The Commonwealth, UK, EU, and India have joined a growing international chorus expressing concern with the Supreme Court’s removal of the Elections Commission (EC) chair and deputy chair over charges of contempt of court.
“Such action by the court less than two weeks before the [parliamentary] election could be viewed as potentially affecting the electoral process adversely,” read a statement released yesterday by the Commonwealth secretariat.
The UK described the move as an “unprecedented expansion of judicial powers”, while India urged respect for the constitution. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton called the ruling a “serious setback in the democratic transition of the country.”
A statement from the President’s Office meanwhile called upon international partners to respect the Maldives’ constitution, echoing a statement released by the Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz on Tuesday (March 11).
The Supreme Court ruling on Sunday left the EC without the three members required for a legal quorum to hold meetings and finalise decisions ahead of the polls scheduled for March 22.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma noted the parliament’s approval of a new member to the EC yesterday, which ensures that the quorum is restored.
“We hope that a credible and inclusive parliamentary election can be held in accordance with the constitution, and that Maldivians will be able to cast their votes with confidence and with the will of the people being respected,” the secretary-general said.
The secretary-general stressed that separation of powers was “a fundamental political value” of the Commonwealth.
“For a democracy to function effectively, it is critical that institutions operate within their own constitutional mandate and do not encroach either on the ability of other independent institutions to execute their own remits or on the constitutional authority of other branches of government,” he stated.
“Actions that undermine the independence of an elections commission have a negative effect on democracy as a whole.”
The secretary-general noted that the Commonwealth Observer Group to the Maldives for last year’s presidential polls had recommended that “there should be better recognition of the mandate and statutory and constitutional independence of the Elections Commission.”
The Commonwealth statement also noted that the Supreme Court “assumed new powers enabling it to initiate cases”.
The Supreme Court summoned EC members on February 27 and began a surprise trial on charges of contempt of court under new ‘sumoto’ regulations that allow the apex court to initiate proceedings and act as both prosecution and judge.
Yesterday’s flurry of statements followed condemnation of the Supreme Court decision by the United States, Canada and the United Nations earlier this week.
In response, the President’s Office has contended that “negative external reaction to judicial decisions” undermined the constitution and hindered efforts for consolidation of democracy.
“Unprecedented expansion of judicial powers”
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Hugo Swire expressed “deep disappointment” with the Supreme Court’s dismissal and sentencing of the EC chair.
“The charges laid and the procedures adopted represent an unprecedented expansion of judicial powers,” the Foreign Office statement read.
The Supreme Court’s contentious ruling “appears to undermine the hard won independence of the Election Commission. This is extremely worrying so close to parliamentary elections,” the statement read.
Noting the appointment of a new member to the EC, the minister urged the government to ensure that the “the Election Commission’s independence is swiftly restored and to ensure that inclusive, free and fair Parliamentary elections are held within constitutional deadlines and in line with international standards.”
“This is essential for the consolidation of democracy in the Maldives and for the country to uphold its international reputation after the difficult events of the last two years.”
The EU’s statement commended the work of the EC, noted the key role of an independent elections body in a democracy, and drew attention to its team of monitors currently in the Maldives for this month’s poll.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs meanwhile issued a press release welcoming the “commitment expressed by the government of Maldives to holding the parliamentary elections as scheduled”.
“India has consistently supported the strengthening of democratic processes and institutions in the Maldives. In this context, the Government of India has noted with concern the removal of the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Elections Commission of Maldives from their positions and deferred prison sentence of the Chairperson,” the press release stated.
As “a close friend and neighbour of the Maldives”, the Indian government urged state institutions and political parties to respect the constitution and rule of law.
The statement also expressed hope that the EC’s independence will be ensured and that “the forthcoming parliamentary elections are held in a free, fair and credible manner, fulfilling the democratic aspirations of the people of Maldives.”