Jumhooree Party leaders, former Islamic Minister Dr Bari join MDP

Four senior members of the Jumhooree Party (JP) have quit the party following the party council’s decision yesterday to endorse the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) candidate Abdulla Yameen.

Former JP President Dr Ibrahim Didi, Spokesperson Moosa Rameez, Campaign Manager Dr Ahmed Shamheed and Male’ City Councillor Ahmed Hameed ‘Fly’, as well as former Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari signed for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) today.

Speaking to the press at the MDP office this afternoon, former President Mohamed Nasheed said the support of the new members would boost the party’s campaign ahead of Saturday’s run-off election against the PPM candidate.

“We wanted to work together with the Jumhooree Party only for their support. We know there are people of other ideologies in the party. So it would have been very difficult to implement our manifesto and our policies with people of that ideology. In my view, what has happened now has been for the best,” the MDP presidential candidate said.

Dr Didi – former MDP president – said he returned to the party to ensure consolidation of democracy in the Maldives.

“The Maldives is divided into ideologies, that is the reformist ideology and the 30-year autocratic family rule ideology,” he said, adding that JP leaders had also worked for reform.

“We have to go forward, go forward swiftly, we cannot take a U-turn,” he said.

Didi stressed that he did not have “any disagreement with or animosity” towards JP Leader Gasim Ibrahim.

“To tell the truth, 80 percent of Honourable Gasim’s heart is still with the MDP. This is a very clear reality. Even if he had to make a decision under duress, he is a person who worked in the front ranks since 1984 to bring reform to the Maldives,” he said.

Asked to elaborate on his claim that Gasim decided to back Yameen under duress, Didi said he could reveal details without the business tycoon’s consent.

Didi also claimed that he joined the MDP to ensure “Gasim’s safety and security.”

Didi noted that Gasim had said at a JP rally that most of the party’s members shared MDP’s reformist ideology, adding that he was “certain” that MDP would win the election on Saturday.

Gasim had previously said that 60 percent of his supporters would not vote for Yameen even if he endorsed the PPM candidate.

Nasheed also expressed confidence that the MDP would garner the 6,000 votes needed from Gasim’s 48,131 votes to win the election.

Asked if fears of a return to autocracy were well founded, Didi said there were “signs” of the PPM seeking absolute control over the judiciary and undermining democracy with a family dynasty.

JP formed to change the 30-year government, say departees

Meanwhile, Dr Shamheed, former Transport Minister, said he became interested in politics during his school years as he had to pay a school fee while people of Male’ did not.

Shamheed said he decided to stick with the decision to support MDP in 2008 to establish democracy in the country.

“Gasim Ibrahim said three or four times in our council yesterday that it would be most comfortable for him, that he wanted to, and his heart desired going with President Nasheed,” he said, adding that he was “forced” to make the decision to back PPM.

Former JP city councillor Hameed said the JP was formed for the purpose of changing the 30-year government and called on young politicians in the party to join MDP to secure their political careers.

The JP council decision was subject to external influence, he alleged, which has “destroyed our efforts for reform.”

Echoing the sentiments of his colleagues, Moosa Rameez recalled that he was “a jail mate” of Gasim after the pair were arrested and incarcerated for over three months following a crackdown on an unprecedented pro-democracy demonstration on August 13, 2004.

He added that he made the decision to join the MDP “for Gasim’s sake.”

Dr Bari meanwhile said he had renewed hope for Islamic affairs under an MDP government based on the party’s manifesto, educated young religious scholars in the party, “and especially assurances from President Nasheed in his recent speeches.”

“Even though I wasn’t in the MDP before, I was in the MDP government for three years. President Nasheed is not a new person to me. What he has said about me is the truth. I would like to note at this opportunity that he has sincerely accepted my advice in the cabinet,” he said.

As a founder member of the Adhaalath Party, Bari said he had to leave because of the actions of its new leadership.

Islam could not be advanced without social and economic development, Bari said, adding that he decided to work with the MDP because of the party’s manifesto.

On Nasheed’s remarks that he was the only minister with “veto power,” Bari referred to cabinet decisions not to approve a tourism slogan and decline an offer to build a casino based on his advice.


