Initial council regulation concerns a “bit alarmist”, says local NGO

Concerns over a lack of details regarding the powers and jurisdiction of recently formed local councils have been downplayed as alarmist by the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) which contends that the unprecedented decentralisation of the country’s political system may require a transitional learning period before finding its feet.

Ahmed Irfan, executive director of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), told Minivan News that although local councils had been appointed following last weekend’s elections without defined roles or powers, the outlining of regulations for a major new political system could not occur immediately.

A number of prominent politicians across the country, including the leader of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, have raised concerns that while councils have been elected, there was little regulation or legal framework to actually define their role or method.

Thasmeen claimed following the elections that successful candidates from across the political spectrum had not been given any indication of what would be expected of them whilst serving as councillors.

“It is a fact that candidates from many parties including ours may not be clear on their responsibilities and mandates,” Thasmeen said at the time. The DRP leader added that no timetable for councilors to begin their work had also been given.

Ahmed Shareef, secretary general for the fellow opposition party the People’s Alliance (PA) also said that details on the exact role and responsibilities of the newly appointed local councils had been extremely limited.

“We really don’t know how system will work or how affiliated it may be with government,” he said.

In this uncertain post council election environment, Shareef said that he believed there were already reports that numerous opposition parties were working to stifle possible developments or strategies planned by elected councils.

However, Irfan said that highlighting the initial lack of detail regarding the councils as a major concern at present was perhaps sensationalist, adding that adapting national laws and power sharing agreements to regional levels was a completely new challenge.

The MDN’s executive director said that while details and information surrounding the councils was needed as soon as possible for politicians and constituents alike, as an entirely new political development, he believed people needed to be flexible.

“When the Local Government Authority (LGA) is formed and comes into place they will be able to define where the responsibilities of island councils end and atoll councils begin,” he said. “The path of this jurisdiction will fall to the LGA and could prove to be one of the most important regulations concerning the councils.”

According to Irfan, alongside the wider division of power, each of the councils bought into operation following the elections will have to discuss around 25 regulations concerning how they will operate within the Maldives.

“I am not sure they are areas that can be initially informed and decided upon before the councils are operating,” he added.

While the councils are expected to serve as independent institutions; in certain areas such as the release of land or funding, MDN’s executive director claimed they would still be bound by national Land Laws and finance regulations.

Irfan added that the MDN did have some possible concerns that a lack of official information over the individual roles of the local councils and the exact powers they would have in relation to parliament were one possible reason of a relatively low turn outs from voters in areas like Male’.

However, he stressed that only allowing constituents to vote within the atoll of their registered permanent address had also potentially stymied interest among people currently living in other parts of the country.

Representatives for the LGA were not available for comment at the time of going to press.


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.


Veto could impede local council elections, says EC

The Elections Commission (EC) would be in “a difficult situation” if the president ratifies the decentralisation bill but vetoes the complementary local council elections bill, EC President Fuad Thaufeeq has said.

If the president leaves more than a 28-day period between the ratification of the two bills, said Fuad, the EC would not have enough time to prepare for the elections.

President Mohamed Nasheed has said he will veto the local council elections bill as article four of the legislation woul disenfranchise “half the electorate” as it requires citizens to be present in their registered constituency to be able to vote.

“If he ratifies the decentralisation bill first, it states that elections should take within 150 days,” Fuad said. “But the other bill, the local council elections bill, gives a period of 122 days. So even if the Majlis passes amendments as soon as possible, say in June, we won’t have enough time to prepare.”

He added that the EC believes the two bills should be ratified together in order to avoid the clashes.

Moreover, if an amendment is passed to allow remote voting, the EC would need “double the funds to allow people to vote anywhere”.

The EC would need “a lot of manpower” as there would be 279 constituencies and some islands would require 100 different kinds of ballot paper.

The EC did not raise concerns with article four as it would be fairer for those living in their registered constituency or island of birth to elect local government representatives.

“It would be better for those who actually live in the island to be able to vote than those who are registered,” he said.

In his weekly radio address on Friday, President Nasheed said article four would disenfranchise “at least 60,000 people” from the atolls currently residing in Male’.

Nasheed said he would ratify the bill only as “a last resort”.

“In my view, it is not the right thing to do. It is not a good bill,” he said.

