Parliament sitting adjourned amid disorder

Today’s sitting of parliament was adjourned by Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed amid vociferous protests by opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs over an amendment proposed to the parliamentary rules to require a vote ahead of debating bills and resolutions.

MDP MPs accused the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) of attempting to “silence the voice of the minority party” by blocking debate on resolutions.

The PPM together with the five MPs of coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) have a combined 48 seats in the 85-member house.

Under the existing rules or standing orders, bills and resolutions submitted to the People’s Majlis have to be tabled in the agenda and debated on the floor ahead of a vote.

If MPs decide to accept a bill or resolution following preliminary debate, it would be sent to committee for further review ahead of a final vote.

Previously, motions without notice – which opens the floor for a one-hour debate on matters of urgent public importance – submitted by MDP MPs have been defeated by the majority party.

In July, pro-government MPs voted against a motion without notice submitted by MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy to debate the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) controversial decision to clear Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed of misconduct over his appearance in a series of sex tapes.

Imthiyaz revealed to the press this week that Speaker Maseeh – a member of the PPM – had sent a letter on Saturday (August 16) to the general affairs committee requesting the revision.

Imthiyaz noted that a resolution he submitted in July calling for a parliamentary debate on the JSC decision regarding Justice Ali Hameed’s sex tapes has yet to be tabled in the agenda by the speaker.

Today’s sitting became disorderly during debate on a report (Dhivehi) compiled by the general affairs committee after evaluating the amendments proposed by the speaker.

The committee had rejected the amendment proposed to section 77(a) after MDA MP Ahmed Amir voted in favour of a proposal by Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ahmed Mubeen to keep the section unchanged.

The proposal was passed with five votes after Amir voted with JP and MDP MPs on the committee.

However, PPM MP Jameel Usman proposed the same amendment during today’s debate, prompting MDP MPs to object with points of order.

Several MDP MPs also sprang from their seats and surrounded Usman while he was proposing the amendment. Under the rules, once an amendment is proposed to a committee report and seconded, the speaker must put it to a vote.

MDP and JP MPs accused the ruling party of attempting to overrule the committee decision by using their majority in the full house floor.

However, Usman reportedly said later that he was not in favour of requiring a vote ahead of preliminary debates for bills and resolutions, claiming that he was going to propose giving each party and independent MP five minutes during debates but was shouted down.


Comment: Maldives competitive, combative, yet cooperative, too

With Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik returning two [the “political parties” and the “privileges” bills] of the three crucial bills passed by parliament, the stage is now set for a possible, limited confrontation between the executive and the legislature, all over again.

For the third “public assemblies” bill, the president has given his assent, but the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) says it would defy the law if it came to that.

The president has rejected the bill that mandates 10,000-strong membership – up from the existing 3,000 – for political parties to be registered by and with the Election Commission (EC).

As the Maldivian budget allocates 0.1 percent of the GDP for the state funding of political parties, which in turn is based on registered membership, the law has serious consequences for smaller parties. Included in the list are the Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP) of President Waheed and the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) of his Special Advisor Dr Hassan Saeed. The DQP was the second runner-up in the first round of presidential polls in 2008.

The Maldives is a nation where democratic education and elections are a costly affair. Given the vast seas that have to be traversed for a campaign – even in individual parliamentary constituencies. as well as the small number of electorate covered in comparison to other countries – few political parties can sustain themselves without state funding.

With other political parties neck-deep in campaigning for the presidential polls due later this year, any last-minute changes in the law could have consequences for them all.

The “political parties” bill regarding privileges of parliament and MPs, which has also been returned to parliament by the president, has limited application. However, the bill assumes greater significance in the context of some government ministers and other political party leaders in the government ridiculing parliamentarians, and threatening [to remove] them from public platforms.

In the case of the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) for instance, together the two bills could stall its recent efforts to project itself as the self-appointed defender of Islam among Maldivian political parties, protecting Maldivian people’s rights via their elected representatives. Needless to point out, the AP does not have any elected member in the People’s Majlis (parliament).

President Waheed aims at regulating public assemblies and rallies through the third bill. It is a reaction to the MDP rallies following the February 7 transfer-of-power, some of which turned violent. Protests and counter-protests had a tendency to multiply, and the security forces had little power or even the scope to regulate them; especially considering the distance between rival groups’ rallies.

