The Lebanese parliament voted to postpone local elections

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s parliament postponed municipal elections for a second time by up to a year on Tuesday, as some lawmakers worry the government will not be able to secure the necessary funding in time for the vote.

The delay comes as Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure collapse, and lawmakers in the deeply divided parliament have been unable to reach an agreement to end the presidential vacuum for nearly six months.

Lebanon’s municipal elections were originally scheduled for last May, but were postponed a year because they coincided with parliamentary elections in which a dozen reformist lawmakers ran on anti-establishment platforms.

Opposition and reformist groups are likely to continue this momentum and win additional seats if local elections are held as living conditions continue to deteriorate across the country. Municipal elections were called for in May, and most boycotted the parliamentary session.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government for nearly a year as Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads an interim cabinet with limited functions. The country has also been in a serious economic crisis since the end of 2019, with three quarters of the population currently living in poverty.

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On Tuesday, riot police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesting retired soldiers who tore down a barbed wire fence in downtown Beirut, near the government headquarters, during a government meeting. Protesters burned tires as riot police and army soldiers surrounded the area.

Retired soldiers often protested against the country’s dire economic conditions, as well as wage and pension increases to match the country’s soaring inflation.

Before the value of the national currency began to spiral in late 2019, the country’s monthly minimum wage was 675,000 pounds – about $450 – but today it is less than $7.

On Tuesday, Mikati’s cabinet agreed to raise the minimum wage in the private sector from 2.6 million pounds to 9 million pounds, which is worth $92.50 at the black market rate of the country that dominates the market. They also increased the rate used to calculate customs fees from £30,000 to the dollar on the central bank’s Sayrafa platform, where the dollar is worth £86,700.

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Meanwhile, leading political groups and leaders continue to squabble. Mikati’s government and several major political groups in parliament, particularly the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, have accused each other of stalling funding and logistics that caused the delay.

“If you really didn’t want to postpone the municipal elections, why did you participate in today’s meeting and ensure the quorum?” said the prime minister in a heated debate with several parliamentarians in parliament.

Only 65 of Lebanon’s 128 lawmakers attended, the minimum required for a legislative session to ensure a quorum.

Earlier this month, Acting Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, whose ministry oversees the elections, said Lebanon was ready to hold local elections on time and received funding from the European Union and the United Nations to ease the country’s budget burden.

Both the EU and the UN urged the crisis-stricken country to hold elections on time. However, legislators have yet to pass a bill that would provide an advance payment to the Ministry of the Interior.

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Vice President Elias Bou Saab told a parliamentary committee meeting on funding that it was “impossible” to hold the vote on time, adding that Mawlawi’s representative had told lawmakers that they could not secure the funds, despite the interior minister’s claims.

The 2016 Lebanese municipal elections had a low turnout. In Beirut, local media reported a 20% turnout, while in Baalbek, close to the Syrian border, 48% of voters cast their ballots.

In Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, citizens only vote directly in parliamentary and municipal elections. Parliamentarians, equally divided between Muslim and Christian sects, vote for a Maronite Christian president, who then negotiates with them to bring in a Sunni Muslim prime minister. The Speaker of the Parliament is a Shia Muslim.