Indian Aviation Minister urges resolution of GMR dispute

Indian media outlets have reported that the country’s Minister for Civil Aviation Ajit Singh has asked the Maldives to consider ways to resolve ongoing disputes with Indian company GMR regarding the development of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

The Economic Times reported that the issue arose during a meeting with the Aviation Minister and a Maldivian delegation led by the Maldives’ Minister for Transport and Communication Dr Ahmed Shamheed.

The paper said that an official statement from the Civil Aviation Ministry had highlighted the major issues discussed:

“The contentious issues include provision of airport development charges provided for in the agreement with the GMR, but termed as unauthorised by a local court in the Maldives, and a demand for an additional runway not provided in the agreement,” the statement is reported to have said.

The development of the airport – expected by the company to total US$511m in costs – is the largest foreign investment project undertaken in the Maldives’ history and includes commitments to complete the renovation of INIA’s existing terminal this month.

The issues detailed during the meeting have been compounded in recent months by government aligned parties calling for nationalisation of the airport as well as orders to halt construction work following allegations of missing permits.

CEO of GMR Maldives operations Andrew Harrison today told Minivan News that the government had informed the company it had complied all regulations, but had not yet given it the go-ahead to resume work.

“We have not done any work since August 2,” said Harrison.

During a visit to India last month, leader of the government aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Ahmed Thasmeen Ali warned of serious repercussion for investor confidence should the country renege on the GMR deal.

Sri Lankan media this week has also reported Business Council leader Hussain S Hashim as saying that a lack of trade dispute mechanisms in the Maldives was stifling bilateral trade.

Travel Daily India reported that additional measures to strengthen bilateral ties in the aviation sector were discussed during the meeting.

Increasing air links between Indian cities and the Maldives was a topic reportedly discussed. It was reported that Island Aviation, Spice Jet, and Mega Maldives are all planning to connect Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai with Male’.

Changes to the countries’ aviation agreement was also mentioned in Travel Daily, with the current rules only allowing flights with carrying capacities of less than 150 passengers.

“India will relook the agreement which will help in boosting tourism between the two countries,” Singh is reported to have said.

During his official visit to India in May, President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan spoke of his desire to bring more Indian visitors – who currently represent only 2.9 percent of the market share – to the Maldives.

“Not enough Indian tourists are coming to the Maldives and that is a matter of concern for us. I am sure it is also a matter of concern for India, particularly when you realise that there are so many Chinese tourists who are coming to the Maldives now,” Dr Waheed told India’s Business Line.

Whilst Dr Shamheed is in India, a number of his fellow cabinet ministers have accompanied President Waheed on his official state visit to China.

Yesterday, the President’s Office website reported that Waheed had met with members of the business community in Shanghai.

Waheed is reported as having said that investors were always welcome in the Maldives.

“Maldives is open for business,” Waheed told those in attendance at the opening of the China-Eurasia Expo & the 2nd China-Eurasia Economy Development and Cooperation Forum.

The highlight of Waheed’s first trip to China as President has been the finalising of a $500million (MVR7.7billion) package of aid, concessional loans, and loans for housing construction.


Government aims to connect island councils via national computer network

Work has commenced on a computer network project envisaged to link up all the country’s island councils at an anticipated cost of about Rf7,000 per island, Transport and Communication Minister Dr Ahmed Shamheed has said.

Local media has reported that the project, which forms part of an agreement between the Local Government Authority (LGA) and the National Centre for information (NCIT), represents a Rf16 million development over the next few years to eventually provide connectivity between some 209 councils.

However, Shamheed disputed the reported costs, telling Minivan News that work to connect all island councils though a network was “not a huge project” and had been devised to improve communications with other islands and government authorities.

“We are being offered up to 50 percent discounts by groups like Wataniya and Dhiraagu,” he said, anticipating that the project “would cost about Rf7,000 per island.”

According to the Sun Online news service, the government has committed to connect 209 councils to the network over the lifetime of the project.

According to Shamheed, local telecoms providers Dhiraagu and Wataniya are expected to provide technical at discounted rates in order to assist the project.