Mohamed Zuhair, president’s office press secretary, said parliament had to bear responsibility for the problems as “they passed the bill knowing all these periods were in there”.

In addition to problems regarding process, he added, the president had to consider economic, social and legal ramifications.

“We can’t sacrifice content or substance because it could compromise the process,” he said. “But the president hasn’t made a final decision and he will serious consideration to these issues.”

Although article four did not allow for remote voting in the original draft legislation submitted by the government, MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) proposed an amendment to allow people to vote anywhere in the country.

However, the amendment did not garner bipartisan support as MPs of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) voted against it.

Vili-Maafanu MP Ahmed Nihan said the DRP said he participated in a “heated debate” at a meeting with the EC over article four.

Nihan said the DRP agreed to keep the article unchanged based on the EC’s recommendations and the government’s assurances.

“We passed the bill the way it was sent to us by the Attorney General,” he said. “Now [MDP] are trying to blame us. We have said we will submit an amendment to allow everyone to vote even if takes three times more money.”

Nihan said the DRP parliamentary group was ready for an emergency sitting of parliament to vote on amendments, but added that the president should ratify the bill first as further delays would put the government and the Majlis “on the back foot”.


President to veto local council elections bill

President Mohamed Nasheed has announced that he will veto the bill on local council elections voted through by parliament earlier this week.

Speaking at a ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) rally last night, President Nasheed said ratifying the bill on decentralisation would be “the intelligent thing to do” but article four of the local council elections bill would deprive many citizens of their right to vote.

Article four requires that voters would have to be present in their island of birth or registered constituency in order to cast their ballots.

The bill was voted through by the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)-People’s Alliance coalition without any votes from MDP MPs.

The president said a large number of people from the atolls living in Male’ or “40 per cent of the population”, would be deprived of the right to vote if he ratified the bill.

Moreover, he said, young men and women who work outside their islands would not have a say in local government.

He added that the bill was “definitely unconstitutional”.

In the 2008 presidential elections, said Nasheed, MDP received the majority of its backing from islanders living in Male’.

President Nasheed accused opposition MPs of employing “trickery and deceit” during the last session of parliament.

“50,000 people will vote for MDP. This is a cunning plan to deprive them of their vote,” he said.

Shifting blame

The two main political parties have  blamed each other for the controversial article four.

Two amendments proposed by the MDP to allow remote voting were defeated in parliament on Sunday.

”We proposed to amend the bill in a manner everyone can vote for,” said MDP MP Eva Abdulla. “But DRP MPs did not vote for it.”‘

Eva said then MDP then proposed another amendment to allow people of other islands living in Male’ to vote in the council elections “but they refused for that also”.

”There are more than 20 percent of each islands population who are from other islands,” she said.

DRP MP Ahmed Nihan said that DRP MPs did not vote for the amendments because it did not provide the right to vote for everyone equally.

“‘One amendment allowed voting for people living in Male’ who had left their birth place, which is not fair,” Nihan said. “The other reason why we did not vote for the amendments is during the meeting held with political parties and the Elections Commission (EC), DRP objected to article four, but everyone else supported so we also agreed.”

Apart from DRP, said Nihan, MDP and MPs of the Dhivehi Qaumee Party participated in the meeting with the EC.

”The EC said that it would be difficult for them to keep ballot boxes everywhere and said they had financial difficulties too,” he said. “But we said it should be like any other elections, and the EC said that it was different from presidential elections and parliamentary elections and also said that it was the way they do it in other countries as well.”

He said that the ruling party was trying to “mislead people”.

”DRP had confirmed that we will present amendments to that bill and try to keep ballot boxes in other countries where Maldivians live,” he said.

But, MDP MP Mohamed Hamza dismissed Nihan’s claims as “all lies”.

”We presented two amendments, first one to at least allow people from islands living Male’ to vote,” Hamza said, ”the second one to hold the elections as widely as the elections commission could,”

He said that DRP MPs rejected both even though they understood it would deprive people of the right to vote.

DRP MP Ahmed Mahloof said the DRP raised the problem at the meeting with the EC and warned that article four would “become an issue”.

”[But] the EC wanted to make it different from other elections,” he said.

Mahlouf said President Nasheed was unhappy that the bill states all appointed island and atoll councilors should be dismissed.

“We want as many people to take part in the vote,” he said.