December 22, 2013 marks the 81st anniversary of the proclamation of the Maldives’ first parliament. The following article was prepared by the People’s Majlis secretariat.
The first written Constitution of the Maldives was codified in the early twentieth century, on December 22, 1932 during the thirtieth year of the reign of Sultan Mohamed Shamsudeen Iskandar III.
A thirteen member committee began work on drafting the constitution on March 22, 1931. The acting Governor of Ceylon Bernard H. Bourdill provided technical expertise in its composition. A first draft was completed on June 16, 1931.
With the ratification of the first Constitution of the Maldives on December 22, the first semblance of representative government came into effect. A set of credentials for the King was established – these states the King must be sane man, be of the Sunni Muslim faith and be from the ruling family. A cabinet of ministers and a parliament comprising forty seven members was also established.
The first constitution had 92 articles and a bill of rights guaranteeing equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture, protection of private property, freedom of expression, association and press, and a pension after 25 years of service to the state.
Though a milestone, historical records note that the Maldives’ first Constitution failed within nine months of ratification.
The newly established People’s Majlis passed 40 laws during its short tenure. The new legislation established fines, penalized theft and as- sault, created a state trading company and regulated foreign trade through a Foreign Investments Act and Freighters Act. The new laws angered the public and influential foreign traders in the Maldives. Foreign traders who had a monopoly on imported food started a series of strikes on 26 July 1933, demanding that the new government’s policies be repealed.
The result of the ensuing food insecurity was a public revolt. The founders of the constitution were banished to Colombo and the constitution was amended to 84 articles in June 1934. The Maldives’ first constitution was reduced to 80 articles in 1937 and finally suspended shortly after World War II broke in 1940. A special Majlis at the time stated, “The Constitution and General Provisions have been annulled as they do not fit the Maldives’ situation.”
On 23 April 1942, Sultan Hassan Nooradeen sent a 17 article constitution to the Majlis saying he wanted “a suitable constitution to exist in the Maldives.”
The “small constitution” handed the powers of the state to the monarchy, the foreign minister, and the People’s Majlis. The People’s Majlis was reduced to 6 appointed members and 27 elected members. The second constitution was amended in 1951 and reinstated freedom from arbitrary arrest and banishment and freedom of expression, speech and association. The 34 member People’s Majlis’ term was set to five years.
In 1950, the People’s Majlis voted to abolish the monarchy and institute a republican government in the Maldives. A public referendum endorsed the change and a third constitution on 1 January 1953 established a presidential system of government in the Maldives for the first time.
The new democratic constitution comprising 30 articles established a president to be elected through a direct vote, a judiciary appointed by the president and a bicameral legislature – an 18-member senate and a 47 member House of Representatives.
The new constitution also limited the presidential term to five years, but appointed Al-Ameer Mohamed Ameen Dhoshimeyna Kilegefaanu as the first president of the Maldives. For the first time in Maldivian history, a woman was elected to the parliament.
However, the Maldives’ first republic was short-lived. A revolution on August 21, 1953 abolished the Republic. The country reverted to a Sultanate on January 31, 1954. The change was followed by the ratification of the fourth Constitution of Maldives on March 7, 1954. The fourth constitution declared the Maldives to be an “elected monarchy.”
A unicameral legislature was reinstated with 54 members, of which 6 were to represent the king, 46 to represent the people and two to represent businessmen. Only Maldivian men could vote to elect the People’s Majlis.
Shortly after the Maldives won independence from the British Empire, the fourth constitution was repealed and a Second Republic was established under the rule of President Ibrahim Nasir in 1968. The new constitution declared: “The Maldives is an independent and free state.” According to the fifth constitution, the president of the Maldives was to be elected through a secret vote of the 54 member People’s Majlis.
In 1980, the second president of the second republic Maumoon Abdul Gayoom called for a special constitutional assembly consisting of cabinet ministers and People’s Majlis members to amend the new constitution.
After an 18-year long process, the fifth constitution of the Maldives was amended for the fourth time. Notable amendments included clauses permitting any individual who wished to stand for presidency to submit an application to the People’s Majlis. The Majlis would then choose a candidate who then had to be approved through a public referendum.
In September 2003, unprecedented anti-government riots broke out in Male, sparked by deaths of four prison inmates. The September riots came shortly after the Majlis had unanimously endorsed President Gayoom as the sole candidate for a record sixth term in office.
In October 2003, Gayoom was elected by 90.3 percent of the popular vote. In his inaugural address, Gayoom promised various political reforms. Gayoom’s first steps were to institute a human rights commission in 2003 to investigate abuses and to establish a constitutional assembly in May 2004 to draft a democratic constitution.
The constitution was to guarantee separation of powers and a multi-party democracy.
The constitutional assembly—the People’s Special Majlis— consisted of 29 appointees, along with 42 elected members of the regular Majlis and a further 29 elected members.
The drafting process was slow with rival political parties at loggerheads over several issues including the opposition proposed adoption of a parliamentary system in the Maldives. A public referendum was called in August 2007, and 60 percent of the public backed a presidential system of government.
The sixth constitution of the Maldives, ratified in August 2008, introduced a whole new set of democratic rights, enshrined the separation of powers and introduced mechanisms for accountability and transparency. It paved the way for Maldives’ first multi-party elections in October 2008.