Talking Economics

Five political leaders discuss their economic proposals

Reading Time: 12 minutes

There could not be a greater difference of mandates for two successive governments in any country’s history. The current cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been charged with terminating a protracted phase of managing Lebanon under a mixed set of priorities, wrapping up the past and handling one single, existentially important practical task: fair elections. For the next government, the responsibilities are overwhelming and broad. Nothing less than an entire new culture of governance is required, new accountability to the electorate and the national interest, new policies and new efficiencies must be developed.

While many areas demand a new approach, beginning with re-ascertaining of the state-defining monopoly of enforcing laws and maintaining internal peace, the practical test of governance effectiveness will be the management of the economy. Here, the competition of interests that ruled the past is in dire need to evolve into a broader competition of authentic interests, concepts, and, above all, competencies, where solutions for national economic challenges are sought, based on a concise understanding of facts, where goals are set and realities are addressed without impediments from hidden agendas and concealed untruths.

The contenders in the Lebanese public decision-making arena are presently formulating their agendas and establishing their positions. The spirit of founding new political parties is surging and a host of new and old political parties and individual contestants are drawing up their programs, which they want to deploy in managing the new Lebanon. Executive wanted to know what economic visions the leading individual and party contenders stand for, what socioeconomic priorities they have and how they aim to implement them. This month its speaks to Dr. Selim Hoss (Third Way), Carlos Edde (National Bloc), Nayla Mouawad (Independent), General (retd.) Michel Aoun (Free Patriotic Movement) and Dr. Ahmad Mallie (Hizbullah)

Selim Hoss: Third Way

With his training as economist and experience in government between 1998 and 2000, Selim Hoss describes himself today as a person active in politics without personal political aims. Hoss is affiliated with the Third Way.

In his economic vision, Hoss holds up the concept of a regional common market and far-reaching integration. Referring to the examples of the United States, China and the European Union, he argues that the Arab region has a stronger case for forming a united realm than the EU, which he calls the “most significant development initiative of the 20th century.” In Hoss’ perspective, a large, unified market is key for achieving a superior economy.

In the matter of the national debt burden, the former prime minister sees the Lebanese public debt under the perspective that no country is free of debt. Pointing out that while in office, his cabinet drew up a 5-year plan aiming to reduce the public debt burden from then 124% to 96% of GDP, Hoss emphasizes the formula of reaching a point where the rate of growth of GDP will be higher than the rate of growth of public debt.

In his view, no country today is free of debt and the focus should be on creating a virtuous economic cycle of development rather than attempting to reduce the debt. “At this point, we can say this year will be better than last and next year will be better than this. The position must be to put the country on the right track,” Hoss says. For this task, he would seek to initiate a new five-year plan aiming to instigate GDP growth and ultimately reach negative growth of the public debt.

In terms of managing the debt, he calls special attention to the unregistered portion of the public debt, such as government dues in social security, to health service providers and contractors. While considering foreign debt to be a potential source of external pressure and thus generally preferring domestic debt, Hoss concedes that the use of debt instruments is inevitable.

On the issue of fiscal revenue, the introduction of Value-Added-Tax (VAT) was one item in the original five-year plan of the Hoss cabinet in 1998. In consideration of the financial burdens that VAT caused for many low and middle-income earners, the politician sees customs duties and VAT as necessary but is averse to increasing either VAT or customs. Hoss favors going for direct taxes as much as possible and increasingly reach the richer classes with taxation.

In matters of international treaties and trade agreements, Hoss is supportive of Lebanon’s accession to WTO and the Euro-Med Agreement. On the Greater Arab Free Trade Area, which went into effect January 1, 2005, he notes that implementation needs to be honest. He considers protection of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) as important measure, without which Lebanon would loose a lot. The Lebanese law on banking secrecy he would uphold as much as possible under the constraints of the requirements by the international community, but not at any price.

Boosting key industries

In Hoss view, banking and tourism as leading economic sectors deserve further growth incentives because they can be developed effectively and with good results. Additionally, he would want to promote the development of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. A key concern for him in relation to agriculture is that rural populations can utilize their productive capacities where they are and do not feel urged to migrate to the cities. Because of the fiscal situation, Hoss prefers private investment over subsidies as means to promote the development of economic sectors.

