Comment: Time to put nation first

The result of the last presidential election proved that we are a divided country. There is no glossing over this fact. But those who wanted to build a new, modern and democratic Maldives just edged out those who wished to remain in an old, stagnant country rooted in autocratic values.

The deposed ruling elite out did not go quietly. Unable to accept the change, they fought back. Perhaps it was a belief that the government, facing tough times due to the economy, could be toppled on the streets.

Opportunity knocks

Now, just over a year on, it is clear that we need a new way of thinking. There is a role for constructive opposition in any democratic system of governance. Some ascribe the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party’s (DRP) behaviour to posturing in the lead up to their congress. Now, their congress is over and a new leadership is in place.

DRP Leader Thasmeen Ali and his team no longer need to pander to the bitter activists in his party. He should recognise that in order to mount a successful challenge for the presidency in 2013, he will have to shake off the ‘activist’ label that his party has inherited through their actions of the last year. The party needs to appear mature and able to contribute substantially to national development during this presidential term – even if another party is in power.

Similarly, the government also needs to recognise that even with their new recruits it does not have an absolute majority in parliament. There needs to be give-and-take for things to be achieved. President Mohamed Nasheed has already indicated in a recent radio address that his government stood ready to work with other political parties in the interest of the nation. Now is the time to follow through on this promise.

Bipartisan politics

The opening of parliament tomorrow presents a unique opportunity for all parties and factions within the Majlis to enact important and necessary legislation. Indeed, readers will recall that the most commonly heard statement on the campaign trail during the parliamentary elections was that successful candidates would work to implement the government’s manifesto programme.

MDP candidates argued that they should be elected to ensure that the government’s programme was implemented successfully. Opposition candidates said that they should be elected to ensure that the government did not deviate from their pledges. There was a broad recognition and acceptance of the merits of the pledges.

We cannot afford a repeat of the “do nothing parliament” that graced our television screens and blocked the airwaves during the last session. MPs pursued petty and vindictive agendas such as the motion of no confidence against the foreign minister. The public expects much more from their elected representatives. And it is high time that MPs woke up to this reality.

As parliament begins its sitting for this year, it faces two important bills. One needs to be passed because the constitution says so. The other is critical to ensure that the country remains fiscally solvent.

The first is the decentralisation bill. It is a constitutionally required piece of legislation and the stipulated deadline has already passed. Effective local government has always been a big demand in the islands. This is a demand that needs to be met early on in the parliamentary session.

Parliamentarians should not allow a petty debate over semantics (‘provinces’ or ‘atolls’) stand between the people and their ability to take on municipal functions at the island level, and local development programmes through economically viable units at the sub national level.

The other important item on the Majlis agenda is reform of the tax system. One of the governing party’s central pledges was to lower the cost of living. Regressive taxation, through customs duties should be replaced with a proper and efficient taxation system. Furthermore, the steep decline in government revenue last year needs to be reversed.

This is why it is of paramount importance that the business profit tax is introduced as soon as possible and an ad valorem tax for the tourism sector ensures that resorts are taxed per bed night on a percentage basis rather than the flat $8 that is currently the case. This reform is both more equitable and will see the fruits of the country’s largest industry passed onto the people.

No more distractions

Of course politicians need to work together on other issues. Malevolent political agendas outside of parliament also need to be put aside. The distraction of the regulation to allow foreigners to purchase alcohol in city hotels (in addition to resorts as is currently the case), is a case in point, and has cast a shadow over the country.

The hysteria that has been whipped up over an issue that would not really affect Maldivians’ lives, and actually go to improve it through the curb on alcohol by restricting the 800 “bars” in Malé, is nothing more than political posturing by those with a political, rather than religious, agenda. But the government’s position that it would not push ahead with the regulation if people did not wish for it was probably the sensible thing to do given the circumstances.

There is also the distraction of public sector restructuring. The Civil Service Commission (CSC) has been used as a political tool. It has been acting like a labour union and not been fulfilling its constitutional mandate. The Commission needs to be reappointed before August 2010 according to the constitution, and hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later so that the country can put this sorry episode behind it. A genuinely independent CSC needs to be appointed to guide public sector employees through these hard times.

Though there are signs that the economy will pick up this year, tough times are still not ever. Redundancies and wage cuts will inevitably hurt people. This is an opportunity for all in the political sphere to work together to ensure that the effects are mitigated. Job creation in the productive sectors of the economy is needed. The social protection system needs to work to ensure that no one falls through the net.

In short, it is time for politicians to put nation first – at least until 2013.