Lebanon's Bassil dials down optimism on forming government

Lebanese politicians remain unable to agree on how to share out ministerial portfolios in the new unity government that Saad al-Hariri is trying to form.

BEIRUT  - Lebanon's leading Christian parties clashed on Friday over how power should be divided in a new unity government, casting doubt over Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri's prediction that one will be agreed soon.

Five months since a parliamentary election, there is no sign yet of the concessions sought by Hariri to allow the formation of a government that can set about badly needed economic reforms. Politicians are warning Lebanon faces economic crisis.

Hariri said on Thursday the government would be formed within a week to 10 days because the economy could not tolerate further delay. He called on all sides to make concessions.

But there was no compromise on Friday from the two leading Christian parties: the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces (LF) party. Their rivalry is seen as the main obstacle to a deal.

At a news conference, FPM leader Gebran Bassil said he wanted the government formation accelerated, before reiterating a government blueprint that is at odds with the LF's demands.

Bassil said the FPM bloc should be allotted six seats in the cabinet of 30 ministers. In addition, President Michel Aoun, the FPM founder and his father-in-law, should get five. Citing the election results, he said the LF should get three.

In a sharply worded response, the LF said Bassil - Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister - is not "the one who sets the criteria" for the government formation. This was up to Hariri and Aoun, it added.

The LF says the election result entitles it to one third of the Christian representation in government. The LF nearly doubled its seats in the 128-seat parliament to 15. The FPM and its allies form a bloc of 29 MPs.

Asked if there was a "glimmer of hope", as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was quoted as saying this week, Bassil said: "I don't like to create artificial optimism for the people."

The standoff reflects decades-old rivalry between Aoun and LF leader Samir Geagea, enemies in the 1975-90 civil war.

Lebanon's political system allots government seats according to sectarian quotas: half of the seats go to Christians and half to Muslims. The May 6 election produced a parliament tilted in favour of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and its allies, who together won more than 70 seats.

There has also been tension over Druze representation. Walid Jumblatt has demanded all three of the cabinet seats reserved for his sect. Aoun is meanwhile demanding one for his Druze ally Talal Arslan, also a Hezbollah ally.

The IMF wants to see immediate and substantial fiscal adjustment to improve the sustainability of Lebanon's public debt, which stood at over 150 percent of gross domestic product at the end of 2017.

Last month, Lebanese Eurobonds suffered their worst shock in a decade, adding raising pressure on Beirut to reform.

While expressing general concern about the state of the economy and growth, policymakers have repeatedly said the Lebanese pound - pegged at its current level for two decades - is stable and underpinned by high foreign currency reserves.