With Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik returning two [the “political parties” and the “privileges” bills] of the three crucial bills passed by parliament, the stage is now set for a possible, limited confrontation between the executive and the legislature, all over again.
For the third “public assemblies” bill, the president has given his assent, but the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) says it would defy the law if it came to that.
The president has rejected the bill that mandates 10,000-strong membership – up from the existing 3,000 – for political parties to be registered by and with the Election Commission (EC).
As the Maldivian budget allocates 0.1 percent of the GDP for the state funding of political parties, which in turn is based on registered membership, the law has serious consequences for smaller parties. Included in the list are the Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP) of President Waheed and the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) of his Special Advisor Dr Hassan Saeed. The DQP was the second runner-up in the first round of presidential polls in 2008.
The Maldives is a nation where democratic education and elections are a costly affair. Given the vast seas that have to be traversed for a campaign – even in individual parliamentary constituencies. as well as the small number of electorate covered in comparison to other countries – few political parties can sustain themselves without state funding.
With other political parties neck-deep in campaigning for the presidential polls due later this year, any last-minute changes in the law could have consequences for them all.
The “political parties” bill regarding privileges of parliament and MPs, which has also been returned to parliament by the president, has limited application. However, the bill assumes greater significance in the context of some government ministers and other political party leaders in the government ridiculing parliamentarians, and threatening [to remove] them from public platforms.
In the case of the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) for instance, together the two bills could stall its recent efforts to project itself as the self-appointed defender of Islam among Maldivian political parties, protecting Maldivian people’s rights via their elected representatives. Needless to point out, the AP does not have any elected member in the People’s Majlis (parliament).
President Waheed aims at regulating public assemblies and rallies through the third bill. It is a reaction to the MDP rallies following the February 7 transfer-of-power, some of which turned violent. Protests and counter-protests had a tendency to multiply, and the security forces had little power or even the scope to regulate them; especially considering the distance between rival groups’ rallies.
Armed with the 2008 constitutional guarantee protecting the citizens’ rights in the matter, an air of permissiveness was threatening tranquility in the tourism-driven country.
Consensus and cohabitation
Parliament is in recess at present, and is not expected to meet again until March. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the house will vote the two bills be returned to the President, enabling a mandatory assent for both, within 14 days of such passage.
The opposition MDP as the single largest party cannot protest in the interim considering party leader and former President Mohamed Nasheed similarly returned a bill amending the Finance Act, only to grant his assent at the last-minute after the Majlis passed it a second time.
However, what is interesting is the combination of votes that each of these bills polled. Though moved by MDP members in the Parliament, the ‘political parties’ bill and the ‘privileges’ bill had the support of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), the top two parties in President Waheed’s government.
The MDP opposed the bill regulating public assemblies, but other political parties in the government mustered their strength to have it passed.
The combination can pose an embarrassment, though not a challenge, to the government in general and President Waheed in particular, when parliament votes on the two returned bills. The MDP can then actively consider moving the no-confidence motion against President Waheed, which it has been talking about for a long time.
The government parties can be expected to rally around their President – whose term expires later this year – to deny the mandatory two-thirds vote for the impeachment of the head of state.
For the MDP, it could still serve a limited purpose – that is if they are capable of putting together a winning alliance.
Indications are that every party in the government now wants to put up a candidate for the presidential polls, and could rally round the top one in the second, run-off round. Some parties in the coalition may also develop other ideas during the second-round polls, where MDP’s Nasheed may be considered.
What needs noting at such a stage is the emergence of ‘consensus politics’ in present-day Maldives, both inside and outside Parliament, at a time when the nation is otherwise burdened by political divisions and personality clashes.
Independent of the issues involved, it could also set the tone for ‘cohabitation politics’, where the executive and the legislature would be seen as learning to live with each other. The Maldives would then have matured into a democracy capable of voting on issues, inside parliament and outside, moving away from personalities even while retaining the party-tag, to a limited extent at the very least.
Jarring notes, still?
What may send out a jarring note against this background is the MDP’s declaration that the bill regulating public assemblies could not stop the party from launching its promised ‘revolution’. Considering that the ‘revolution’ call was given by at meeting of the MDP’s National Council that had discussed the pending criminal case against President Nasheed, the two may be inter-linked. Thereby hangs a tale, as any conviction of President Nasheed on the charge of ordering the ‘illegal detention’ of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed while he was in power could disqualify him from contesting the elections.
Apart from the ‘Nasheed case’, the Supreme Court is already seized with litigation pertaining to the powers of the legislature vis-a-vie the judiciary; particularly in the summoning of sitting judges trying President Nasheed before a house committee.
Interestingly, the majority decision of the parliament, endorsed also by Speaker Abdulla Shahid, favours the sovereignty of the people under the constitutional scheme, represented by the supremacy of Parliament over the powers and independence of the judiciary. A judicial interpretation in context would have consequences that the infant democracy has to learn in the interim.
Of equal importance in the Nasheed case, in terms of the immediacy of the circumstances involved, would be any case proceeding from the second passage of the “political parties” bill, with mandatory assent from the President. The Adhaalath Party has already declared its intention to fight it out legally, but such a course would now have to wait until after the bill becomes law.
The question is if the judiciary has adequate time to adjudicate on the issue between the time the bill becomes law and the notification for fresh elections to the presidency. If not, would the status quo be maintained in the matter? If in the process, would any judicial stay of the new law pending final disposal be challenged by the legislature, but not the executive as it exists now?
Revisiting CoNI report
Even as these complicated questions beg acceptable and adaptable answers, the MDP has gone ahead with revisiting the report of the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), which upheld the power-transfer of February 7 last year. The MDP-controlled Parliament Committee on Government Oversight has opened investigations on the CoNI Report, which has been endorsed by the incumbent Government and the international community alike.
Under powers purportedly entrusted to it, the committee has decided to summon President Waheed and President Nasheed to appear before it. The committee has also decided to get two external experts (obviously of its choice) to comment on the CoNI report. As if tit-for-tat, a temporary committee of parliament, where the government has a majority, has decided to investigate the commissions and omissions of the Nasheed presidency with renewed vigour.
More recently, the MDP members of the committee, meeting in the absence of other party members, have directed the nation’s Prosecutor General (PG) to proceed legally against incumbent Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim and Police Commissioner Abdullah Riaz on charges of violating Article 99 of the Constitution, by their refusal to honour the panel’s summons, for their interrogation on the CoNI Report. However, the committee has spared Ahmed Shiyam, chief of the Maldivian National Defence Forces (MNDF).
The committee’s views are opposed to those of Attorney General Azima Shakoor, who had earlier written to Speaker Abdullah Shahid that the proceedings were at variance with the Majlis’ Rules of Procedure, and has failed to protect the rights and privileges of individuals summoned before it. If taken forward, this has the potential for a clash between constitutional institutions, though ultimately if approached the Supreme Court could clarify the position.
Apart from the legislative business and judicial pronouncements, such initiatives too have consequences that would cancel out each other at one level, but complicate matters otherwise.
What the political parties need to understand and accept is the fact that neither in constitutional terms, nor in political terms, are such measures expected to give them an additional advantage, either in domestic elections or with the international community.
For that to happen, they have to be seen as winning the presidential polls first and the parliamentary polls next year. The rest of it would be dismissed as fencing by their domestic constituencies and wagering by the international community.
In the process, they would have dissipated their own energies and also frustrated their constituencies, at home and afar. For they are all still working on more problems that the nation can ill-afford and is even more ill-equipped to handle, not on solutions to the existing problems, which are also of their own making.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation
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