In a contract signed this week, Dhiraagu committed to assist the NCIT in linking 100 islands to the network. Wataniya is also expected to sign a similar contract in the next week as well, Sun has reported.

An estimated 50 islands are reportedly scheduled to be linked to the network by the end of 2012.

Shamheed added that communication from many local councils around the country was presently being carried out by fax or mail. He claimed that aside from the provisional hardware to help improve connectivity on islands, special software would also be provided to aid councillors in undertaking their work.


EXIM Bank of China offers US$57 million loan for IT infrastructure overhaul

The state-owned EXIM Bank of China has offered the Maldives a US$57 million (RF878 million) loan to assist the development of IT infrastructure in the country, Minister of Communication Dr Ahmed Shamheed had told local media.

Dr Shamheed yesterday confirmed that the funding, which can be paid back over a 20 year period, would still require approval by the People’s Majlis under next year’s budget. If approved, he told local newspaper Haveeru that the “majority” of the loan would be spent on building a new 15-storey government office designed partly to house new national IT projects.

Shamheed was not responding to calls from Minivan News at the time of press.

Speaking yesterday, the communication minister claimed that projects including the introduction of so called “smart cards” – proposed as an all-in-one driver’s license, identity and an ATM card – and a high definition (HD) video conference network would be set-up with the loan.

Shamheed told Haveeru that the projects would be undertaken by the Centre for Information Technology (NCIT), as part of wider plans to connect government authorities through a single IT network.


Transport Minister backs MACL, orders GMR to pay US$8.2 million

The Transport Ministry has said the government is “fully behind” an order given by the Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) to India-based infrastructure giant GMR, that it pay the sum of US$8.2 million deducted from concession fees for the first quarter of 2012.

GMR took over the management of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) – then called Male’ International Airport – from the government-owned Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) in September 2010.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Minister of Transport Dr Ahmed Shamheed said the government fully backed an MACL order for GMR to return the US$8.2 million it deducted from concession fees for the quarter.

According to a statement released by the MACL earlier this month, the company said it had only received US$525,355 out of an expected US$8.7 million in concession fees for the first quarter of 2012, after GMR deducted the Airport Development Charge (ADC) and insurance surcharge.

The ADC was intended to be a US$25 fee charged to outgoing passengers from January this year, as stipulated in the contract signed with GMR in 2010. The anticipated US$25 million the charge would raise was to go towards the cost of renovating INIA’s infrastructure.

The deductions were made after the Civil Court blocked the India-based company charging an Airport Development Charge (ADC) last year, on the grounds that it was a tax not approved by parliament. As the ADC was stipulated in the contract former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration had signed with the airport operator, the government at the time agreed that GMR would deduct the charges from the concession fees due the government, pending appeal.

The Civil Court case had been filed against the airport by the former opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) – now part of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s coalition government.

Parliament’s Finance Committee has meanwhile revealed that the Maldives is facing a skyrocketing budget deficit of 27 percent for 2012, and a parallel 24 percent  increase in expenditure.

Last week, GMR released a statement proposing a compromise to the government whereby Maldivian nationals would be excluded paying the ADC when departing the airport.

MACL stance

MACL Managing Director Mohamed Ibrahim told local media today that MACL’s agreement with GMR under the previous government to deduct the ADC payment was “null and void”. Ibrahim told reporters that the deal was no longer relevant as it had been agreed by a former MACL chairman, and that charges could therefore no longer be deducted from GMR’s concession payment.

“We had informed that the letter from the former Chairman of MACL was now invalid and hence must not be followed. In addition we had also informed that no deductions can be made from the concession fee,” he told local newspaper Haveeru.

Ibrahim was not responding at time of press.

The MACL order was announced the same day that President Mohamed Waheed reportedly assured Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the government would uphold its commitments to foreign investors.

“It is only recently that the Maldives began working with large foreign corporations, and hence the Maldives has not much experience in dealing with large companies. That’s why we are currently trying to iron out some of these issues through mutual dialogue,” President Waheed said.

Transport Minister Dr Shamheed however told Minivan News that the President’s pledge would not affect MACL’s decision to order GMR to pay the deducted US$8.2 million.

“As per the concessions agreement, a fee has to be paid to MACL. That is my understanding,” he said.