President Mohamed Nasheed has declined to ratify the controversial MP Privileges Bill, and has returned it to parliament for amendment.
The President made the decision following legal council from the Attorney General Ahmed Ali Sawad, and consultation with the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM).
The bill, which was submitted by Vilufushi MP Riyaz Rasheed, was passed with 44 to 21 in favour, and 10 abstentions, and would have seen MPs earning thousands of dollars more in salary and allowances than MPs in countries such as France, India and Italy.
The matter has triggered lively demonstrations outside parliament, while a group of “concerned citizens” yesterday petitioned the President claiming that not only was the salary increase excessive, but that elements within it gave MPs extrajudicial and unconstitutional privileges. The Bill was about less about state-building and more about status, they claimed.
“It’s tough for the MPs to justify getting tax-free cars, in the middle of an economic crisis, for an island only two square kilometres in size. It’s not like they have to drive to their constituency offices,” observed a senior source in the President’s Office.
President Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said the bill was returned to parliament because the President believed that elements in it conflicted with the constitution.
“For example,” he said, “in contains clauses conflicting with the right to freedom of expression – the bill does not clarify what is meant by the phrase ‘derogatory language’.”
Details such as the maligned tax-free status on MPs’ purchases of motor vehicles “I believe come under the broader heading of items against the spirit of the constitution.”
Furthermore, Zuhair said, the decision by the MPs to raise their own salaries at a time when the rest of the country was in financial crisis was inappropriate, “especially when this was passed before the Business Profit Tax – they neglected to pass laws allowing for state income before raising their own.”
MP salaries, he suggested, “should be in line with a broader pay scale and hierarchy. They should not be paying themselves more than ministers.”
The 12 cabinet ministers earn a base salary of Rf 42,500 (US$3300) and an additional Rf 15,000 (US$1170) ‘living allowance’. The 77 MPs earn a base salary of Rf 42,500 (US$3300) and a living allowance of Rf 20,000 (US$1550). The Privileges Bill includes additional financial benefits including health insurance for life, pensions after a single term of five years’ service, and concessions such as freedom from paying duty on imported cars.
The bill does not include benefits derived from the new pay structure formulated by parliament under Article 102, under which MPs would be entitled to up to an additional Rf 20,000 (US$1550) in ‘committee allowances’. This does not require the President to ratify it.
MPs have defended the salary increases as needed given that their incomes serve as a ‘welfare fund’ for their constituents.
Zuhair stated that the government “does not believe that MPs should spend their salary on welfare for their constituents – they are paid principally so they have a dependable source of income and are therefore less susceptible to corruption – but many instances of assistance being provided in this manner are in fact acts of corruption. Some MPs have not grasped that – they are not supposed to be giving charity.”
Despite the President’s concern over elements of the bill, Zuhair said that Nasheed still believed that serving and former MPs “should be entitled to certain privileges and protections, especially as in the 77 year history of the Majlis many MPs have faced incidences of torture and bankruptcy.”
President Nasheed also declined to ratify a bill to control thalassemia and a bill “giving high priority” to the Dhivehi language.