Pursuing parliamentary-mandated early elections and avoiding interfering with the country’s judiciary are among a number of social and economic commitments outlined in President Waheed’s first state of the nation address.
In a heated Majlis session that took place yesterday, Waheed was finally able to deliver his constitutionally-mandated address to open parliament after several unsuccessful attempts.
However, he was still forced to give the speech amidst loud heckling and vociferous protests from within the Majlis chamber by Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters.
The MDP protests were designed to stymie parliamentary functions until a date was set for early elections amidst concerns over the legitimacy of the present government. These protests were condemned yesterday by Commonwealth Special Envoy Sir Donald McKinnon, whose organisation has backed early election calls.
Despite the interruptions, an unofficial transcript of the address can be found on the President’s Office website here.
The speech itself outlines some of the key policies that Waheed will hope to perform in his capacity as president.
These policies include measures for taxation, international relations and plans to “empower” the independence of institutions like the Majlis and the country’s judiciary by not “interfering” with their work.
Previous attempts to bring reforms to the Maldives courts, at least in line with certain international judicial standards, have proved a controversial issue in the recent political upheavals that saw former President Mohamed Nasheed “resign” from office in a move later alleged to be the result of a “coup d’etat.”
However, President Waheed used his speech to commit himself to constitutional rule, despite the “coup” allegations surrounding his rise to the country’s top office.
“My highest priority is to perform the duties of the president in line with the constitution and laws of the country,” read Waheed’s speech. “I assure you that I will not take any action that goes against the constitution or law. Neither will I interfere with the work of the Judiciary.”
Speaking to Minivan News today, President Waheed’s spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said that the new government hoped to “strengthen” independent institutions like the parliament and the courts.
Riza claimed that over past three years, the executive branch under former President Mohamed Nasheed was often involving themselves in parliamentary and judicial affairs that were supposed to function independently as separate bodies under the constitution.
“We want to empower institutions not interfere with the decision they are taking,” the spokesperson said. “The president will give all the help he can to parliament. For instance on March 1, [a parliamentary session abandoned owing to anti-government protests in the chamber] President Waheed could have held the Majlis session with military officers to support him. Nasheed had done this in 2010 and 2011, but he chose not to. Even when he was being insulted.”
Beyond his own bodyguards, Riza said that President Waheed would not have any other external military forces in the Majlis.
Amidst concerns over the independence and ethics of the nation’s judiciary by a former president-appointed member of national court watchdog, the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) as well as international bodies like the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the EU, the conduct of judges became a major issue of the Nasheed presidency.
Upon eventually coming under international condemnation for the arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed, Mohamed Nasheed’s government then requested assistance from the international community to reform the judiciary over claims that national security was otherwise threatened.
Although Nasheed is no longer in office, Riza stated that the new government would continue to work with organisations and legal teams from the commonwealth and the EU on judicial reform and the proposed all-party roadmap talks.
“The president is liberal enough to take advice on these issues.”
Referring to providing early elections, one of the key aims of MDP protesters that have attempted to stop the president from giving his speech at the Majlis, Waheed said that if that if a presidential vote was “required” at an earlier date, he would begin work on constitutional reforms to support it.
“I will do everything in my power to bring together all the political leaders, to hold discussions on the matter,” he said.
Riza said that the use of the term “required” related to a mandate from parliament to hold fresh elections, though he stressed constitutional reforms were vital in ensuring that any leader elected in early polls would have a full constitutionally-mandated term of five years.
“If parties are not willing to have two elections in 18 months, clauses need to be amended and the legal mandate to do this can only be through parliament,” he said.
In regards to diplomatic relations, President Waheed said that his government aimed to protect the Maldives’ sovereignty and Islamic identity, whilst collaborating with foreign governments in areas such as preventing terrorism, piracy and arms smuggling.
“The government will accord a high priority to strengthen relations with countries that respect our sovereignty and are concerned about our national well-being,” the president stated. “One of the key objectives of our foreign policy is to secure foreign aid for economic and social development.”
In addressing what the comments could mean for the country’s existing relationships with international partners, particularly in regards to the previous government’s decision to open diplomatic relations with Israel, Riza said it was too early to tell at present.
“Our position is being reviewed right now on this. The foreign Minister is working on what line to take,”
The country’s relationship with Israel under Mohamed Nasheed was deeply unpopular among some sections of the public, who called for the government to withdraw plans to allow Israeli airliners to bring tourists to the country. Some political parties at the time alleged that the Nasheed government itself held a “zionist agenda”.
Among other key points raised within the speech transcript were calls for no one individual in the country to endanger the country to protect the interests of a “few”.
“Political stakeholders should work to ensure that Maldives is free from political turmoil and that citizens live without fear,” read the statement.
Addressing the number of violent clashes that have taken place between security forces and civilians since he came to power last month, Dr Waheed said there were significant costs to be recovered.
“State buildings were burned down and destroyed as a result of these unlawful acts,” the address read. “In Addu City and Huvadhoo Atoll, which were among the most affected areas, the cost of destruction to Island Councils, buildings under the care of these councils, homes of citizens, and police stations is currently estimated at more than Rf 180m.
In considering the country’s religious heritage, the president reiterated the Maldives’ status as a 100 per cent Muslim nation that did not afford for other religions to be practiced.
“The government will work to revive the spirit and strengthen the principles of Islamic faith among the people,” the president stated.
Addressing economic factors, Waheed stressed that the country was currently undergoing economic vulnerability with a deficit between state expenditure and state income said to currently amount to slightly over Rf3bn (US$200m)
“Estimates for 2012 indicate that the debt component of the current account in our Balance of Payments will increase by 11 per cent as compared to 2011,” stated the president. “With respect to GDP, debt of our current account will go up to 28 per cent. This figure in 2011 was 26 per cent. The main reason for this rise is the expectation that imports will increase, resulting in an increase in expenditure for these imports.”
Riza said that the government was not willing to increase the state budget further and would look to find methods to “live within in its own means.” In order to try and balance its books, the government said it was looking into further financial reforms with the aid of the private sector.
While not presently wishing to review taxation reforms, Riza stressed that the government would not be looking to increase the current 3.5 percent rate tourism Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced last year as had been suggested by the Nasheed government.
In areas of trade, the president said he would look to strengthen opportunities for small and medium enterprises, while also trying obtain “reasonable” prices for a Maldives fisherman’s catch.
“Work is in progress to obtain the Marine Stewardship Council’s Certificate which will enable Maldivian fishermen to get a better price for fish caught through the pole-and-line method,” Waheed said. “Last year, a number of training programmes have been conducted with the aim of increasing the skills of farmers and achieve greater productivity in our agriculture industry. A special school is to be established in Laamu Atoll to conduct agricultural research and training.”
As the country’s foremost source of income, President Waheed claimed that the current government had already achieved a number of positive results regarding tourism. He claimed that counter measures against travel advisories issued in some major tourism markets along with potentially unfavourable headlines were one such example.
“I plan to form a Tourism Advisory Board to determine policy directions for tourism and address the challenges currently faced by the tourism industry,”
Like his predecessor, the new president pledged to be outspoken internationally in regards to the plight small nations faced from the potentially destructive impacts of climate change.
“The government will encourage the voice of small island nations to be heard in the global arena with regard to climate change,” added the president. “The Maldives will always participate in voicing out concerns of small island nations”
Issues relating to housing, sanitation and health were also mentioned in the speech transcript.