Armed with the 2008 constitutional guarantee protecting the citizens’ rights in the matter, an air of permissiveness was threatening tranquility in the tourism-driven country.

Consensus and cohabitation

Parliament is in recess at present, and is not expected to meet again until March. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the house will vote the two bills be returned to the President, enabling a mandatory assent for both, within 14 days of such passage.

The opposition MDP as the single largest party cannot protest in the interim considering party leader and former President Mohamed Nasheed similarly returned a bill amending the Finance Act, only to grant his assent at the last-minute after the Majlis passed it a second time.

However, what is interesting is the combination of votes that each of these bills polled. Though moved by MDP members in the Parliament, the ‘political parties’ bill and the ‘privileges’ bill had the support of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), the top two parties in President Waheed’s government.

The MDP opposed the bill regulating public assemblies, but other political parties in the government mustered their strength to have it passed.

The combination can pose an embarrassment, though not a challenge, to the government in general and President Waheed in particular, when parliament votes on the two returned bills. The MDP can then actively consider moving the no-confidence motion against President Waheed, which it has been talking about for a long time.

The government parties can be expected to rally around their President – whose term expires later this year – to deny the mandatory two-thirds vote for the impeachment of the head of state.

For the MDP, it could still serve a limited purpose – that is if they are capable of putting together a winning alliance.

Indications are that every party in the government now wants to put up a candidate for the presidential polls, and could rally round the top one in the second, run-off round. Some parties in the coalition may also develop other ideas during the second-round polls, where MDP’s Nasheed may be considered.

What needs noting at such a stage is the emergence of ‘consensus politics’ in present-day Maldives, both inside and outside Parliament, at a time when the nation is otherwise burdened by political divisions and personality clashes.

Independent of the issues involved, it could also set the tone for ‘cohabitation politics’, where the executive and the legislature would be seen as learning to live with each other. The Maldives would then have matured into a democracy capable of voting on issues, inside parliament and outside, moving away from personalities even while retaining the party-tag, to a limited extent at the very least.

Jarring notes, still?

What may send out a jarring note against this background is the MDP’s declaration that the bill regulating public assemblies could not stop the party from launching its promised ‘revolution’. Considering that the ‘revolution’ call was given by at meeting of the MDP’s National Council that had discussed the pending criminal case against President Nasheed, the two may be inter-linked. Thereby hangs a tale, as any conviction of President Nasheed on the charge of ordering the ‘illegal detention’ of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed while he was in power could disqualify him from contesting the elections.

Apart from the ‘Nasheed case’, the Supreme Court is already seized with litigation pertaining to the powers of the legislature vis-a-vie the judiciary; particularly in the summoning of sitting judges trying President Nasheed before a house committee.

Interestingly, the majority decision of the parliament, endorsed also by Speaker Abdulla Shahid, favours the sovereignty of the people under the constitutional scheme, represented by the supremacy of Parliament over the powers and independence of the judiciary. A judicial interpretation in context would have consequences that the infant democracy has to learn in the interim.

Of equal importance in the Nasheed case, in terms of the immediacy of the circumstances involved, would be any case proceeding from the second passage of the “political parties” bill, with mandatory assent from the President. The Adhaalath Party has already declared its intention to fight it out legally, but such a course would now have to wait until after the bill becomes law.

The question is if the judiciary has adequate time to adjudicate on the issue between the time the bill becomes law and the notification for fresh elections to the presidency. If not, would the status quo be maintained in the matter? If in the process, would any judicial stay of the new law pending final disposal be challenged by the legislature, but not the executive as it exists now?

Revisiting CoNI report

Even as these complicated questions beg acceptable and adaptable answers, the MDP has gone ahead with revisiting the report of the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), which upheld the power-transfer of February 7 last year. The MDP-controlled Parliament Committee on Government Oversight has opened investigations on the CoNI Report, which has been endorsed by the incumbent Government and the international community alike.

Under powers purportedly entrusted to it, the committee has decided to summon President Waheed and President Nasheed to appear before it. The committee has also decided to get two external experts (obviously of its choice) to comment on the CoNI report. As if tit-for-tat, a temporary committee of parliament, where the government has a majority, has decided to investigate the commissions and omissions of the Nasheed presidency with renewed vigour.

