The Civil Court today rejected a case filed on behalf of a civil servant challenging the legality of controversial Rf20,000-a-month committee allowances for MPs.
A group of concerned civil servants filed the case on behalf of Maah Jabeen, Seenu Maradhoo Fenzeemaage, arguing that releasing funds for committee allowance without reimbursing civil servants for amounts deducted from their 2010 salaries violated constitutional provisions on fairness and equal treatment.
On 26 September, the civil court issued an injunction prohibiting the Finance Ministry from releasing funds to parliament until the court delivered a judgment on the case.
In October 2009 – almost a year into the new administration – unpopular pay cuts of up to 15 percent for civil servants were enforced as part of austerity measures to alleviate the country’s ballooning budget deficit.
The austerity measures were met with a severe political backlash. In December 2009, the opposition-controlled parliament added Rf800 million (US$62 million) to the 2010 state budget, including the restoration of civil servant salaries to previous levels.
In January 2010, however, the Ministry of Finance and Treasury refused to restore the salaries after just three months of the cost-cutting measure.
After weeks of legal wrangling with the parliament-appointed Civil Service Commission (CSC), the ministry accused the independent commission of hiding “a political agenda”, and in February 2010 filed a case with the police asking them to investigate it on suspicion of trying to topple the government “and plunge the Maldives into chaos.”
At the height of the dispute in early 2010, permanent secretaries at ministries were ordered to submit different wage sheets by both the Finance Ministry and the CSC.
In April 2010, the Civil Court ruled that Finance Ministry did not have the legal authority to overrule the CSC. Although the government contested the ruling and refused to restore salaries to previous levels, the High Court upheld the lower court ruling in May this year.
Meanwhile in the verdict issued today, the Civil Court noted that the state had appealed the High Court ruling at the Supreme Court, which has since agreed to hear the case.
The court ruled that there were no legal grounds to order the Finance Ministry not to release the funds to parliament as the two budget items in question were “not in the same state or condition.”
After parliament’s Public Accounts Committee decided to issue the committee allowance as a lump sum of Rf140,000 as back pay for January through June, a loose association of concerned citizens launched a campaign noting that the state had a staggering fiscal deficit of Rf1.3 billion (US$85 million) as of the first week of September.
Neither lawyer from the civic action campaign was available for comment today.
Some sources have meanwhile criticised the MPs for comparing their salaries and privileges to those of United States congressmen.
“You can’t do that, the two countries are too different,” said No MP Allowance Media Coordinator Hamza Khaleel.
“The salary difference between the highest-paid civil servant and a congressman in the US is 175%, while in the Maldives it’s 365%,” Khaleel pointed out. “Our MPs get as much as MPs in Sweden, but our GDP is nowhere near Sweden’s.”
NGOs have retreated from the issue in recent weeks, but No MP Allowance, a group of concerned citizens which operates primarily through social media outlet Facebook and has almost 3000 members, has been networking to protest the allowance since February. Khaleel said the group is the “single largest civil movement for this issue.”
“You can see that our Facebook page is very active. All of the members might not show up to protest but they are writing letters and suggesting ideas, so you can see that they are involved,” said Khaleel.
Khaleel noted that MP opposition and negative media have deterred the group from publicising its plans, but he said media coverage lately had improved.
Upon hearing of the court’s verdict today, Khaleel said No MP Allowance’s campaign did not depend on a court ruling but on the constituents’ opinions.
“If you ask the MP’s constituents, they will say that the MPs aren’t doing as much as they could have. Very few MPs have taken up issues that are community-focused,” he said.
“Our main focus is still to get constituents to write to their MPs asking them not to take the allowance. We have drafted sample letters that we are distributing for signatures, and will collect and deliver to the MPs. We represent the constituents, if they are not satisfied then we still have work to do,” Khaleel said.