Comment: MP Privileges Bill about building status, not state

On December 28, 2010, the Peoples’ Majlis passed Bill No 29/2010, the ‘Imthiyaz Bill’ or parliamentary privileges bill, among a host of others as members prepared to take their two month annual holiday from the Majlis floor.

The bill, which was submitted by Vilufushi MP Riyaz Rasheed, was passed with 44 ‘yes’ votes, 21 ‘no’ votes and 10 abstentions.

This is a substantial level of agreement in a parliament fiercely divided by party lines and plagued by frequent public displays of discord and disagreement on the floor which ends in cancellation of proceedings.

On December 15, 2010, prior to the passage of the privileges bill, the parliamentary Financial Committee submitted a report to the floor proposing to award themselves a “committee allowance” of Rf 20,000 (US$1550), increasing the already inflated MP salary of Rf 62,500 (US$4860) to Rf 82,500 (US$6420) per month.

Understandably, this caused public outrage which strangely appears to have taken some MPs by surprise.

The two different instances of personal privileges and remunerations are being sought by MPs at a time when the government is struggling to cope with an all-time high budget deficit, and being heavily criticised for making controversial cut-backs in civil service wages. These developments have lead to a considerable build up of public frustration, dissatisfaction and loss of confidence in the parliament.

On December 30, 2010, protesters gathered outside the parliament building demanding the resignation of MPs and the whole parliament, and ridiculed MPs for asking payment to “get out of bed”!

A few young people went so far as to call for a “Majlis Fund” and joined the protest with a cardboard donation box, raising funds for the allegedly destitute MPs.

Two days later on January 2, 2011, another public demonstration took place at Raalhugandu where protesters demanded MPs show accountability to the people and called for the reinstatement of civil servants’ wages and the scrapping of the proposed MP salary increment.

Citizen opinion

An open Facebook group entitled “Majlis membarunge musaara bodukurumaa dhekolhah” (“against MP salary increment”, sprang up virtually overnight and has attracted nearly 2000 members in just over a week.

As the momentum of the public protest gathered speed, a group of concerned citizens met at the social centre (MCSE) in Malé on the evening of January 8, 2011 to discuss and analyse the privileges bill.

Several lawyers and an economic analyst gave presentations on the issues arising from the bill. Two MPs, Mr Ahmed Nihan and Mr Ahmed Mahloof attended the meeting. They explained to the audience some of the difficulties conducting their work, including their obligation to follow the party line as well as the issue of getting insufficient time to read bills before voting.

Both MPs – who incidentally had voted in favour of the bill – said that they now supported those speaking out against the bill.

Nihan informed a member of the audience that he would not support the bill any more. This brings little comfort for citizens who find the contents of the privileges bill a parliamentary disgrace. The fact that an MP tried to justify voting for a bill he did not have time to read, further undermined any efforts for redemption.

On the evening of January 9, 2011, MNBC One aired a live panel discussion organised by three NGOs: Strength of Society, Madulu and the Maldivian Democracy Network.

The four panellists were practising lawyers Ali Hussain, Ahmed Abdulla Afeef and Shafaz Wajeeh, as well as economic expert Mr Ahmed Adheeb. The panel was moderated by prominent social advocate Salma Fikry.

Opening the discussion, Shafaz explained that the main purpose of the 400 year old principle of parliamentary privileges was to facilitate the unobstructed and independent freedom for MPs to perform their duties and functions as MPs.

However, nearly 75 percent of the “privileges” in the Maldivian MPs privileges bill, the panel argued, went beyond the remit of the principle of parliamentary privilege. In fact, it appears that the elected MPs of the new Maldivian democracy have attempted to redefine the whole concept of parliamentary privilege, as practiced in established democracies around the world. Privilege in the context of parliamentary practice had become distorted to personal status building.

Issues and concerns

Critics of the bill raised several concerns. They argued that it contravened citizens’ basic rights as provided in the constitution, contravened the constitution and existing laws and completely disregarded the serious economic situation of the country.

If ratified, they argued that this bill could not be implemented because it falls foul of many existing laws of the country.