More recently, the MDP members of the committee, meeting in the absence of other party members, have directed the nation’s Prosecutor General (PG) to proceed legally against incumbent Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim and Police Commissioner Abdullah Riaz on charges of violating Article 99 of the Constitution, by their refusal to honour the panel’s summons, for their interrogation on the CoNI Report. However, the committee has spared Ahmed Shiyam, chief of the Maldivian National Defence Forces (MNDF).

The committee’s views are opposed to those of Attorney General Azima Shakoor, who had earlier written to Speaker Abdullah Shahid that the proceedings were at variance with the Majlis’ Rules of Procedure, and has failed to protect the rights and privileges of individuals summoned before it. If taken forward, this has the potential for a clash between constitutional institutions, though ultimately if approached the Supreme Court could clarify the position.

Apart from the legislative business and judicial pronouncements, such initiatives too have consequences that would cancel out each other at one level, but complicate matters otherwise.

What the political parties need to understand and accept is the fact that neither in constitutional terms, nor in political terms, are such measures expected to give them an additional advantage, either in domestic elections or with the international community.

For that to happen, they have to be seen as winning the presidential polls first and the parliamentary polls next year. The rest of it would be dismissed as fencing by their domestic constituencies and wagering by the international community.

In the process, they would have dissipated their own energies and also frustrated their constituencies, at home and afar. For they are all still working on more problems that the nation can ill-afford and is even more ill-equipped to handle, not on solutions to the existing problems, which are also of their own making.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


President cleared to submit bills to Majlis

An amendment has been passed to the People’s Majlis’ Rules of Procedure enabling the current government to submit bills to the legislature.

Since February’s transfer of presidential power, there has been dispute regarding the power of current President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to submit bills to the Majlis as his party, the Gaumee Ittihad Party (GIP), has no representation in parliament.

Yesterday’s amendment, which was approved by 42 of 67 MPs present, changed the procedure to allow the president to designate a party to represent the government. The amendment was submitted to the floor by a report from the General Purposes Committee.

Article 217 of the parliamentary rules of procedure had previously interpreted the president’s party as that which he was a member of. The new amendment defines the president’s party as any designated by him.

This, in turn, impacts upon article 71 which states that government bills must be submitted by the party in power.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has maintained that they remain the party in power, although this is not defined in the rules of procedure.

“This is the perfect example of the democratic changes we are losing every day,” said party spokesman Hamed Abdul Ghafoor who argued that, after being elected on an MDP ticket, Waheed was now allowing the opposition to dictate policy.

When asked by a reporter from Al Jazeera on February 8 about his relationship with other political parties, Waheed responded: “I come from a different party, and the [former] president knew very well that I was not from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) when he asked me to be his running mate to win the election,” he said.

The status of the MDP has been queried, particularly following the publication of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) report which ruled the February transfer of power to have been legitimate.

The MDP and Waheed’s GIP formed a coalition just days before the 2008 presidential elections which Mohamed Nasheed won, with Waheed as his running mate.

Nasheed’s February resignation was followed by wholesale changes to the cabinet and the formation of a coalition government in which the MDP refused to participate – maintaining that Nasheed was ousted illegally.

Waheed has also claimed, however, that his government is “a continuation of the previous one under President Nasheed.”

“There should be no doubt on this score,” he was reported as telling Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May.

The MDP still holds 30 seats in the Majlis, although it is outnumbered by the pro-government coalition, which currently includes 39 of the assembly’s 77 members.

Local media have reported that the government intends to submit 12 bills to the Majlis within the next month following yesterday’s amendment.

The bills are said to concern human trafficking, prevention of sexual harassment, extradition as well as a bill that will govern the implementation of the death penalty, amongst others.

The Majlis has been beset by the political gridlock enveloping the country over the past eight month. Attempts to open the Majlis session in March saw violent clashes between protesters and security forces, while tensions within the chamber saw sessions suspended throughout August and September.


Key taxation bill put before parliament for vote

Parliament will vote on Monday whether to introduce one of the government’s four key pieces of tax legislation that it has promised the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will help the country claw its way out of a crippling budget deficit.

The combined goods and services tax (GST) bill contains a general GST of 5 percent, and an increase to the existing tourism GST (TGST) from 3.5 percent to 6 percent.

