Government’s proposed grouping of islands “senseless”: Thasmeen

The government’s proposal to group islands to create new administrative island constituencies is “senseless”, claims opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, warning of “dire consequences for the people” if administrative consolidation fails.

Public referendums are due to take place on October 9 in over a 100 islands on the government’s proposed changes to island administration under the Decentralisation Act, the landmark legislation passed in July to introduce local governance through elected island and atoll councils.

The referendums are required 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.

“Whilst best practice in democracy advocates the involvement of people and a bottom up approach, it is a shame that the government has announced this plan without consulting the people of the islands concerned,” Thasmeen writes on his personal website, adding that the party “has all along said and maintained the stance that such changes should be made only if the people of the islands are willing.”

As a result, he continues, people were not fully aware of the implications of the changes to their lives: “What will happen to the system of civil and social services? Should the school children change school? Will there be a change to their representations is local councils? How does the administrative-joining differ from physical relocation of a population from one island to the other? How would the proposed Local Elections Constituency divide work in par with the Parliamentary Constituencies, when there are crossovers?

“These are just some of the many questions that people need answers before they vote at a referendum.”

The unique culture of islands as well as geographic dispersion, he adds, are other aspects that should have been considered.

Dr Hussein Rasheed Hassan, state minister for fisheries and member of the advisory committee to the president on administrative consolidation, denied that citizens had not been properly consulted.

Gauging public opinion through an informal “gathering on the beach” would not be enough to determine either support or opposition, he explained, insisting that the government took into account a host of socio-economic factors for the proposed groupings.

“We believe the best way is to go directly to the people with referendums in a secret ballot where it will be one vote for one person,” he said.

Article 115(p) empowers the president to “hold referendums on issues of national importance”.

Island populations “will know the implications very well” before casting their ballots, Hussein Rasheed said.

“We are preparing a proposal to inform voters on the issues, including the benefits of the administrative grouping and the changes to their daily lives,” he said.

“A sinister plan”

The Elections Commission (EC) announced on Tuesday that the referendums will take place on Saturday, October 9 from 8am to 4pm in 110 islands across the country.

The government has proposed grouping 99 islands into 64 administrative island constituencies by joining two to three islands within four nautical miles, while an additional 11 islands will vote on creating city councils for island populations that exceed 10,000.

In addition to Male’, depending on the outcome of the referendums, city councils will be elected in Haa Dhaal Kulhudhufushi, Fuvahmulah and Addu Atoll.

However, the DRP MP for Kendhoo and parliamentary majority leader also argues that “it would be highly irresponsible to spend taxpayer money” on the referendums in islands with potential opposition.

“Anyone who understands the politics of the different islands would understand that some of the groupings are just non-starters,” writes Thasmeen.

The proposal to merge Lhaviyani Felivaru and Hinnavaru, he continues, reveals the “senselessness” of the plan as the industrial island Felivaru with its fish cannery does not have a settled population.

“Does this mean this is a done deal, a sinister plan of the government to gift Felivaru to Hinnavaru people ripping other islands in the atoll of its stake in the industrial island of Felivaru?” asks Thasmeen. “It sure raises questions.”

In February 2009, the cabinet decided to turn Felivaru, which houses the Maldives Fisheries Company (MIFCO) main fish cannery, into an inhabited island and the hub of the North Province.

In the intervening period, however, the government lost the parliamentary squabble over decentralisation, ending with the Act being passed in a partisan vote after MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) walked out in protest.

The case of Felivaru was a misunderstanding, said Hussein Rasheed, and voting will not take place in Felivaru as the island has not yet been settled.

The state minister urged both the public and opposition politicians to “express their concerns” and “offer constructive criticism” as the issue was of national interest.

He added that the government is “open for consultation.”

“We are very grateful for the DRP Leader for their cooperation,” he added. “We understand that this has to be done in a very short period of time, but we are determined to hold the referendums before the date agreed upon in our talks with DRP.”


President ratifies Decentralisation Act

President Mohamed Nasheed has today ratified the landmark bill on decentralised administration but vetoed the complementary bill on local council elections.

Addressing press today, Nasheed said Attorney General (AG) Husnu Suood advised the president’s office that although the decentralisation bill would not hamper the implementation of government policies, some provisions were “legally questionable.”