In Hoss’ policy, foreign investment should be strongly encouraged by continued free market environment, liberal labor laws and creation of special investment zones, which, however, should offer equal benefits to foreign and local investors. He is for privatization as a way to encourage foreign and local investments but frowns upon the concept of using privatization as means in trying to settle the public debt.

In the socioeconomic arena, Hoss proposes to tackle the unemployment problem mainly by reactivating the economy, fighting the recession, furthering the tempo of development and expanding the realm of technical education. He supports the transition from the current system of end-of-service indemnity payments to a national pension scheme but in the question of increasing the minimal wage, he calls for a careful study of the matter and its impact on finances before undertaking such a step.

The veteran politician agrees that corruption has impeded Lebanon’s development severely and emphasizes that democracy is identifiable by accountability, of which the country has had a blatant lack. He considers it a major objective for Lebanon to combat corruption by improving democratic practice.

Carlos Edde: National Bloc

The reduction of corruption and financial waste and the introduction of sound administrative policies are cornerstones in the economic vision of Carlos Edde, leader of the National Bloc.

Coming from a liberal perspective, the party’s policy is built around affirmation of economic opportunities. Thus the National Bloc puts the rebuilding of credibility of institutions and political leaders on top of its agenda for change, to be followed by taking initiative to solve the problem of wastage. Based on fair elections, the party’s recipe for governance would be to build a government on the grounds of credibility and competence. According to Edde, this does not imply a government of technocrats but of people who have at the same time political stature and sufficient understanding of Lebanon’s problems to carry out policies.

Emphasizing personal integrity of politicians as requirement of utmost importance, Edde says that the National Bloc’s approach to leadership also underlines transparency and the open description of problems and, if necessary, bitter solutions.

In matters of the public debt, Edde affirms that it is most urgent to address the debt of 200% of GDP, which in his opinion the country could only sustain because it’s banking sector is also of very large size. In managing the debt, reduction of wastage in the public system plays a priority role for the party, along with measures to raise funds from privatization. Further tools in dealing with the public debt should include using of the gold reserves and research into a possible devaluation of the artificially overvalued Lira.

While Edde would consider depreciation of the Lira at the current juncture to be Russian roulette and proposes looking at organized devaluation as a means to promote investments, his long-term strategy would be to float the currency, under the precondition that an accountable government is firmly installed.

Indirect taxation

Also on the revenue side, the National Bloc policy emphasizes to reduce public wastage before looking to increase taxes. Under reasons of practicality, Edde suggests to rely strongly on indirect taxes instead of having “an army of tax agents”. Albeit unfair in socioeconomic terms, indirect taxes are easier to collect and can help in attracting investors to Lebanon as tax haven, is Edde’s rationale. Personally a non-smoker and non-drinker, he would very much favor taxing alcohol and tobacco products at substantial rates. Customs duties should be maintained as source of revenue in absence of direct taxes, but not to the point of making smuggling too profitable.

Membership in international treaties WTO and Euro-Med is supported by the party under the perspective that it not only promotes economic development but also opens the country more strongly to ideas, good laws, and quality standards. The party is also pro-GAFTA but cautions that Lebanon needs some protection against dumping of agro products. The National Bloc aims to create an environment where other countries can be at ease in dealing with Lebanon, which includes safeguarding of IPR. According to Edde, the banking secrecy law is a sentimental issue for the party, because it spearheaded its introduction in Lebanon. Today, however, he would seek to have it meet international standards and be amended in ways to make it impossible for civilian or military public servants to stash away funds illegally and also oblige persons wanting to stand for office to reveal their relevant financial information before assuming public responsibility. Edde reasons that banking secrecy cannot be allowed to facilitate corruption and it was never meant to do so.

In selecting economic sectors for development, the National Bloc includes banking on its list because of its high degree of development and additional potential. Special priority in Edde’s view, however, should be allocated to becoming a country that attracts outsourcing of services because of its skilled labor force and other advantages. The party wants to support tourism and the potential for IPR sensitive industries to be based in Lebanon, such as publishing. The agricultural sector should receive incentives for shifting from commodity produce to top end and higher value products. A specific resource that Lebanon should develop in the opinion of the National Bloc is water, under the perspective of supplying it profitably to the region.

