BEIRUT (Reuters) - The nomination of Lebanon’s next prime minister was postponed on Monday as new complications surfaced in efforts to agree a government that is urgently needed to pull the country out of a destabilizing economic crisis.
More than seven weeks since Saad al-Hariri quit as prime minister, prompted by protests against the ruling elite, politicians have been unable to agree on a new administration despite a deepening financial crunch.
The impasse took a violent turn at the weekend when Beirut was clouded in tear gas as security forces clashed with protesters who blame the politicians for corruption and bad governance. Dozens were wounded.
The economic crisis, years in the making, has come to a head since protests began in October: banks are restricting access to savings, the Lebanese pound has lost a third of its official value, and thousands of jobs have been lost. Some banks further lowered ceilings on cash withdrawals on Monday.
Despite differences between the main parties over the composition of a new government, Hariri had been on course to be nominated prime minister for a fourth time in the consultations.
But in a last-minute change of plan, President Michel Aoun postponed these until Thursday at Hariri’s request to allow for more talks about the next government, the presidency said.
Political sources and analysts attributed the move to a decision by the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party to name neither Hariri nor anyone else for prime minister, a post which must go to a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian system.
The LF wants a cabinet of independent specialists.
Hariri, who is aligned with Gulf Arab and Western states, wants to lead a cabinet of specialists. But his position is at odds with Aoun and his powerful Shi’ite ally, the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Both believe the government must include politicians.
Hariri’s office confirmed in a statement the decision was prompted by the LF move, saying it would have left him without the support of a leading Christian grouping, a necessity for “national consensus”.
With tensions running high between Hariri and Aoun, who is also Christian, the LF decision denied Hariri’s candidacy a pan-sectarian seal of approval.
“He can’t come to office without (either) of the big Christian blocs,” said Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief of the An-Nahar newspaper. “I don’t expect from now until Thursday morning we will find a miraculous solution.”
A senior politician involved in contacts among the parties said the matters had grown more complicated.
The party founded by Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), has said it will not join a government formed on Hariri’s terms. The FPM urged an end to “time wasting” and urged Hariri to nominate a candidate of “integrity” to be prime minister.
But several attempts to find an alternative to Hariri have failed. Hariri is Lebanon’s leading Sunni and the only candidate backed by the Sunni religious establishment.
The heavily armed Hezbollah has said the next government must bring all sides together to tackle the crisis, including the FPM. Hezbollah’s leader has said the formation of a new government will be hard even if a prime minister is designated.
Lebanon’s foreign allies have urged the formation of a credible government that can enact swift reforms if it wants to receive international support.
Jan Kubis, the U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, said the weekend violence “showed that postponements of a political solution of the current crisis create a fertile ground for provocations and political manipulation”.
He added the violence should be investigated to prevent a move toward “aggressive and confrontational behavior by all”.
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean