said: “The difference is there is a serious atmosphere.”

He said Gebran Bassil - a Christian politician at the heart of the talks - had “intensified his activities” this week.

The front-page headline of the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper said on Tuesday: “Balanced concessions accelerate the birth of the government”.

Writing by Tom Perry and Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams and Gareth Jones

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