World Politics

Lebanon’s Hariri vows quick government to halt economic crash

Key Points
  • Lebanon's currency has collapsed, losing nearly 80% of its value.
  • Prices, unemployment and inflation have soared.
  • Hariri won by a simple majority Thursday, securing a total of 65 votes out of 120 lawmakers polled by President Michel Aoun.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
Mohamed Azakir | Reuters

Lebanon's Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri pledged Thursday to quickly form a new government that would halt the country's economic collapse, calling it a "last opportunity" to save the country hit by multiple political and financial crises.

Hariri, who resigned from the post a year ago amid nationwide protests against widespread corruption and a flunking economy, was asked to form the country's next government after he secured enough votes from lawmakers — bringing back an old name to lead a country desperate for change.

In the past year, Lebanon's currency has collapsed, losing nearly 80% of its value, while prices, unemployment and inflation soared. Lebanese have been unable to access their savings, as banks imposed informal capital controls fearing a run on deposits.

A gigantic explosion in August in Beirut's port, caused by thousands of potentially explosive chemicals stored in a warehouse there, compounded the crises. The blast defaced the capital, killing nearly 200 people, and injured over 6,000. The explosion was seen as further proof of an incompetent political class in charge of governing the small country since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990.

Hariri's return to office is rejected by protesters who had been demanding change, and see him as a symbol of a political class they blame for the country's woes.

Hariri pledged a government of non-partisan specialists tasked with implementing economic, financial and administrative reform according to a French initiative that was endorsed by mainstream Lebanese politicians.

"I say to Lebanese who are suffering hardship to the point of despair, I intend to keep my promise, to work on stopping the collapse that threatens our economy, society and security," Hariri said in a brief statement Thursday.

Hariri's successor last year — a technocrat supported by the Hezbollah group — stepped down after the massive Aug. 4 explosion.

The explosion prompted France, a longtime ally and former colonial ruler, to push for a new political order in Lebanon. Paris launched what came to be known as the French initiative, designed to pressure rival politicians to reach an agreement on a government empowered to introduce wide-ranging economic reforms. The international community has said it will not help Lebanon financially before reforms are implemented.

But Lebanon's complex sectarian-based political system makes reaching major decisions a significant challenge. Power, including government posts, is distributed among the country's Shiites, Sunnis and Christians who often get bogged down in horse trading because of fears of losing their calibrated clout.

Hariri won by a simple majority Thursday, securing a total of 65 votes out of 120 lawmakers polled by President Michel Aoun amid sharp divisions over the shape of the Cabinet that Hariri is expected to form.

Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest bloc in parliament and the largest Christian party, withheld support to Hariri. Another major Christian party, formerly an ally of Hariri, has also withheld support.

The powerful Shiite group Hezbollah implicitly supports Hariri's designation to the post but refrained from voting for him to avoid appearing to be breaking ranks with its ally, Aoun's party. Hariri got backing from the other Shiite group, Amal, as well as the largest Sunni bloc, a small Christian party and independents.

President Aoun already delayed the consultations a week, amid signs of wrangling over his party's role in any upcoming government.

In a speech on the eve of the consultations, Aoun signaled that he would not stop Hariri from being named prime minister but indicated he wants a bigger role in government formation. Most observers expect a rocky process.

"Today, I am required to designate (a prime minister) and then participate in the formation of a government," Aoun said. "Will the one who is nominated commit to addressing corruption and launching reform?"

Portending tensions ahead, protesters who took to the streets Wednesday rejecting Hariri's nomination were heckled by his supporters amid heavy security deployment. The Hariri supporters moved to the epicenter of the 2019 protests and set fire to a large fist erected there that has come to symbolize the uprising against the old political class.