The MP privileges bill gives powers to the Speaker of the Majlis to impose jurisdiction over independent statutory bodies, the judiciary as well as individual citizens.

According to Article 5 of the privileges bill, outlining “actions which impede privileges”, the penalties for non-compliance by any individual or institution range from fines between Rf1,000 to Rf100,000 as well as removal from employment or a jail term of 1-2 years. Several other articles of the bill set out similar punishments for non-compliance or “criminal misconduct” as perceived within the bill.

Of the 39 articles in the bill, 30 percent include non-compliance penalties directed outside the realm of the Majlis.

Legal experts say that the harshest punishment for non-compliance with parliamentary privilege in a developed democracy is up to six months in jail. In the fledgling democracy of the Maldives, this has reached a new height.

Moreover, they point out that the current bill gives the Speaker of the Majlis powers to remove from office senior officials of the Police, members of the Judiciary, the Prosecutor General and other such heads of statutory institutions. This undermines the concept of “separation of powers”.

Supported by Article 102 of the Constitution, Article 7(a) of the MP privileges bill stipulates that all financial remuneration including MPs own salaries will be decided by the parliament, meaning by themselves.

A vocal critic of the privileges bill,lawyer Ali Hussain, argued that MP salaries should be decided through a public referendum, even if this requires a constitutional amendment. This is perhaps a valid argument given the situation where the constitution is facilitating the highest degree of conflict of interest by requiring MPs to set their own wages. One could argue that the constitution is setting a precedent for MPs to abuse their powers. And they appear to have done just that in the privileges bill.

Some “privileges”:

  • Article 7 (b) of the privileges bill requires the provision of medical insurance for MPs, their spouses, any children under 18 and parents to receive an insurance package which includes services available in the Maldives as well as any SAARC or ASEAN country.
  • Article 7 (c) states that every MP and spouse must be issued a diplomatic passport.
  • Article 7 (f) states that each MP should be entitled to import one duty free car during each term in office although should such a car be sold or passed on to another person, duty should be paid.
  • Article 7 (g) explains that if a “natural incident or any other incident” prevents the use of such a vehicle, the importation of a replacement would be permitted.
  • Article 8 (a-c) provides pension entitlements of 30 percent of the salary for serving one term in office, 45 percent for 2 terms and 60 percent for 3 terms.
  • Article 8 (e) states that any person who has served as an MP should receive medical insurance (presumably for life)
  • Article 8 (f) requires an official passport to be issued to any person who has served as an MP and article 8 (g) states that such person(s) must receive “honourable status” and should be addressed as the “honourable member for” whatever constituency seat held at the time of departure from the parliament.
  • Article 9 requires MNDF to provide bodyguards if any MP requests for protection at any time.
  • Under article 16 (c-d), MPs cannot be searched (by law enforcement authorities) in a public place unless “absolutely certain without suspicion” of an offence.

Critics argue that this is a non-sequitur highly illogical and outside of legal reasoning which would be impossible to implement.

What next?

As more and more citizens come to understand the distorted, pervasive and impossible remit of Bill No 29/2010, the MP Privileges Bill, they are also beginning to understand just how unfit for public office their MPs really are.

While most citizens neither have the time nor the inclination to speak out against what they see as meaningless political shenanigans, MP accountability can only come with active citizen participation and protest. As the country struggles to get to grips with its new democratic constitution, its MPs are busily seeking to ensure their collective and personal interests at the expense of the ordinary citizen and the financial health of the nation.

While the job of MPs is state building, their preoccupation is personal status building. The MP privileges bill has the capacity to undermine democracy, respect for citizens’ rights and the rule of law in the Maldives, unless its citizens act to make the parliament accountable.

On January 3, 2011, the parliament sent the MP privileges bill to the President for ratification. As they await the President’s decision, concerned citizens are putting their faith in their elected leader’s capacity and willingness to listen to the people and return this bill to parliament, as wholly unfit for ratification given its current ludicrous content.

Read the Imthiyaz bill (Dhivehi)

How the MPs voted (English)

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