The future of Lebanon’s first state budget in 12 years looked uncertain just days after it was passed by Parliament. The Kataeb Party – Lebanon’s self-styled opposition party – plans to challenge the new fiscal plan at the Constitutional Council if it can muster the support of five additional MPs, a party official told The Daily Star Friday.
“We’re compiling [a] list of violations of the Constitution ... in order to file the appeal,” Lara Saade, legal adviser to the Kataeb, said late last week. The party is expected to make an official decision at its weekly politburo meeting Monday.
Kataeb also led the charge to overturn the controversial tax hike law in September. Its five MPs joined with five others to submit the challenge to the Constitutional Council, which ruled in their favor.
The party will again need to muster an extra five votes to challenge the 2017 budget.
The Daily Star sought to obtain comment from the five MPs who joined Kataeb’s last appeal.
Salim Karam, a Marada MP for Zgharta, was adamant he would join an appeal.
“There’s no other way for us to oppose this but to submit an appeal” to the Constitutional Council, he said. “We want to show the public we’re opposed to this; we’re not going to stay quiet about this.”
Dory Chamoun, an independent MP for Chouf, said he was studying the issue. Progressive Socialist Party MP Fouad Saad of Aley was noncommittal, while MPs Boutros Harb and Khaled Daher could not be reached for comment.
If the party gets 10 signatures, “Kataeb will challenge the budget once published in the Official Gazette,” Saade said.
If successful, the challenge would upend the country’s first real budget since 2005. Public spending since then has been based on the 2005 law with special supplements in 2012 and 2014.
The lack of a budget has caused numerous problems for public finances. Most starkly, the government blasted through its spending limits by more than $20 billion in total between 2005 and 2011.
Numerous MPs have cited $11 billion of such spending under the administration of Fouad Siniora from 2006 to 2009, and nearly $10 billion in 2010 and 2011, when Saad Hariri and then Najib Mikati were in power.
Kataeb claims that the budget passed late Thursday night violates several articles of the Constitution.
“First, you have violations of articles 83, 84 and 87. The first two talk about voting for the next year’s budget in October in Parliament ... not the previous year,” Saade said in reference to Parliament’s passing of the 2017 budget three months before the end of the year, “and Article 87 talks about [closing] public accounts before voting on the next year’s account,” she added.
Article 87 requires Parliament to approve the previous year’s audit before passing the next year’s budget. For example, in 2016, Parliament was supposed to vote to accept 2015’s audit before passing 2017’s budget. That did not happen.
“They should have voted on the 2018 budget [now] – and they would have a very good, constitutional start – and [voted on] the public accounts for 2016 since the minister can do them easily and there’s no gap,” Saade said. “They can do the 2016 and 2015 accounts – they have all the information.”
Although Parliament voted to suspend Article 87 late Wednesday night, Saade dismissed the move as unconstitutional as it was not done through a proper constitutional amendment. “They amended the Constitution without abiding by the rules,” she said. Saade also said so many MPs left the chamber during debate and voting – conducted article by article – that Parliament failed to meet quorum during the votes for several articles. “They kept on voting despite only having 50 members instead of 63” – the constitutional minimum – she said.
Nizar Saghieh, the founder and executive director of the Legal Agenda, a local NGO, said Parliament’s suspension of Article 87 without the requisite constitutional amendment was “obviously contrary to the Constitution” and said Article 87 was still the strongest basis for an appeal. “That’s the main grounds for challenge and I hope they’re able to do it because it’s a big violation,” he told The Daily Star.
Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil admitted the constitutional issues Wednesday night before the budget was passed. He told reporters, “If there is no audit of previous accounts, there will be a constitutional flaw. But the biggest flaw is the failure to approve the budget. We will then be in a very difficult situation,” he said.
The Constitutional Council itself referenced Article 87, among others, in its decision to strike down the tax hike law. If Kataeb manages to corral enough votes to challenge the budget law, the same court will have a chance to weigh in on the party’s constitutional complaints directly – and perhaps send Parliament back to the budget drawing board.