Lebanon’s parliament agreed on Tuesday to conduct legislative elections on March 27, giving Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government only a few months to secure an IMF bailout plan as the country’s economy continues to deteriorate.
Lebanon’s financial crisis, which the World Bank dubbed “one of the darkest depressions in modern history,” had been exacerbated by political gridlock for more than a year before Mikati and President Michel Aoun cobbled together a cabinet.
Three-quarters of the population has been pushed into poverty as the currency has lost 90% of its worth. Basic necessities such as fuel and medicines are in short supply, making daily life difficult.
Mikati, whose cabinet is focused on reviving talks with the International Monetary Fund, had vowed to make sure elections are held with no delay and Western governments urged the same.
But a row over the probe into last year’s Beirut port blast that killed over 200 people and destroyed large swathes of the capital is threatening to veer his cabinet off course.
Some ministers, aligned with politicians that lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar is seeking to question over the explosion, last week demanded that the judge be removed from the probe.
Mikati has since said the cabinet will not convene another meeting until an agreement is reached on how to deal with the crisis.
Minister of Culture Mohamed Mortada, who has reportedly criticized Bitar’s handling of the probe as being politicized, told reporters he would attend any session of the cabinet Mikati called.
He dismissed reports he had demanded Bitar’s removal and said he had just made observations about his performance.
On Thursday, Beirut witnessed the worst street violence in over a decade with seven people killed in gunfire when protesters from the Hezbollah and Amal Shi’ite movements made their way to demonstrate against Bitar.
The bloodshed, which stirred memories of the 1975-1990 civil war, added to fears for the stability of a country that is awash with weapons.
The early election date – elections were originally expected to be held in May – was chosen in order not to clash with the holy Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
Once a new parliament is elected, the Mikati cabinet will only act in a caretaker role until a new prime minister is given a vote of confidence and tasked with forming a new government.