Friday, June 13, 2008

Siniora predicts general public approval of new cabinet

Siniora predicts general public approval of new cabinet
Prime minister refuses to set date but expresses confidence

By Hussein Abdallah
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Fouad Siniora said after meeting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Thursday that he would not set a date for the birth of the new cabinet, adding confidently that the Lebanese people will be glad with their next government. Siniora told reporters that all parties were on the right track and that every day was witnessing some more progress toward forming the new cabinet. Siniora, who also discussed the prospects of the new cabinet with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat on Thursday, reportedly proposed two formulas for the distribution of portfolios, but the opposition has yet to decide which of the two suits it best. According to published media reports, one plan gives the opposition finance, public works, education, displaced, tourism, environment, youth and sports, and culture, while the other gives the opposition foreign affairs, energy, justice, economy, industry, agriculture, social affairs, and health. Mohammad Shattah, Siniora's adviser, told LBC television on Thursday that the prime minister wanted to distribute the sovereign portfolios (finance, foreign, defense, interior) in the next cabinet in a fair and balanced way.

Shattah reiterated that Siniora was not holding on to any specific portfolio in the next cabinet. "We have already agreed that the interior minister will go to the president, but everything else is still being discussed," Shattah said. Shattah, who sounded optimistic, said that his meeting with Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun on Wednesday was positive, saying, "Aoun has accepted both formulas forwarded to him by the prime minister and is consulting his allies before he comes out with a final position." Sources close to Berri told The Daily Star Thursday that the opposition was against the mechanism Siniora was using to form the new government. "Siniora should not be involved in the political bargaining over the portfolios as if he was negotiating on behalf of the parliamentary majority ... He should rather act as a prime minister," the sources said. The sources added that the efforts to eliminate all the hurdles to forming the new cabinet have not stopped, but stressed that the opposition was not likely to accept any formula which gives it less than nine portfolios in the next cabinet.

The opposition is due to get 11 seats in the 30-member cabinet, but only 22 of the 30 available seats are government portfolios. The eight remaining cabinet posts constitute no portfolios, with the holder of any of these being a "minister of state." But opposition sources told the Central News Agency (CNA) Thursday that the opposition has reservations about both formulas because neither includes the portfolio of telecommunications, which was allegedly demanded by Hizbullah. One source also said the opposition was not satisfied with the fact that two sovereign portfolios (defense, interior) would go to the president: "In Doha, we agreed that the Interior Ministry would go for a neutral figure appointed by the president, but nobody suggested that the Defense Ministry should be treated likewise." Earlier reports said the opposition was against keeping caretaker Defense Minister Elias Murr in his post. Murr, who was reportedly tipped by President Michel Sleiman for the Defense Ministry, is at odds with some opposition parties over his role in the highly disputed Siniora government, which assumed a caretaker role after the election of Sleiman.

Meanwhile, Sleiman said on Thursday that the May 21 Doha Agreement, which ended an 18-month political crisis in Lebanon, will be fully implemented because all parties were committed to the agreement and concerned about preserving stability and civil peace in the country. Sleiman met the head of the Arab Parliamentary Union, Jassem al-Saqr, who told reporters afterward that the president was optimistic about the formation of the new cabinet. "We will very soon see a national unity government running the country," he said. Saqr also met Berri, Siniora, and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea on Thursday. Sleiman also met former Prime Minister Salim Hoss, who hoped the new cabinet would be formed "as soon as possible." "There are some positive indications regarding the new government," he said. "I hope it is formed as soon as possible ... the country cannot afford another crisis." Meanwhile, Geagea said the opposition's demands regarding the new government were political blackmail against the parliamentary majority. "At first, they demanded to get veto power in the new cabinet. After a long process of political bargaining, they got the veto power that they wanted, but they continued to ask for more," Geagea said. He added that the Lebanese Forces would not keep the Tourism Ministry: "We had enough of it ... We will leave the floor for other parties to contribute to tourism." Geagea refused to specify which portfolios the Lebanese Forces are seeking. Earlier reports said the party was likely to get two seats in the new cabinet as opposed to one seat in the current lineup.

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