News Notes: Lebanon Moves on from Paris Donors Conference for Capital Investment to Brussels Donors Conference on Syrian Refugees; Hariri and Aoun Say Lebanon Ready for Reforms Required by Donors, Analysts Aren’t so Sure; and May 6 Parliamentary Elections are Heating Up, Literally.
Lebanon Moves to Firm up Refugee Support from International Donors. Following up on the well-received CEDRE Donors Conference in Paris, the Hariri government has moved on to Brussels where a two-day meeting of donors is being held on how to best deal with the continuing crises affecting Syrian refugees in their host countries. With the recent expulsion of some hundreds of refugees from towns close to the Syrian border, refugee rights monitors are seeking assurances from Lebanese officials that the precarious balancing act between refugees and host communities will not be further exacerbated.
According to Naharnet, “The [Lebanese] delegation will hold meetings with government ministers and highlight the situation of displaced people in countries neighboring Syria, seeking to increase international contributions to support the displaced and host countries in light of increasing needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.” There is also a vague hope that somehow the meetings will also address the weakened Geneva peace process that is not dominated by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. This is the seventh international donors conference on the status of the Syrian refugees.
Aoun and Hariri Pledged Strong Reform Efforts in Line with CEDRE Conference. After the conclusion of the conference, President Aoun sent a message to French President Macron, who hosted the conference, expressing his appreciation for France’s role in the success of the efforts to shore up Lebanon’s economy through concessional loans, grants, and other economic assistance. Donor agencies and government attending issued strong statements about the need for Lebanon to curb corruption and implement reforms in order to access the financing. In his message, President Aoun noted that ““Lebanon's re-emergence will only take place with reforms that are in line with my interests in combating corruption.”
In response to the provisions announced for the more than $11 billion that could be made available for Lebanon’s reconstruction, Hariri said that he recognized the concerns of the international donors that assistance must be monitored and channeled transparently. He also announced his government’s intention to reduce the budget deficit to no more than 5% of GDP in the next five years. Donors were explicit about long-stalled reforms that needed to be enacted. President Macron said in a news conference during the meetings that “the aid aimed to give Lebanon a fresh start, adding that it put ‘an unprecedented responsibility on authorities there to carry out reforms and preserve peace in the country.”
Economist Magazine Not So Sure that Lebanon Will Implement Sufficient Reforms as it follow up CEDRE commitments. A recent article pointed out that “The waste associated with confessional governance costs Lebanon 9% of GDP each year, according to the World Bank.” The blame for the lack of consensus on a reform agenda is fed by the age-old sectarian balancing system implemented in the 1950s. “Many blame the power-sharing system for government paralysis and pervasive corruption,” the article said, as it has defined a culture of expectations tied to one’s party loyalty. There is a continuing fear that “When politicians squabble it is often over how to share the spoils of power, not because they disagree on policy.” It will be more than a uphill task, particularly with recent Hezbollah criticism of the government’s lackluster economic performance, to forge an acceptable agenda in which all the key players see benefits for their supporters.
May 6 Elections Preparations Turn Nasty as supporters of various parties take aim at disrupting campaigns of their competitors. Omar Kabboul, executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), a group of independent electoral observers, said that “The threats to candidates, men and women, are escalating. We expect more of them as we approach the election, and we expect an increase in violence. “The outcome of the elections is uncertain. The more uncertain the outcome, the more fear there is within the parties and the bigger the agitation in speeches.”
Already Hezbollah has attacked an independent Shia candidate in the South, rival Druze parties have squared off with gunfire south of Beirut, and Future Movement supporters allegedly attacked a rival’s campaign office. While no one has died, yet, there is concern that unless the leadership of the parties issue strong statements of concern for a “clean” election, that the violence will increase in the run-up to the election. The Ministry of Interior is closely monitoring the actions of contending parties and hope that its scrutiny will reduce the potential for significant conflict.