The government’s proposal to group islands to create new administrative island constituencies is “senseless”, claims opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, warning of “dire consequences for the people” if administrative consolidation fails.
Public referendums are due to take place on October 9 in over a 100 islands on the government’s proposed changes to island administration under the Decentralisation Act, the landmark legislation passed in July to introduce local governance through elected island and atoll councils.
The referendums are required by article 136 of the Decentralisation Act, which states that islands could be grouped to form constituencies if the respective populations make an appeal to the president.
“Whilst best practice in democracy advocates the involvement of people and a bottom up approach, it is a shame that the government has announced this plan without consulting the people of the islands concerned,” Thasmeen writes on his personal website, adding that the party “has all along said and maintained the stance that such changes should be made only if the people of the islands are willing.”
As a result, he continues, people were not fully aware of the implications of the changes to their lives: “What will happen to the system of civil and social services? Should the school children change school? Will there be a change to their representations is local councils? How does the administrative-joining differ from physical relocation of a population from one island to the other? How would the proposed Local Elections Constituency divide work in par with the Parliamentary Constituencies, when there are crossovers?
“These are just some of the many questions that people need answers before they vote at a referendum.”
The unique culture of islands as well as geographic dispersion, he adds, are other aspects that should have been considered.
Dr Hussein Rasheed Hassan, state minister for fisheries and member of the advisory committee to the president on administrative consolidation, denied that citizens had not been properly consulted.
Gauging public opinion through an informal “gathering on the beach” would not be enough to determine either support or opposition, he explained, insisting that the government took into account a host of socio-economic factors for the proposed groupings.
“We believe the best way is to go directly to the people with referendums in a secret ballot where it will be one vote for one person,” he said.
Article 115(p) empowers the president to “hold referendums on issues of national importance”.
Island populations “will know the implications very well” before casting their ballots, Hussein Rasheed said.
“We are preparing a proposal to inform voters on the issues, including the benefits of the administrative grouping and the changes to their daily lives,” he said.
“A sinister plan”
The Elections Commission (EC) announced on Tuesday that the referendums will take place on Saturday, October 9 from 8am to 4pm in 110 islands across the country.
The government has proposed grouping 99 islands into 64 administrative island constituencies by joining two to three islands within four nautical miles, while an additional 11 islands will vote on creating city councils for island populations that exceed 10,000.
In addition to Male’, depending on the outcome of the referendums, city councils will be elected in Haa Dhaal Kulhudhufushi, Fuvahmulah and Addu Atoll.
However, the DRP MP for Kendhoo and parliamentary majority leader also argues that “it would be highly irresponsible to spend taxpayer money” on the referendums in islands with potential opposition.
“Anyone who understands the politics of the different islands would understand that some of the groupings are just non-starters,” writes Thasmeen.
The proposal to merge Lhaviyani Felivaru and Hinnavaru, he continues, reveals the “senselessness” of the plan as the industrial island Felivaru with its fish cannery does not have a settled population.
“Does this mean this is a done deal, a sinister plan of the government to gift Felivaru to Hinnavaru people ripping other islands in the atoll of its stake in the industrial island of Felivaru?” asks Thasmeen. “It sure raises questions.”
In February 2009, the cabinet decided to turn Felivaru, which houses the Maldives Fisheries Company (MIFCO) main fish cannery, into an inhabited island and the hub of the North Province.
In the intervening period, however, the government lost the parliamentary squabble over decentralisation, ending with the Act being passed in a partisan vote after MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) walked out in protest.
The case of Felivaru was a misunderstanding, said Hussein Rasheed, and voting will not take place in Felivaru as the island has not yet been settled.
The state minister urged both the public and opposition politicians to “express their concerns” and “offer constructive criticism” as the issue was of national interest.
He added that the government is “open for consultation.”
“We are very grateful for the DRP Leader for their cooperation,” he added. “We understand that this has to be done in a very short period of time, but we are determined to hold the referendums before the date agreed upon in our talks with DRP.”