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 Eva Abdulla.
Eva Abdulla is a parliamentarian from the Maldivian Democratic Party in the 17th Parliament, representing the Galolhu Uthuru constituency. She is among the only 5 female MPs out of a total of 77 MPs currently in parliament.
Mariyath Mohamed: What made you enter the political arena and how?
Eva Abdulla: The first political activity that I participated in was President [Mohamed] Nasheed’s Malé campaign [for a parliament seat representing Malé district]. I was in Malé between studying for my degree and masters in university. This was the most active political campaign that had occurred in Malé after I grew up. At the time we would be involved in preparing fliers, printing t-shirts, entering data into spreadsheets and such activities.
Even from the early 90s, we would engage in secret political activity at home, like printing t-shirts to mark the International Human Rights Day, which we could only ever wear at home. We had the chance to naturally participate in political activity from home. I got engaged in political activity as soon as I grew up and had the space to do so.
If the question is ‘why’, then I have to say that I always knew it was not right how during Maumoon’s time [the 30 year administration of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom] people would get jailed for speaking out or writing material which criticised the government. Even before Maumoon’s time, when I was really young, I heard of how even during Nasir’s time [Gayoom’s predecessor Ibrahim Nasir], people had been locked up for criticising the government. So from then, I believed this is not right. That people should not be penalised for writing or criticising rulers and the government.
Back when I was young, Nasheed would be continuously jailed and released. We would always visit whichever uncle or other relative of ours is imprisoned in jail or the hospital when they are brought for treatment. So this was something that impacted my views, something I closely experienced.
MM: Based on your attendance and work in this ending term, how would you judge your performance as an MP?
EA: To be honest, there were good days and bad days. Personally, I think I can safely say I give it my all. Looking at my attendance, as you know, I only took leave on two days within the five years for any personal reason. Even on the day of my son’s circumcision, I attended Majlis. It’s not quantitatively that I would look at this. If at all, I get frustrated when the results come out.
First of all, although MDP was in the executive, we were a minority party in parliament. And so, passing anything became such a big struggle. For example, the income tax bill. In our view, with the tax regime that we introduced, the income tax bill is extremely critical, something that needs to be implemented regardless of how small a percentage we take. And yet, it still remains pending in parliament, despite being in committee for four years already.
Then there is the selection of people to various boards. It is not the most suitable people we have selected to be on these boards due to the political struggles involved. The Supreme Court bench is the best example I can give. On the day that nominations were made for this bench, I walked out of my own parliamentary group meeting crying. Things have gone to this extent. But the thing is, to bring results, we have to work within a group, and with external parties as well. So there are days where I get extremely frustrated.
However, I personally don’t judge performance based on whether I spoke well, or I attended well, but rather with consideration of the results we manage to obtain. The 17th parliament is the most prolific parliament in our history when we tally our work, having passed the maximum number of bills. This is the parliament that had the most public engagement.
This is the parliament that was constantly criticised by the public, and rightly so. And yet, if we are to compare it with past parliaments, it is only now that people have the opportunity to see how parliament performs, with the beginning of sessions being publicly broadcast on TV channels.
MM: What are the main committees you were acting on?
EA: The Economic Committee, and all the tax committees and the Budget Committee – which I sat on in relation to my seat on the Economic Committee. I had my heart set on the Budget Committee from the time I first joined parliament. This is because, for me, the budget needs to be well-compiled in order to dictate policy or responsibly run an executive.
MM: What particular bills did you focus on most passionately? You are seen as a parliamentarian who is often outspoken about gender rights issues.
EA: Yes, gender issues are important. But while this may sound dry, tax related bills and decentralisation laws are, in my heart, equally important.
The thing with gender related issues is that there is only a handful of people who are willing to stand up for them. You would have heard some of the statements that some parliamentarians have made about such issues. So for such bills to succeed, us handful of female parliamentarians need to put up a very strong fight.
If it is things like tax or decentralisation, all of MDP is willing to back it. But when it comes to gender issues, I feel a personal responsibility to make sure it is done right.
The anti-torture bill – because of my personal experiences within my family, things we have seen and heard of happening in the country, and especially the case of Evan Naseem, I have since then wanted to establish an anti-torture bill in the Maldives. I have done this as soon as I got into parliament. That wasn’t sponsored by MDP, but my own privately submitted bill. That is what I most passionately worked on.
MM: What would you say are the biggest achievements within your term; in terms of what you feel you have accomplished for your constituency and the country as a whole?
EA: First of all, laws are not made with a focus on the constituency, or the political party. It is made with the nation in mind. When an MDP government was formed in 2008, and the parliamentary elections came across in 2009, we set out with a legislative agenda. This included decentralisation, forming a tax regime, forming legislation to ascertain social security for all citizens, health insurance…these are groundbreaking things that occurred in the Maldives. These are things that reached implementation due to MDP coming to government, forming policies and passing laws to implement these policies, and I am very proud of those.