For Edde, the public sector should not play a large role in the economy but he supports to implement investment incentives for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), saying that one cannot expect people to invest in Lebanon because they like Lebanon. In such incentives, the party agrees to full freedom for movement of capital and profits and views the creation of special investment zones favorably but would not concede to rights for unlimited foreign ownership of real estate.

Michel Aoun: Free Patriotic Movement

Preparing to return to Lebanon from Paris, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) outlined for Executive his movement’s four main policies. The FPM intends to rebrand itself by creating a political party and introduce a program shortly after the arrival of the former general and head of government. For the purpose of this investigation, Executive retains the term FPM as descriptor of the political group.

In Aoun’s words, the economic recovery of Lebanon is one of four main objectives on the FPM agenda for Lebanon in the process of building a new state. The first objective is to reinvigorate political institutions and confine political debates within national institutions. The second objective is to restructure the national security forces and undertake a fundamental purge of this institution in order to enable it to safeguard the country from any drift towards instability. The third objective is to reform the judiciary as a precondition for economic recovery. The fourth objective is to devise a recovery plan for the economy.

Genuine reforms

In its economic vision, the FPM sees the departure of Syrian forces and intelligence units from Lebanon as giving positive signals to the market forces but warns these signals would not translate into genuine economic drivers unless genuine reform is put in place. As such, the FPM’s economic recovery plan entails a two-step approach of first addressing the public debt and encouraging growth.

According to FPM official and economic expert Sami Nader, the future party assesses the national debt as solvable after achieving a further reduction of the interest rate paid on the debt. Its economic policy aims to devise means that will increase the primary surplus, decrease the amount of the debt and create a framework and tools that will enable Lebanon to become a regional financial center that protects and catalyzes private initiative.

On the revenue side, the FPM regards the VAT and corporate tax rates as appropriate for the country, while it favors a lowering of customs duties. The central tool that the group seeks for increasing fiscal revenue is an enlargement of the tax base, so rather than increasing taxes to have more people pay.

In relation to international treaties, the group supports Lebanon’s membership in WTO, Euro-Med and GAFTA under a no fences, no borders philosophy. Intellectual Property Rights should be enforced in full and the Lebanese banking secrecy law should be maintained in compliance with international laws.

Besides finance and banking, the FPM favors to provide development incentives to enterprises in tourism, information and communications technology (ICT), media, and health care. Its means of choice in providing public support for development of economic sectors would be tax breaks and indirect subsidies, such as loan guarantees, in addition to empowering a strong financial market place.

Labor policies

On the socioeconomic front, the group follows a line of trusting in market forces to increase employment opportunities in combination with promoting market-oriented education, examples being computer training and capacity building in tourism. It is not in favor of an increase in the minimum salary and opposes any increase in public spending to provide employment but the FPM takes a positive approach to the presence of Syrian labor in Lebanon, provided that foreign labor is properly licensed and regulated. The group supports a reform of the social net, with introduction of tiered pension and social care system. It also is for privatization, naming utilities and telecommunications as primary candidates.

According to Michel Aoun, the FPM was not in agreement with late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s economic policies, because they hampered economic development and created high costs by pouring money into unproductive projects. He would seek to cooperate with any party willing to do so and also rely on technocrats but emphasizes that a clear plan and political leadership will be required for facilitating reform in Lebanon and that the reform is likely to involve a change of both policies and people. In Aoun’s words, “I think there will be radical change, we cannot work without morality, we cannot work without technology, we cannot work without honesty. Many things have to be established in our society. The corruption was generalized (sic) in our system and accepted by society. We have to establish some morality.”

Nayla Mouawad: Independent

As member of parliament and contender for the Lebanese presidency (she is the widow of the assassinated ex-President Renee Mouawad), Nayla Mouawad has been a strong individual power in the political arena and leader of the Qornet Shehwan opposition gathering. In preparation for the future, the MP is currently pursuing the realization of long-held ambitions to form a nation-wide political party with representation from all communities.