“If the bill becomes law, both the attorney general and this office has noted that there could be legal problems in enforcing it without amendments,” he said.

As the constitutional deadline for local council elections elapsed in July last year, he added, a further delay was not advisable.

Although the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) removed the concept of provinces from the government’s bill, Nasheed said the Act does not prohibit the creation of province as it stipulates that new legislation would be needed to form “province councils.”

Opposition MPs argued that grouping atolls into seven provinces was unconstitutional as 21 administrative areas or atolls were clearly specified in the constitution.

Nasheed stressed that it was important to distinguish between political decentralisation, or the formation of local councils, and administrative decentralisation.

The constitution empowers the president to create posts and offices in the atolls to provide services of various government ministries located in Male’, he explained.

“For example, the ministry of economic development registers companies,” he said. “In the past, to register a company you had to come to Male’, fill out the form and get the seal.”

Apart from providing services directly to the region, he continued, the province offices would work together with island and atoll councils on speeding up development projects.

13 points

A statement highlighting 13 legal points raised by Attorney General Husnu Suood regarding the decentralisation bill was issued by the president’s office today.

Suood noted that the bill does not preclude either the creation of provinces or collaboration among constituencies or administrative areas.

Moreover, the law does not prohibit either a government ministry or an independent institution from targeting services to two atolls or undertaking development projects for one or more atolls.

Thirdly, as the bill distinguishes between the central island and the capital island of an atoll, the powers and administrative framework of former atoll offices would be transferred to the atoll council.

It will therefore be left to residents of an atoll to to designate an island for the administrative office of the atoll council.

The AG notes that the composition of city councils specified in the bill was unfair as the city council of Male’, with a population of 125,000, will have 11 members, while the atoll council of Addu, with a population of 29,000, will have 12 members.

Further, the bill does not prohibit island councils from entering into agreements with the government’s utility companies, created for the seven provinces, to provide electricity, water and sanitation.

As the guidelines specified in the bill for island councils and atoll councils to offer municipal services differed significantly, “it is important to streamline the guidelines for providing these services.”

In the case of Fuahmulah, the only island in the Maldives that is also an atoll, the AG points out that its eight island councils with three members each, in addition to a six-member atoll council, was proportionately a high number of representatives compared to other atolls.

While the 9,000 people of Fuahmulah would have 30 elected representatives, the 125,000 people of Male’ would have 11 representatives on its city council.

Moreover, a government minister has to be on the board of the local government authority and is required to answer to parliament, but might not be elected as the chair of the board.

If the minister is not elected to the chair, Suood notes, it is doubtful whether he or she could report to parliament as mandated by article 140 of the constitution.

The AG recommends amending the law to require the chair of the board to report to a minister designated by the president.

Meanwhile, a provision that would allow councils to plan and organize services provided by government ministries was “unconstitutional” as it would strip the ministry of its authority and ministers could not answer to either parliament or the president.

Granting powers to local councils to invalidate contracts and agreements made in the constituency after the ratification of the new constitution “did not make legal sense” and was “unfair” as it could leave third parties without any avenues for redress.

On the twelfth point, the AG recommends designating council members apart from the president and vice-president “non-executive” members with lower pay.

As there was going to be around 1,200 council members in the country, between Rf400 million to Rf500 million would be needed annually for salaries and allowances.

Since the Decentralisation Act stipulates that elections must take place within 150 days of ratification, Suood notes that the local council elections bill must be ratified before June 15.

Local council elections bill

Although the president vetoed the bill on local council elections today, he conceded that he would sign it into law If parliament passes it again without an amendment to allow remote voting.

Fuad Thaufeeq, president of the Elections Commission (EC), told Minivan News earlier this month that the two bills had to be ratified within 28 days of each other to comply with the periods specified in both pieces of legislation.

At the press conference, President Nasheed denied claims by opposition parties that the government was stalling the elections to prolong the tenure of appointed island and atoll councilors.

Nasheed said the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) proposed at the Special Majlis that the parliamentary and local council elections should have preceded the presidential elections.

The number of island chiefs and deputies appointed in the past was above 800, he said, while the number of councilors would not exceed one to each island.