Parliament voted on July 18 to send to committee four bills of the government’s economic reform package: the GST bill, an income tax, a corporate profit tax and a bill governing excise and reduction of import duties.

At the time all four bills received more than 50 votes apiece from the 72 MPs present and voting, hinting at broad cross-party acceptance of the need for taxation. Of the 72 MPs acting as a committee, 51 voted approval of the bill with the proposed amendments.

To expedite the process, an 11-member sub-committee was chosen to review the bills with five MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), three MPs of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Jumhooree Party (JP) Leader Gasim Ibrahim, one MP of the minority opposition People’s Alliance (PA) and Dhuvafaru MP Mohamed Zubair as an Independent MP.

On Monday, parliament will vote whether to finally pass the GST bill when it is presented to the chamber.

Most of the many amendments proposed to the bill by the committee are administrative, but several concern additional commodities to be exempted from GST, including petrol, diesel, cooking gas, telecoms and adult diapers.

The amendments also replace the government’s proposed start date of October 1 to within a month of whenever the legislation is published in the government’s gazette (following presidential ratification).

Following consultations with the opposition and the apparent support of 51 members for the bill, the Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP) issued a pamphlet declaring it no longer supported the bill.

“They already essentially voted to support it, but now the DRP are bringing out statements and newspapers interviews saying don’t support it, and they have issued a whip line for the party not to support it [in the vote tomorrow],” said a source in the President’s Office.

The source said the government was also hoping the amendments to the Export-Import Act of 1979 would also be passed, as the GST was intended to replace it and crossover would see the same commodities being taxed twice.

At its press conference today, the DRP handed out a booklet titled “DRP’s response to the government’s fiscal and economic nuisance” with seven main points against the economic reform package.

The DRP objected to a projected growth of Rf1 billion in the budget for 2013 and expressed concern with expenditure out of the budget reaching 66 percent of GDP in 2009 – compared to 32 percent in Seychelles and 21.6 percent in Mauritius – claiming that the purpose of the new taxes was to “find money to influence the public for the 2013 [presidential] election.”

On the second point, the DRP notes that the 27 unemployment rate “proudly announced by the President” meant that 1 out of 4 people were unemployed, advocating diversification of industries to increase productivity. The DRP observed that the government’s policy for controlling inflation and spurring job growth was vague and unclear.

Thirdly, the DRP would oppose the introduction of a personal income tax on the grounds that the country’s unique geography, limited natural and human resources, and high cost for investments in the country did not make a direct tax advisable in the current economic climate.

While the government proposed that only those who earn above Rf30,000 would have to pay the tax, the DRP noted that all citizens would have to file tax returns.

“The charts of the government’s fiscal and economic nuisance package show Rf300 million will be received in 2012 from income taxes and 475 million in 2013,” it reads. “Instead of making all citizens file tax returns in order to earn 475 million two years after taxes are introduced, it would be far better to reduce the government’s useless expenditure by that amount.”

It adds that administrative costs for collecting income taxes from Maldivians living abroad would be disproportionate to the returns.

As its fourth point, the DRP noted that the General GST would affect small businesses such as cornershops, cafes and teashops, which would “need a lot of preparation” to maintain accounts and provide customer’s statements showing the GST percentage.

Morever, taxing “total value of business transactions” would not be possible with GST at zero percent for some items.

Considering the potential “administrative confusion” and the country’s heavy reliance on imports, the DRP argues that levying a customs duty at the entry point to the country was more effective.

The DRP is also against abolishing the Foreign Investment Act as it would remove protectionist restrictions, urging instead “amendments to the law to pave the way for foreign parties to invest in the Maldives and conduct businesses”.

The DRP “could not agree to sell the country’s remaining assets to the MDP’s friends” after “[losing control of] the country’s main gate, the international airport, the national telecom service, and Maldivian seas and shallows.”

Proposed amendments to the Immigration Act was meanwhile intended to “provide an opportunity for MDP’s friends to settle in the country and establish a foothold.”

Offering residential visas, it continues, would worsen unemployment and crop up “more challenges” for Maldivian professional workers.

On its final point, the DRP claims that the fiscal responsibility bill was “a scheme” to negate parliament’s amendments to the Public Finance Act and “reclaim the fiscal discretion offered to councils in the Decentralisation Act”.

