“My projection of what I see for the next five years is very bleak,” says Abdulla Shahid.
“Those who want to make sure that the institution of parliament is a weak one – those who would like the institution to just be an executive office – have a majority today in the parliament.”
Shahid was today sworn in to stand alongside his fellow MPs in the 18th Majlis after having led the house from the speaker’s chair for the past five years.
With controversy already surrounding the appointment of his successor, Shahid has told Minivan News of his disappointment regarding what he sees as the persistent erosion of the institution’s powers and independence.
“What we are hearing, especially from President Abdulla Yameen today, is that the parliament has to be an institution which would continuously back the government, and that is what it has been from 1932 to 2009 – an institution that has always rubber-stamped whatever the executive or the president or the sultan wanted,” said the member for Henveiru North.
A member of the Majlis since 1995, Shahid was a founder member of the country’s second registered political party, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party – formed as part of the country’s democratic transition over the past decade.
However, in the aftermath of the chaotic transition of executive power in 2012 , Shahid switched his allegiance to the deposed Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), citing his fear that “opportunists & extremists” were trying to reverse the country’s democratic gains.
“There have been times when I have been slightly satisfied that the Majlis and the country are on the right path, but the entire five years put into context – looking back – I think we have not met the aspirations of the people, or what the people aspired for in 2008.”
Oversight and immunity
Looking back on his term as the first democratically elected speaker of the first democratically elected parliament, Shahid described an institution whose constitutional powers were under concerted attack.
“If you can look at the last five years in parliament – the continuous battering that parliament as an institution took was immense,” he recalled, suggesting that the source of this obstruction was the legislature’s oversight mandate – unprecedented in the Maldives’ history.
“The people over whom we have the oversight wouldn’t have liked it – like the executive, like the judiciary, like the military, like the police – no one liked the parliament bringing officials, executives, or officers to the parliament.”
“Peoples representatives asking questions – they didn’t like it, so they used whatever means – and I’m sad to say this, but the media extensively, to batter the institution of parliament,” said the former speaker.
The 2008 constitution also determined that the proceedings of the Majlis must be open to the public, a consequence of which appears to have been a collapse in the public’s confidence in the institution, according to a recent survey by Transparency Maldives.
The culmination of this “systematic attack”, argued Shahid, was the erosion of parliamentary privileges, almost as soon as the privileges act had been introduced after overriding a presidential veto.
“There was once again systematic propaganda to mislead the public on immunities and privileges, which are two different aspects of the parliament, but they were combined – it was projected to be the same thing and as a result I would say the parliament has suffered immensely.”
In November, the Supreme Court voided a number of articles included in the privileges act and subsequently sentenced MDP MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor to a jail sentence for his failure to attend court hearings scheduled during voting hours – later overturned by the High Court.
MDP MP Abdulla Jabir has also been handed a jail sentence in relation to refusal to submit to urine testing, while two other opposition MPs were removed by the Supreme Court over decreed debt.
Speaking at the launch of a book chronicling the history of the Majlis this week, Shahid noted that over 100 MPs had been convicted and removed from office during the institution’s history.
“The new parliament coming in on the 28th, and even the sitting parliament, we don’t have any immunities,” lamented Shahid. “All these have been incorporated into the immunities act and the constitution based on our experience in the last several decades but they’ve all been taken away.”
He called upon all incoming MPs to work to ensure the institution’s immunities are restored in order to ensure they can fulfil their roles as representatives of the people.
“I think all MPs coming into the new parliament should understand that they are coming with a direct mandate from the people. They are not elected because they have the duty to protect the government of the day.”
“My advice would be to try and bring back the immunities that have been taken by the executive, and by the judiciary.”
The new speaker
During the interview, conducted prior to today’s ballot, Shahid appeared to predict the dissolution of the governing Progressive Coalition which the election of a new speaker has brought about.
With President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) keen to place a member in the speaker’s chair, and with coalition partner Gasim Ibrahim receiving the backing of the opposition MDP, the PPM this week forbade the Jumhooree Party leader from standing.
Gasim’s refusal to defer to his electoral allies appears to have resulted in the splitting of the coalition, leaving the PPM and the Maldivian Development Alliance just short of what had previously been a handsome majority in the 85-seat chamber.
While today’s vote was subsequently won by the PPM’s Abdulla Maseeh, Shahid’s thoughts on Gasim’s candidacy and the ensuing divisions in the house again echoed his concerns over parliamentary independence.
“I talked to Gasim in the parliament about the immunities and he agrees that these immunities should have been incorporated into the constitution,” said Shahid. “If anybody would have the experience and not let the same mistakes be repeated, it would be Gasim.”
Of foremost importance, maintained Shahid, was the appointment of a speaker who understands that the parliament has moved on from its traditional role as an extension of the executive.
“Nobody holds a majority in the parliament, so once again we would have a parliament which is dysfunctional, which is not controlled by anybody and which on many occasions I foresee working with the opposition trying to block things that the government would wish to do,” he said.
“That is the only encouraging part in this scenario, because many of the things that the current government would want to do – based on what they have been talking about in their rhetoric – is making sure that there is a slide back to autocracy.”