The Lebanese government has yet to disclose its budget for 2019 but protesters are already in the streets fearing the “difficult and painful” reforms it is expected to announce as it tries to get spending in control and rein in public debt.
Retired army officers blocked several highways with burning tires on Tuesday, a preemptive warning to the government against any cuts to their pensions that might be part of its effort to reduce one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens.
Though small, the protests offered a glimpse of the political minefield facing the government.
The budget is seen as a critical test of its will to enact long-stalled reforms that economists say are more pressing than ever for an economy that has suffered years of low growth. State finances are strained by a bloated public sector, high debt servicing costs and hefty subsidies spent on the power sector.
“We went out today to tell them that our pensions are a red line,” said Khaled Ammar, one of a number of retired officers blocking the highway south of Beirut.
The budget has yet to be finalized but speculation it will include cuts to the massive public wage bill has grown since Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil hinted at such steps on Saturday.
“There are those who should be making people aware today that if a temporary reduction doesn’t happen, then there will be no salaries for anyone,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that “if we must start with the ministers and MPs, so be it”.
Protesters said tackling corruption should be the priority.
“If the economic condition of the country has reached this difficult level ... we are not responsible for it, the politicians are,” said Ammar, a father of three who served in the military for three decades.
Bloated public sector
Lebanese leaders have been warning of economic crisis for some time. In a February policy statement, the new government committed itself to the launching of fast and effective reforms that could be “difficult and painful” to avoid a worsening of economic, financial and social conditions.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said last week he was concerned about a Greek-style crisis in Lebanon while saying that government measures would prevent “economic problems”.
At a Paris conference last year, Lebanon promised to cut its budget deficit by 1 percent of gross domestic product a year over five years. Economists are now looking for a bigger cut because last year’s deficit was bigger than expected at between 10-1/2 to 11 percent of GDP instead of a projected 8.2 percent.
Serious reforms would help Lebanon unlock some $11 billion in financing pledged in Paris.
The government last week approved a plan to overhaul the power sector - a major drain on state finances for years. Critics say the government must deliver this time, pointing to previous such plans that were never implemented.
The public sector wage bill is the state’s biggest outgoing, followed by servicing the public debt equal to around 150 percent of GDP. The wage bill went up in 2017 after increases were agreed ahead of a parliamentary election.
Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Lebanon’s Byblos Bank, hopes to see the deficit brought down by 2 percent of GDP and says reforms should include shutting down the many obsolete government agencies.
“They have to freeze hiring, freeze future salary increases, and increases in benefits, and they have to cut the number of public sector employees and restructure the way companies restructure when they are in financial difficulties,” he said.
“The public sector has recruited 31,000 people over the last four years - more than the entire financial sector.”