Parties reach agreement for committee to resume review of SEZ bill

Political parties in parliament have reached an agreement for the economic affairs committee to resume its review of the governments flagship special economic zone (SEZ) legislation after the Jumhooree Party (JP) and Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) boycotted proceedings last week.

At a meeting held last night to resolve the impasse, JP Leader Gasim Ibrahim reportedly assured cooperation for continuing the review process, explaining that he had walked out in protest of the committee chair refusing to incorporate recommendations from state institutions.

The business tycoon said he boycotted Wednesday’s (August 13) meeting after his suggestions to address “one or two issues” in the bill were ignored.

Representing the main opposition party, MDP MP Mohamed Aslam insisted that the party’s concerns should also be addressed.

If not, Aslam said, the party would “take to the streets” in protest. On Thursday (August 14), the MDP announced protests against passing the bill in its current form, warning of “dangerous” consequences.

After walking out of Wednesday’s meeting, Gasim had also warned last week that an SEZ law would facilitate massive corruption, threaten independence, and authorise a board formed by the president “to sell off the entire country in the name of economic zones.”

Further meetings of the committee – where the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and ally Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) have a voting majority – had been cancelled following the boycott.

At last night’s meeting, PPM MP Ahmed Ameeth proposed holding a meeting today to approve a timetable to conduct the review process. While MDP MPs voted against it, the proposal was passed with the JP MPs’ support.

Subsequently, at the meeting this morning, the committee passed a motion proposed by Ameeth to give authority to the committee’s chair – PPM MP Abdulla Khaleel – to hold meetings every day of the week except Friday to fast-track review of bills.

The motion was passed with five votes in favour. While JP MPs Gasim Ibrahim and Abdulla Riyaz voted against the motion, MDP MPs on the committee did not attend today’s meeting.

Khaleel has previously declared his intention to complete the review process and send the bill to the Majlis floor for a vote before the end of August. Parliament breaks for a one-month recess at the end of the month.

Parliamentary oversight

The MDP has meanwhile been holding nightly rallies at its haruge (meeting hall) in Malé to protest “openly selling off the country” through SEZs.

Speaking at a rally Thursday night, MP Eva Abdulla objected to the absence of parliamentary oversight in the draft legislation, noting that a 17-member investment board appointed by the president would have the authority to create SEZs.

While the president’s nominees to independent institutions required parliamentary approval, Eva noted that parliament would not have a similar confirmation role for endorsing members to the board.

As investors would not have to pay import duties or taxes for a 10-year period, Eva contended that the public would not benefit from the SEZs.

Investors would also be able to bring in foreign workers under relaxed regulations while companies with foreign shareholders would be able to purchase land without paying privatisation fees or sales tax.

In other countries, Eva said, such incentives were offered to investors in exchange for creating job opportunities for locals.

At a rally in Addu City on Friday night (August 15), MDP MP Rozaina Adam urged the public to consider why President Abdulla Yameen did not wish for parliament to exercise any oversight despite the PPM’s comfortable majority in the People’s Majlis.

The MP For Addu Meedhoo suggested that the president did not want his own party’s MPs to be aware of the “illegal activities” and “massive corruption” that would take place in the SEZs.

Responding to the criticism from the opposition, President Yameen told reporters prior to departing for China Thursday night that leasing islands or plots of land was the prerogative of the president or the executive.

“Parliament could make rules. That’s why we’re making a law. But after the rules are set, it is not the parliament that would designate the economic zones. Parliament is not concerned with governance,” he argued.

Parliament could amend the draft legislation to address shortcomings, Yameen added, suggesting that the president having authority to create SEZs was no cause for concern.

On the tax incentives, Yameen contended that resorts were also developed with similar tax exemptions.

“Even now, everything brought in for a new resort under development is exempt from [import] duties,” he said.

“So they have enjoyed the benefit of special economic zones without a law through the tourism law. What we’re trying to do now is to give that benefit through the special economic zone.”