In prior meetings with the government, the President’s Office source told Minivan News that “we agreed that state expenditure needed to be lowered, something the IMF was also asking for, but they mentioned none of these [other] things. We’re keeping our side of the bargain, but it’s hard to reach an agreement with them when they keep changing their minds.”

Unless the bills are passed before parliament goes for a month’s recess on Tuesday, the government may miss its commitments made to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on announcing the economic reforms package. These included:

  • Raise import duties on pork, tobacco, alcohol and plastic products by August 2011 (requires Majlis approval);
  • Introduce a general goods and services tax (GST) of 5 percent applicable to all sectors other than tourism, electricity, health and water (requires Majlis approval);
  • Raise the Tourism Goods and Services Tax (TGST) from 3.5 percent to 6 percent from January 2012, and to 8 percent in January 2013 (requires Majlis approval);
  • Pass an income tax bill in the Majlis by no later than January 2012;
  • Ensure existing bed tax of US$8 dollars a night remains until end of 2013;
  • Reduce import duties on certain products from January 2011;
  • Freeze public sector wages and allowances until end of 2012;
  • Lower capital spending by 5 percent

At the announcement of the economic reform package, Governor of the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) Fazeel Najeeb acknowledged that “there will be some eyebrows raised and some reservations on the measures – this is inevitable in any country changing its taxation regime.”

“There are instabilities and I hope these will be short term. But I think what we are doing is in the interest of the economy and will bring it out of the mess it is in. I think it is necessary that we act together now,” Najeeb said.

The IMF package, he noted, represented “a joint commitment by the Ministry of Finance and the central bank: a state affair in the interests of the economy and the country. Everybody in the country realises and recognises that there needs to be a change in the status quo. The status quo is a fiscal stance that is unmanageable.”

Asked whether he felt the new taxes were likely to be passed by parliament, “I think when it comes down to the details of what and how the legislation takes shape, that should be left to Majlis. What I can say is that status quo needs to change, and I don’t think this can be only reduction [in expenditure]. There needs to be a considerable amount of income increase. A combination of revenue as well as expenditure.”

Last week, at a launching ceremony for the “Fiscal and Economic Reform Programme,” Mohamed Umar Manik, chairman of the Maldives Association of the Tourism Industry (MATI), observed that a sustainable source of government revenue was necessary for providing public goods and services.

“Today we have democracy in our country, but democracy can only be strengthened if we are able to deliver,” said the Chairman of Universal Enterprises. “To do this, our government must have sources of income. A detailed reform agenda has been proposed for this. In my view, it is an ideal reform programme.”

Sunland Travels Director Hussain Hilmy stated that the Maldives’ “economic policy and legal framework needs to undergo modernisation and reform.”

“We in the business community welcome the bold initiative being undertaken to carry out a programme of comprehensive economic and fiscal reform,” Hilmy said.

He added that businesses were “delighted” with the government’s policy of a “shift away from import duties as a major source of government revenue.”

Meanwhile, speaking to Raajje TV last night, Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz said that the proposed tax system should have been in place 10 years ago, and that any further delay was unnecessary.

Inaz said the additional revenue was needed to pay civil servant salaries, and provide services such as water, power, independent institutions, sewerage, hospitals, schools “and the salaries of Majlis members and their committee allowances.”


Dhiraagu improves bill payment options

Dhiraagu announced the addition of two more shops through which customers can pay their bills, reports Miadhu.

Maaveli Shop in Raa Ungoofaaru and Dhonkeyolhu Shop in Raa Alifushi are now accepting payments for all Dhiraagu bills.

Dhiraagu is working to introduce more partner shops through which customers can pay their bills.


2010 to be a productive year at parliament, promises speaker

Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla Shahid said he will work to make 2010 a productive year at parliament, reports Miadhu.

Out of 77 MPs, 64 were present at yesterday’s meeting, the first parliamentary session of the year.

Shahid said 2009 was also a productive year. Since the new parliament was sworn in on 28 May 2009, the Majlis have conducted 33 deliberations and adopted 6 legislations.

There will be priority given to those issues that were being discussed when parliament was called into recess in December 2009.

Kulhudhuffushi South MP Mohamed Nasheed has criticised the parliament for taking a two month long recess, arguing that it will be difficult to complete the parliament’s work in the six remaining months of the transition period.