Parliament has deadlocked after the Supreme Court granted the government a temporary injunction last night, blocking the endorsing of cabinet ministers until a ruling on the process can be issued.
The injunction derailed parliament on Tuesday morning, after opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MPs raised points of order claiming that the sittings could not continue until the cabinet appointments were resolved.
The sitting was called off this morning by Speaker Abdulla Shahid.
In June this year, the entire cabinet of the Maldives resigned in protest against “scorched earth politics” of the opposition-majority parliament, leaving only President Mohamed Nasheed and Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan in charge of the country.
The cabinet ministers complained that parliament was blocking them from performing their constitutional duties, leading to protests and deadlock.
Nasheed reappointed the ministers several weeks later, however parliament has yet to formally endorse their appointments due to a disagreement between the government and the opposition and over whether ministers will be endorsed individually or collectively.
Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that endorsing ministers individually would amount to a series of no-confidence motions.
Last week there were unconfirmed reports that the DRP has a list of six members of the 14 member cabinet that it does not intend to approve.
“There is already a process in place for a no-confidence motion when a minister is deemed untrustworthy,” Zuhair said, arguing that individual appointments would bypass this procedure and allow the opposition to use its “brute-force parliamentary majority” to pick off ministers who had displeased it.
Parliament’s endorsement of cabinet was intended “to be ceremonial”, he stated.
“There is precedent. When the laws were being enacted by the Special Majlis drafting the current constitution, if you look at the debate, [former] Attorney General Husnu Suood proposes two ways of approving ministers, both of which are defeated in favour of asking for approval collectively.”
Writing in his personal blog, Independent MP Mohamed Nasheed, former legal reform minister, characterised the government’s appeal to the Supreme Court as “very harsh” and “pointless”.
The Attorney General’s (AG’s) office has contested the constitutionality of article 171(i) of the parliamentary rules of procedure, which states that presidential nominees must be questioned by a parliamentary committee to determine qualification, educational background and competence.
However, as ministers refused to appear before committee and the issue has now been proposed to the parliament floor, MP Nasheed argues that the Supreme Court ruling would not have any bearing on the matter.
“At most, wouldn’t the Supreme Court rule that article 171(i) is null and void?” he writes. “The Supreme Court would not instruct Majlis how to proceed with the approval issue. Wouldn’t that be determined by the Majlis?”
Article 98(a) of the constitution requires cabinet ministers to attend proceedings of parliament when requested, answer any questions put to them by parliament, and produce relevant documentation.
However the government has been reluctant to allow ministers to attend committee meetings ever since the head of the national security committee, leader of DRP coalition partner the People’s Alliance MP Abdulla Yameen, was released from detention pending an investigation into charges of treason and bribery.
Upon release, the committee promptly summoned the Police Commissioner Ahmed Faseeh and Chief of Defence Force Major General Moosa Ali Jaleel for questioning in committee hearing, outraging many MDP MPs.
In August, the cabinet approved new regulations limiting ministers’ interactions with parliament to the chamber itself, and then only with 14 days prior notice.
DRP Deputy Leader and MP Ali Waheed claimed the approved procedures were “against the spirit of the constitution” and would be void.
‘’Actually, parliament has yet to approve a cabinet. When a cabinet is established we will summon them to committee meetings as well – ministers must appear before committees in the interest of the people – the constitution is very clear. Without doubt these new procedures are void – nobody can narrow the summoning of cabinet ministers to parliament.’’
Writing on his website, leader of the opposition DRP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali said that the failure of ministers to attend committee meetings meant that “parliament is unable to effectively provide the checks and balances necessary for the system to work democratically and ensure that the executive branch is accountable for the exercise of its powers.”
On many occasions, “repeated calls from the parliament to these officials have gone unanswered,” Thasmeen said.
“In a democracy, it is through effective oversight that the parliament can ensure a balance of power and assert its role as the defender of the people’s interests. The government’s action is disrupting the functioning of the parliament.”
Zuhair today claimed that the government’s interpretation of the law was that ministers could only be summoned and questioned on the floor of parliament “before all members.”
“Nowhere does it say ministers must attend committee meetings, unless the whole house is a committee,” Zuhair said. “[The opposition] points to another clause that requires any Maldivian citizen to attend summons to respond to questions in committee hearings, but cabinet ministers do not attend in their capacity as private individuals.”
Meanwhile at yesterday’s sitting, DRP MP Mohamed Mujthaz proposed a resolution to seek the Supreme Court’s legal counsel on the refusal of the Chief of Defence Forces and the Commissioner of Police to appear before the national security committee.
Mujthaz proposed the resolution during a debate on a report by the committee, which was presented to the Majlis floor by the committee chair, DRP Deputy Leader Ali Waheed.
The report states that the committee has been unable to conduct any inquiries due to the refusal of the security chiefs to appear before the committee.
Both officials have argued that the committee should summon either the Defence Minister or Home Minister, as the army and police answer to the cabinet.
Hulhu-Henveiru MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, MDP parliamentary group leader, accused opposition MPs of attempting to summon the police and army chiefs for politically-motivated reasons.
He added that the report did not specify which issue of national importance had been left unattended by the committee due to the refusal of the chiefs to appear.
Referring to the practice in the United States, Yameen said that senior pentagon officials were routinely summoned before senate committees.