For example, responding to something Riyaz Rasheed said in parliament in 2011, I said that he is criticising us for the introduction of a tax regime, but that I am sure that whichever government comes to power, they will not eradicate the tax regime, but will bring some changes to it. Take a look now, isn’t that what has happened? Today, we wouldn’t be able to get even an income like we are getting now if not for that tax regime we introduced.
MM: What would you say is the biggest mistake or worst step you have taken in your political career? Why?
EA: There have been times when I did not stand up to the level I ought to have for certain matters within the party. I am not speaking of things which personally impacted me alone. But a couple of things about which, two or three years later, I wish I had done more.
MM: Are you taking the optional committee allowance of an additional MVR 20,000? Why or why not?
EA: I’m not. Because it is ridiculous.
Even when it was first submitted to parliament – and the public was not yet aware of its details – I was among the first to say no to it. I voted against it from day one. Also, it was something that was brought in very much on the sly, including it among many other points in a huge document about the public finance law. Many parliamentarians who do not take the allowance unknowingly voted for it due to this reason.
Of course I won’t take it. For one thing, people did not know I would receive this when they elected me. I don’t want any perks that people did not know I would receive when they voted me in.
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?
EA: While it is invasive, I personally don’t mind. There are many members elected to parliament about whom the electorate needs to know what they are involved in. There are few parliamentarians, who, like me, are not involved in some private business. If we are to look at the financial declaration [as it is submitted to the parliament secretariat now], there is no difference between me and Gasim [MP, Leader of Jumhooree Party and Chairman of Villa Enterprises Gasim Ibrahim]. But everyone knows this cannot be true. So yes, make it public.
MM: What are your thoughts on party switching – do you think it undermines the party system?
EA: I think it is something that some people do because the party system in the Maldives is still very young. I’d like to think that it simply won’t happen in the next parliament.
I have to say the multi-party system is well accepted, as everyone besides 14 out of 77 parliamentarians were elected through a political party. Now when the five year term is coming to end, only about two out of those 14 independent parliamentarians still remain without signing to a party. So, the majority of people running for parliament are aware that it is through a party that you can best get your message across.
I would never switch parties. If I am elected through a particular party, I would personally see it as a betrayal to the electorate if I switch to another party. I strongly believe that I should remain for the five years as I was when I was initially elected. Once the five year terms ends, a person can bring whatever changes they like, but the electorate should get what they voted for.
MM: What improvements do you feel the 18th Parliament will need to make to improve as an institution?
EA: Firstly, something that the public rarely sees, the work conducted in parliamentary committees. This needs to be done in a far more responsible and professional manner. I personally see the work done in committees as being more important that even the work done on the floor.
We also need the required staff. In parliaments in other countries, they provide members with staff who have the required expertise. This is still not done here, and members are expected to have a knowledge about everything.
A lot of it also depends on who people vote in. People who can stay on topic and who can stick to the issue at hand without resorting to personal attacks need to be elected. We need to move beyond petty political agendas.
MM: Are you re-contesting in the next elections? Why? What do you hope to accomplish should you be elected for a new term?
EA: Yes, I am re-contesting. First, we are an opposition party now and we have the opportunity to show how an opposition party works responsibly. As you saw, when MDP was in power, the opposition’s focus was on toppling the government. Their intention was not to defeat the government in the next elections, but to topple them from the streets and that, in the end, is what they did.
Instead of this, when we work as an opposition – and god willing I am re-elected – we will bear in mind that despite not being in the government, there is a legislative agenda that we must push for. MDP had a manifesto when we contested in the presidential elections. This manifesto includes in it what we feel to be the best that the country deserves. While I am not saying that we will try to have the incumbent government work to implement our manifesto, I believe we have a responsibility to push forward and try to have the government deliver to the people the best that the people deserve.
This includes some legislative changes. One example is that we need to clean up this judiciary. As an opposition, that has to be our priority. The five year changes in government is almost meaningless in a place where justice cannot be served. There’s a lot the parliament needs to do make the judiciary, and independent commissions, more accountable.
MM: While there is little public criticism about the work you do in parliament, there is often allegations in public that you have reached your political position through familial connections. That although you are elected, this is due to the influence of certain figures within your family. What is your reaction to this allegation?
EA: I don’t think I can get away from it, it is what it is. President Nasheed is the most iconic figure currently in this country, the most popular individual here. That he is my family, a relative, I cannot get away from. But just because he is a relative does not mean I will stop what I am doing, either.
If you take a look at my campaign, he doesn’t even step into Galolhu. It’s something that the whole of Galolhu even complains about, but he has his reasons because he is so personally connected to them.
There are many reasons why a person gets elected, but there are even more reasons why someone will get re-elected. Let’s then see if I get re-elected.
If there is little criticism about my work, that is good. If the criticism is about my blood relatives, there is nothing I can do.