Small island populations overwhelmingly rejected the government’s proposal for administrative consolidation and the creation of city councils at Saturday’s referendum amid a 30 percent turnout across the country.
Of 88,882 eligible voters, less than 27,000 participated in the referendum.
Provisional results show that 86 islands voted against the proposal for grouping smaller islands to form large population centres, while only 19, mostly larger islands, voted in favour.
Voting took place in 105 islands listed by the government for administrative consolidation and the creation of city councils ahead of the enactment of the landmark Decentralisation Act and upcoming council elections.
Following the evident lack of voter enthusiasm, the government has been severely criticised for inadequate efforts to raise awareness and inform voters of the benefits of the proposed administrative changes.
After a bitter year-long struggle between the government and opposition parties in parliament over the draft legislation for local governance, the Act was passed in a partisan vote in April after MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) walked out in protest.
The dispute centred round the government’s stated policy of grouping two or more atolls to form seven provinces, which the opposition argued was unconstitutional and could marginalise less populous atolls with disproportionate representation.
While the opposition insisted that the existing division of 20 administrative atolls and the capital Male’ must be maintained, the government argued that consolidation was necessary to achieve economies of scale or cost advantages in the long run.
Saturday’s referendum was necessitated 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.
Following discussions between the two main parties before listing administrative constituencies for the council elections as stipulated by the Act, the parties agreed that a public referendum would have to decide the disputed issue of consolidation.
After the plan for combining islands was announced, opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali criticised it as “senseless”, warning of “dire consequences for the people” should the proposed administrative changes fail.
The parliamentary majority leader also argued that “it would be highly irresponsible to spend taxpayer money” on the referendums in islands with traditional opposition to consolidation.
“Anyone who understands the politics of the different islands would understand that some of the groupings are just non-starters,” he said.
Meanwhile in his weekly radio address on Friday, President Mohamed Nasheed reiterated that developing a large number of small island units was not economically viable.
“Based on my education and experience, I see that a small unit could be developed to a particular extent, a particular limit,” he explained. “When that limit is reached for the small unit, there is very little that can be done.”
Referring to the islands Inguraidhoo, Kinolhas and Fainu in Raa atoll, separated by four nautical miles, Nasheed argued that the administrative consolidation would create a population centre of over 2,500 people.
“When the government as well as aid agencies and well wishers look to help, it is likely that more attention will be given to an island where 2,500 people live than an island with a very small number of people,” he said.
A larger budget could therefore be earmarked for the new constituency, he added, allowing for large scale operations to provide utility services, such as one powerhouse for three islands.
Of the 105 islands where voting took place, the proposal was endorsed by Alif Alif Mathiveri, Alif Dhaal Maamingili, Thaa Omadu, Baa Dharavandhu and Goidhu, Haa Alif atoll Baarah and Thakandhu, Haa Dhaal Finey, Noonu Kendhikulhudhoo, Raa Inguraidhoo and Rasgethymu, Shaviyani Fonadhoo and Milandhoo.
The Elections Commission (EC) is expected to announce the official results tonight.