In the views of Mouawad and her associates in the founding a political party, human capital and globalization are important guideposts. She maintains that a well-established slogan for Lebanon should be that human capital is the fuel of its economy but that the impact of this slogan has been eroded in the past three decades and must be restored through improving education and vocational training. A core target in her economic vision is to bring Lebanese society and Lebanese individuals to interact with globalization and create an environment to empower and free society and let individuals fulfill their potential, maximizing the competitive advantages of Lebanon in a post-industrial global society.

Cleaning up public sector

Further priorities are slimming of the state’s administrative machinery, the elimination of corruption and clientele structures in public administration and a review of expenditures for the armed forces.

In dealing with the economic situation and addressing the public debt, Mouawad admits that the debt is heavy by any standards but manageable by economic growth, for which she sees great potential in attracting foreign and expatriate Lebanese investors if the cost of government is reduced and corruption is curbed. Efforts to contain the debt would have to begin with its stabilization and promotion of economic growth, lest attempts of debt reduction could lead to greater impoverishment of the population. While she would have preferred floating the Lebanese currency several years ago and considers a high share of debt in foreign currency to carry elements of danger, she regards the decision for using foreign currency debt instruments as irreversible under present circumstances and would not seek to liberate the Lira.

For discussing fiscal reform and ways to increase fiscal revenue through specific taxes, Mouawad’s team would require more data, which have not been available until now. In general terms, the group’s policy for fiscal reform would include a progressive scheme of taxation on individual incomes for a certain period of time. Indirect taxes should play a lesser role and customs duties should be phased out gradually over 10 to 15 years, in order to facilitate Lebanon’s integration in international trade agreements.

In context of her globalization-oriented vision, Mouawad stands for accession to the WTO as quickly as possible and for a very strong relationship with the EU under the Euro-Med agreement. She strongly advocates adoption of the laws required for WTO accession, noting that they had been initiated by late former minister of economy, Basil Fuleihan, and undertaking a campaign to explain these legislative initiatives to the public. In relation to GAFTA, Mouawad seeks a gradual implementation of the Arab trade area. The total implementation of Intellectual and Industrial Property Rights carries a leading function in her policy, which envisions a capacity of Lebanon that could rival that of Israel in generating revenue from IPR. Mouawad’s team sees the preservation of Lebanon’s banking secrecy law as important and supports the law as it stands after having been modified to meet international standards for prohibition of money laundering.

In promoting economic development, Mouawad would prioritize substantially lowering the cost for telecommunications in order to enable the internet and communications infrastructure to serve as basis for economic growth in businesses such as call and contact centers. ICT and new technology enterprises could be the main engine of job creation in Lebanon and provide economic opportunities in all parts of the country. After ICT and related enterprises, banking and health care would be sectors high on the list of priorities for economic development, along with agriculture.

In the area of privatization, Mouawad favors fast privatization of the electricity utility and creation of competition among telecommunications providers. She supports economic interaction with Syria and is an advocate of facilitating employment and earnings opportunities in rural areas, for which she sees a strong potential based on the experiences of the Rene Mouawad Foundation in rural production of high quality food products, namely olive oil, that could successfully be marketed internationally.

Dr. Ahmad Mallie: Hizbullah

Executive inquired with the Party of God, Hizbullah, about their economic policy and vision. When Dr. Ahmed Mallie, member of the party’s politburo, agreed to discuss the matter with Executive, he stated that the party appreciated the economic achievements of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri but did not agree with all of his policies. Comparing Hariri’s economic approach to that of European politicians Margaret Thatcher and Silvio Berlusconi, Mellie elaborated that the Shiite party was oriented more strongly to provision of services under the theme of social justice. Mellie also confirmed that Hizbullah is looking at increased participation in governmental responsibilities after having been preoccupied over many years with its leading role in the Lebanese resistance.

On the matter of economic policy and the party’s positions on specific development issues, Executive subsequently communicated on two separate occasions with Hizbullah media liaison Hussein Naboulsi who informed us at our first attempt that the party does not presently have an economic policy or an economic expert authorized to speak on behalf of Hizbullah. In response to a second inquiry one month later, Naboulsi again related that the party is not ready to discuss issues of economic policy with Executive.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail