In a series of interviews to lead into the the 2014 parliamentary elections – scheduled for March 22nd – Minivan News will be conducting interviews with incumbent MPs.
All 77 sitting members have been contacted, from across the political spectrum, to be asked a standardised set of questions with additional topicals. The interviews will be published as and when they are received.
As part of the series, Minivan News interviewed MP Ahmed Easa.
MP Easa represents the Kendhikulhudhoo constituency of Noonu Atoll and is from opposition Maldivian Democratic Party.
Mariyath Mohamed: What made you enter the political arena and how?
Ahmed Easa: My maternal family has always been a political family. My maternal uncle Tholhendhoo Hassan Gasim even spent time in detention as a political prisoner during Maumoon’s [former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom] regime and was tortured then. Hassan Gasim was my guardian after my mother passed away. So from a young age I was exposed to political discussions. Hassan Gasim also served as island chief for about 40 years, and even as Atoll Chief for Noonu Atoll. He even received an Award of Honour from the state for his practice of traditional medicine. He was quite popular in the North, and this led to many high level political discussions happening in my house at the time.
From a young age I was exposed to the truth of the torture and injustice that was a norm in Gayoom’s regime, and so from a young age I disliked Maumoon’s leadership.
I grew up and joined the tourist resort industry. I had the good fortune to get many opportunities to work abroad within the luxury hotel industry, which resulted in my getting to meet numerous famous personalities, including politicians, leaders of various nations. I also became aware of the levels to which citizens of other countries had their human rights protected and civilian rights respected. While I have not been able to acquire academic credentials in the field of politics, various experiences led to my knowledge of the area being quite strengthened.
And then after I came back to work in the Maldives, the Employee Act was formed, and tourist sector employees were completely removed from having these rights. With our background knowledge of labour rights in other parts of the world, we could not at all tolerate this injustice. So, along with other long term colleagues, we set out to obtain the rights we were entitled to. Our belief was that if we were not able to find a solution to this matter ahead of the 2008 presidential elections, it would later prove doubly hard to accomplish our goals. This is because, as you know, it is easiest to get the attention of politicians at times when there is an election looming closely ahead.
So we exerted a lot of pressure to amend the law. We met with all the parliamentarians, the cabinet and other government authorities. We submitted the largest local petition to date, with signatures of over 10,000 tourism sector employees. And even then we were not able to get a good enough response, and so we called for the country’s first industrial strike. We called for employees to halt work in all resorts of the Maldives, and received immense support. When work in resorts began to come to a halt, Gayoom asked then Minister of Legal Reform Mohamed ‘Kutti’ Nasheed to submit amendments to the parliament. I believe that was a huge accomplishment gathered with my leadership and the hard work of many others. I take pride in the fact that the association we formed is now stronger, and operating as an internationally recognized trade union under affiliation with international trade unions. While I am not on its leadership anymore, there are some very young capable persons leading it today.
The first purely political activity I engaged in was during the referendum on whether there should be a presidential or parliamentary system here. I actively led the campaign in Kendhikulhudhoo to elect a parliamentary system. I took leave from my work at the resort and even freelanced as a reporter for the publication known as Minivan News at the time. The regulation’s Article 21 said that the votes cast in any island must be counted at the island itself before the ballot box is shipped back to the capital. In many islands, things happened in contradiction to this act, with ballot boxes being sealed and sent out without being counted. I protested. I said that things have to be done as per the regulations. After some chaos and huge problems around the matter, the Elections Commission finally ordered the regulations to be followed in all islands.
Even at that point, I am a man who sticks to my principles. I enter anything after much consideration and thought. I only take up what I believe to be something that I must do. Once I do come out, I will work on the front lines. My belief is that once we set out to do something, there are only two possible results. One is to succeed, and the other is to fail. There are things we must accept both in our successes and failures.
For example, the recent presidential elections. I don’t accept how the matters around the election proceeded. I don’t believe it was a free and fair election. It can only be a free and fair election if the Elections Commission is able to practically have all the powers and authority granted to it by law in the conduct of an election. What I saw was that the past election was held by the Supreme Court, and not the Elections Commission. There are no laws that allow the Supreme Court to conduct an election, and so I don’t accept the way the elections were conducted.
However, although we did not win the polls, there are certain things that we did succeed in. One is that we were able to bring the Maldives out of the state of coup, and install an elected leader voted in by the people, regardless of how the elections were conducted. So we have accepted this. Our party believes it is a huge success that there is a government which came to power as a result of citizens being able to exercise their right to vote.
Even today I believe, the country is better suited to be run under a parliamentary system. I don’t think that the overlap between the three powers of state and the issues that arise as a result will still be present if we can better understand the governing system. I believe the political leaders must think about this today. One must not try to change the system once there is an election overhead, that will only lead to chaos. It must be well thought out and done in more peaceful times.
MM: Referring back to the association you have mentioned, what is your role in the formation of TEAM (Tourism Employees Association of Maldives) and do you still assist in its management at present?
AE: Like I said, we started working as a group to ascertain that we are entitled to our rights. It was not an easy job to get employees in over 90 resorts to sign the petition without us personally travelling to those islands. However, even the petition did not bring about the desired result. So we believed, after the advice of experienced persons, that it is through forming a trade union that we can advocate for our rights effectively. However, as it was not clear if we authorised to form such a union under then existing laws, we registered as an organisation. However, today it has changed into a trade union.
Today, my role is only advisory. And that too, I only provide advice if I am requested for it, and the association is not mandated to follow my advice. The trade union has a strong leadership today. As there may arise a matter of conflict of interest, they advised me to resign and stop attending board meetings from the point I got elected as an MP of then ruling party MDP.
MM: Based on your attendance and work in this ending term, how would you judge your performance as an MP?
AE: As I see it, the parliament is a hectic place, and one that carries serious responsibilities. I attempted to perform at my maximum capacity. I don’t think my attendance records will be too bad. Unless I am away on an official trip, or more recently out of Malé for a medical trip, I have rarely failed to attend any sessions. There have been instances where I have flown back on my own expenses from official trips in Europe just to participate in important votes in parliament. So as I see it, I paid a lot of attention to attending well. I have never missed any important votes taken in parliament.
I believe strongly in multi-party democracy and have always worked to uphold party values. I believe the work I conducted was rather good.
My attendance to committees is also very good. As the MDP member who simultaneously served on the most number of committees, there are some I might have missed due to overlapping meetings.
MM: What are the main committees you worked on? What particular bills did you focus on?
AE: I submitted numerous amendments to the Employees Act. I also submitted a bill regarding state expenditure, targeted to holding the state accountable. That bill has been passed and ratified now. That bill brings down the threat of the state going into debt regardless of which government comes to power in future. There are procedures under which state funds can be spent and loans can be taken included in this act and I believe it is a crucial piece of legislature in times as politically volatile as now.
Also other legislature like the Pre-school Act passed while I was the Chair of the National Development Committee. I did a lot of work as chair of that committee. If you do some research into it you will see that until I became chair of that committee, it had never before succeeded in completing draft of any bill and submitting it to the parliament floor.
I was in the National Development Committee, the Government Oversight Committee, the Disciplinary Committee and a temporary committee.
After the February 7 transfer of power, I focused strongly on the Government Oversight Committee as I believed it was one of the most important committees in session at the time. It is something deeply connected to citizens.
MM: What would you say are the biggest achievements within your term; in terms of what you have accomplished for your constituency and the country as a whole?
AE: In Noonu Atoll, one very sad truth is that we never see our elected MP except when elections near. Especially when Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom served as the MP for the constituency, people only see him during election time. I, for one, never saw Yameen except during election time. Before I myself got elected to parliament, the last time I had seen Yameen was just before the previous parliamentary election. We see him every five years.
One thing that citizens often said to me when I first contested is that they won’t see me either from the point I get elected. That I won’t be where I can hear their concerns again. I pledged then that I would change that norm.
Today, I can proudly say that of the six islands in my constituency, there isn’t a single one I haven’t visited at least twenty to twenty five times. I have walked down all main streets, talked to the people, and dropped by several houses during these visits.
The other thing is how much I have assisted people in various things. Besides my parliamentary work, the only thing I have spent time on is assisting people in my constituency in various things.
However it is the citizens who will decide if I have served them well enough, that is not for me to say. They will make that decision in the upcoming election. If I do not get re-elected, it means I haven’t visited those islands frequently enough. That the citizens want to see their parliamentarian more. If, however, I do get re-elected, I have room to believe that the people are satisfied with the work I have done. That I must strive to do even better in my next five years.
MM: What would you say is the biggest mistake or worst step you have taken in your political career? Why?
AE: Letting a vote in favour of Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb slip through my hands in the recent parliament vote to endorse Yameen’s cabinet. That is the biggest mistake of my political career, what I politically suffered for most.
MM: As what you have referred to was a cause for much public criticism, would you like to explain how you came about to commit what you have termed your biggest mistake?
AE: As I see it, it is something I cannot really give much explanation for. It is 100 percent my fault. The parliament is always a loud and chaotic place, especially during important votes such as this one. Once the members start shouting, it is hard to hear what the speaker is saying or anyone else is saying, even if they speak over the microphone. That is not any justification for having let that vote slip by. If I had been able to concentrate as much as I should have, then that vote would not have slipped through my hands.
This is a kind of mistake that should not have been made by someone of my political calibre. But it happened because it was so loud there and I misheard the name that was announced.
I myself wouldn’t believe it if someone else told me what I am today. Someone of my status should not have committed such a silly mistake, and yet is done. I am facing many political challenges due to it. I am also being criticised by the grassroot level of my party because of this. I respectfully accept it all, I do understand how they feel. I believe that I deserve a penalisation for my mistake. As an organisation, the party must penalise me for this mistake. MDP is the most democratic and strongest political party. To remain so, it must take action against those in responsible positions whose acts negatively affect the party, regardless of whether the act was unintentional or deliberate.
I believe I must be penalised. It is the party that will decide what the penalty will be.
I began my political career with MDP and will not work with any other political ideology. I believe the MDP leadership includes those most faithful to the country right now. I believe President Mohamed Nasheed is the most sincere political leader. I remain steadfast in my decision to stand behind him.
I have heard through social media that MDP is considering retracting parliamentary tickets from those that voted to endorse those cabinet ministers. If they do so, I will wholeheartedly accept their decision. By saying ‘accept’, I mean that if MDP does cancel my primary ticket, if I try there might be opportunities where I can contest through another party or even as an independent candidate. However, if the party does take that action against me, I assure you that I will neither defect to another party nor will I contest as an independent candidate. Additionally, I will back whichever candidate gets the ticket and will do what I can to assist him in his campaign.
What I mean to say is that I began my political career with MDP, and that I will end it with MDP.
MM: You have just said that a vote to endorse the Tourism Minister slipped through your hands. Does this mean that this is the only cabinet minister you voted in favour of that day?
AE: Yes. I have never voted against party lines in the past five years. Even in more important votes, votes which our political opposition tried far harder to succeed in, I have steadfastly voted in alignment with party lines.
I have never broken a party whip line, deliberately or mistakenly, except for this time. And even in this instance, it was only the Adheeb vote – I voted along party lines for everyone else.
MM: Are you taking the optional committee allowance of an additional MVR20,000? Why or why not?
AE: I never really supported it even when it was first spoken of. If I remember right, I did not even participate in the first vote that was taken regarding committee allowance. I don’t remember too well how I voted in the later vote on the matter.
As I remember, I voted in line with the majority of votes that day in parliament. This is something I often do. If the party gives us a free whip, I vote as the majority of the full parliament feels is best. I think this is one of the best policies of democracy, aligning with majority. Perhaps, by doing so, I might have acted in a way that led some citizens to be displeased. What I am saying is it is possible that 77 of us do something that may displease the 200,000 or 300,000 citizens of this country.
I cannot say for certain whether I voted for or against it, but I definitely would have voted in the way the majority did that day.
The committee allowance issue led to a lot of discord. I have often spoken in parliament of compiling a solid financial structure under which those in state positions get paid. I have always advocated that the same principles be applied when giving incentives and privileges to those serving in the three separate branches of the state.
For example, about MVR100,000 is being spent on a Supreme Court judge every month, which is a huge amount. With all our allowances, an MP is also paid about MVR 82,500 or 62,500 a month, which, yes, is a hefty amount. So what I am saying is, talking only about the incentives that an MP gets and ignoring judges and others in state positions will not bring the system into order. All of it needs to be addressed.
We cannot adapt a system where we have to spend more than what the state earns.
MM: What is your view about parliamentarians and other public servants declaring their financial assets publicly for the electorate to be able to refer to?
AE: When the Disciplinary Committee discussed about financial statements, MDP members advocated for it to be made public. But the DRP, PPM, and JP stopped it through a vote then. As I see it, citizens must be able to see the financial assets of politicians. It must be available publicly even on the parliament website.
That day, opposition members said to me that while I may not have any concerns about making financial statements public as I don’t engage in other businesses, they have family businesses which they don’t want out in the public eye. I accept that they might have family businesses, but I am not referring to those. I am saying that the person who must be accountable to the public must reveal his personal financial statement.
MM: Are you re-contesting in the next elections? Why? What do you hope to accomplish should you be elected for a new term?
AE: Yes, so far I have got the parliamentary ticket without a primary as no one else contested for the Kendhikulhudhoo constituency from MDP. If, like I said before, MDP does not retract my candidacy due to my mistake in the cabinet vote I will contest. But I will remain in serving the people through MDP.
Why am I re-contesting for Kendhikulhudhoo constituency? I have always said I will contest in two terms. I have always believed that it is for very good reason that many countries say that a president can serve for ten consecutive years maximum. While the constitution does not have any limitations on how many times a person can apply for reconstestation, I believe that after two terms we must allow younger new candidates to come out and face up to the challenge. This is what I intend to do.
MM: What improvements do you feel the 18th Majlis will need to make to improve as an institution?
AE: There are some administrative challenges that the parliament faces in running effectively. This year’s budget includes funds to complete the new parliament building, which I think is absolutely necessary.
There are also some bills that need to be completed for the Constitution to be fully in effect, and so far we have not been able to finish this work.
However, as someone who worked in parliament in five years, I must say that although the performance of many members on the parliament floor may not seem satisfactory to the general public, they do a lot of work in the committees, which is where the majority of our work is conducted anyway. It is a huge challenge to effectively do this work that we do not have sufficient space to conduct meetings in.
MM: What are your thoughts on party switching? Do you think it undermines the party system?
AE: As I see it, we cannot force anyone to remain in a party. The question that then arises is if we should narrow this habit of defection through a law. However, there is a Supreme Court verdict which clearly states that this cannot be done.
What is left to be considered is honesty and sincerity. A party is an ideology. I believe that it is people who do not have a strong political belief or ideology that switches parties. The only cure for this is for parties to focus on ensuring that it is people with strong political beliefs that they raise to positions.
I for one am saying clearly that I believe in the MDP ideology very strongly. I have no doubts about my political beliefs and will not change it. As long as MDP remains steadfast in upholding its current political principles, I will remain with it.