Parliament’s decentralisation committee has removed the concept of ‘provinces’ from the contentious Decentralisation Bill, claiming that dividing the country into seven provinces and not keeping it divided into its current 21 administrative regions is unconstitutional.
During the decentralisation bill’s third innings at Parliament, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)-led committee in charge of reviewing the bill voted in favour of removing the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) proposal of provincial division.
In protest against the removal of the ‘provinces’ from the bill, four MDP MPs walked out of the committee meeting last week leaving the remaining seven members to take a vote on whether the provincial divisions should remain or be removed.
According to Independent MP Mohamed Nasheed, this “sticking issue” has been causing disagreements in Parliament and within the committee since the Bill was first introduced. The reasons behind the argument were “partly legal, partly political,” he explained.
According to the Constitution, the country should be divided into 21 administrative districts. Nasheed points out that the Constitution does not mention provinces; nor does it say whether the country can or cannot be divided into provinces.
Nasheed said the DRP is against the move because they claim it is unconstitutional, while the MDP counters that because provincial governance is in the party’s manifesto and people voted for MDP, it should be allowed.
Nasheed said the government began constructing new province offices and appointing ministers while the bill was still being disputed, and has spent Rf125 million (US$9.6 million) on administrative costs already.
“The government did not consult with the main opposition [before going ahead],” he said.
In an effort to avoid the protests and disruption that occurred during the last vote in parliament over the bill, Nasheed suggested a compromise whereby the president has the right to group regions together for administrative reasons, similar to the way it is done in the health and education sectors.
“It does not need to be crystallised in law,” he explained.
He noted that creating provincial councils would only complicate things as it would mean four layers of government in the country: island council, atoll council, province council and national government.
However Nasheed said he believes that “no one will give up” on the issue, as “the government has climbed the ladder so high, it would be a major political defeat if they back down. Right now, it’s MDP against everyone else,” he said.
Nasheed said he expects “a lot of friction” in Parliament this coming week, suggesting that “hell will come” when the issue is sent back to the Majlis.
MDP MP for Henveiru South Hamid Abdul Gafoor said the bill “should have been enacted into law on 1 July 2009… it has to be done within the transitional two years [since the change of government]. There are only three months left.”
Gafoor said because the population of individual atolls are so small, sometimes under 10,000 people, it is not enough people to make administrative costs economically viable.
“We need [about] 40,000 people [in each region] to make it economically feasible,” he said, noting that this would mean cutting civil servants “as the extra layer simplifies the system.”
Gafoor said there would still be atoll councillors, but there wouldn’t be a need for representatives of the central government in each atoll, therefore reducing costs.
“We will cut down on red tape, on bureaucracy,” he said.
Gafoor added that if this section of the bill is passed, the subsequent elections for provincial ministers and representatives would be “a landmark election” for the country.
Chairperson of the Decentralisation Committee and DRP MP Mohamed Mujthaz said there will only be another vote if an MP proposes amendments. Otherwise, he said, “tomorrow, the committee will finish [reviewing the bill].”
DRP MP Ahmed Nihan said the DRP has been “refusing to add” this concept of provincial division from the beginning.
He said DRP has never been against decentralisation, as it clearly stated in the Constitution the country should be run by a decentralised government. But he added “it is unconstitutional” to make the division into seven provinces and not the stipulated 21 regions.
Nihan said this new division would only complicate things more, adding “the public is now confused” as to where to go: the island office, atoll office, or province office: “The service is getting far away from the people.”
Nihan said MDP can ask for an amendment in Parliament, but said he thought “the public is not in the mood to let this happen.”
Press Secretary for the President, Mohamed Zuhair, said “the president’s view has been publicly stated. Just having atoll councillors does not prove good economics; it is too small a population.”
Zuhair said although the Constitution stipulates the country be divided into twenty-one atolls, “it does not prohibit” dividing it by provinces.
He said grouping the atolls into provinces was “necessary” and noted that “aid agencies have [also] grouped them. This is not a new idea.”
Zuhair said MDP MPs are boycotting the committee and said “there will still be intervention,” assuring “there will be a vote” in Parliament to resolve this.
He added that the president could, “by decree” include the provinces into the bill, “but it’s not the ideal situation. The president is still trying to garner support.”