BEIRUT // Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister designate, yesterday described efforts to resolve a week-old political crisis that has hampered efforts to form a national unity cabinet as "good", leaving some hope that Lebanon could have a functioning government before the start of Ramadan at the end of the month.
Mr Hariri had been close to forming a cabinet after brokering a compromise with the Hizbollah-led opposition on allowing a minority veto of controversial legislation last week when a key ally announced he was leaving the coalition to chart an independent course. The defection of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt last week from the so-called "March 14" coalition sparked a nasty series of fights over whether he was actually joining the opposition alliance, or if he should still be granted his share of three seats in the 30-member cabinet.
Although Mr Jumblatt never indicated that he would vote with the opposition he helped defeat in June's parliamentary elections, many of his former allies accused him of treachery and the ensuing controversy threatened to derail Mr Hariri's efforts. But after Mr Hariri returned from an unscheduled holiday in the south of France, he immediately began a series of meetings with his allies and opponents to attempt to restart the cabinet talks. After the meeting, both men claimed their differences had been resolved and that Mr Jumblatt continued to support the cabinet allocation formula brokered with the opposition. The deal allows the majority 15 seats on the cabinet, 10 seats to the opposition and five seats will report directly to the president Michel Suleiman, who many see as a neutral figure.
"I stressed to premier-designate Hariri my full support for the formation of the cabinet based on a formula he deems appropriate," said Mr Jumblatt to reporters as he left Mr Hariri's palatial Beirut home. He added that he supported the 15-10-5 formula and respects the choices of the Lebanese voters, which was interpreted as support for the majority to continue to attempt to form a government. The fear that Mr Jumblatt might vote with the opposition would have dramatically reduced Mr Hariri's margin in parliament, making the formation of a functioning government difficult. But with Mr Jumblatt apparently willing to co-operate, Mr Hariri's supporters said the new challenge was the extravagant demands by Gen Michel Aoun, a leading Christian politician in the opposition movement.
Mr Aoun has demanded seats consistent with his performance in the popular vote, in which he won more support than any other single Christian party. Despite having rejected this demand, which would have given him seven seats on the cabinet, Mr Hariri is currently negotiating with Mr Aoun over who will control Lebanon's highly dysfunctional, yet incredibly lucrative, telecommunications ministry. It is these demands, say Mr Hariri's supporters, that have stalled the talks even more than the drama associated with Mr Jumblatt's defection.
"I'm expecting the formation of the government to be done before the end of the month of Ramadan," said the MP Ahmed Fatfat, a Hariri loyalist. "The obstacle in forming the government is only the high demands made by [Aoun]. The meeting that took place last night between Hariri and Jumblatt was positive and opened new horizons for the next stage of forming the government." @Email: firstname.lastname@example.org