On October 27, the People’s Majlis passed a resolution to hand over executive powers to the Majlis Speaker if there is no president-elect at the end of the current presidential term on November 11. Subsequently, 15 MPs of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), the Jumhooree Party (JP), Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) and Adhaalath Party (AP) filed a no confidence motion against Speaker Abdulla Shahid. The vote has been scheduled for November 20.
Meanwhile, the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) is in Malé after the prosecution of several MPs and the Supreme Court’s removal of two MPs from parliament over decreed debt. Furthermore, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor has taken refuge inside the Majlis following efforts to prosecute him for refusal to provide a urine sample. He has now been sentenced in absentia to six months in jail for non-compliance with court summons.
The Majlis secretariat has now appointed an independent Sergeant At Arms and is recruiting an additional 104 security officers to oversee security of the Majlis – a task carried out by the Maldives National Defense Forces (MNDF) at present.
Minivan News spoke to Speaker Abdulla Shahid on his views regarding presidential polls scheduled for November 9, interim arrangements, parliamentary privileges and and security of the Majlis.
Zaheena Rasheed: What are the biggest challenges to come if elections are delayed again and there is no president elect by November 11?
Abdulla Shahid: The biggest challenge for the country will be if there is a situation in which the 2008 constitution is completely and totally undermined. The fundamental aspect of the constitution is that the people have the final say. The people have the right to express their opinion and elect a leader, a president every five years. If this does not happen, and the power holders of this country, in order to ensure the continuity of the state, decide to give reigns of power to the military or any other unelected body, then we have nailed the final nail in the coffin. Democracy will be buried. The 2008 constitution is done with then. That is my biggest concern.
ZR: If and when you take over the presidency on November 11, what is your course of action going to be, for this time period?
AS: It will be an interim role. To make sure that we hold an election as soon as possible and that the country is put back on track. That the opportunity for the people to have their say is provided and an elected leader is put in place. And then my job is done. The sooner the better. This is not an opportunity I cherish at all, to be an interim caretaker for this country. I think it is going to be a very challenging situation for the country and I would do anything to have an elected president by November 11. For the sake of this country, what we are going through is not worth it.
ZR: How would you characterize the current situation? What are the root causes of the present gridlock and what is the way forward?
AS: It is selfishness. Politicians have put themselves above the interests of this country. They have created this situation to fulfill their egos. That is it. The solution is for the people of this country to come out in large numbers on November 9 and win this election for the country in one round. The will of the people to participate in the democratic process is immense. Last time around, during the cancelled elections on October 19, only 24 hours were given for voter registration, but 71,000 people re-registered. The people of this country are not tired, they are not dismayed. They are still hoping, yes, we will get an opportunity and we will vote. I think people are going to come out in large numbers and vote.
ZR: Do you have any fears that the Majlis resolution handing over executive powers to Majlis Speaker may not be respected on November 11?
AS: I hope President Dr Waheed will respect it. Because it was he who initiated it. He wanted the parliament to initiate and tell him what the parliament thinks. The parliament is the representative body of the people of this country. And the parliament overwhelmingly, with the majority of the total parliament, adopted this resolution. So we have told the president what the elected representatives of this country views the situation. And I hope he respects it.
ZR: Some MPs have been calling for the Supreme Court to decide on interim arrangements. What do you think about that?
AS: We have had some MPs calling on the military to take over. I think these individuals are very unfamiliar with democracy. And democratic principles. And it is a shame they sit in a house which is supposed to represent the people.
ZR: If presidential polls are not held on November 9, how will it effect the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year?
AS: I think this will continue to effect the parliamentary elections, the local council elections. I think we have to do a major overhaul of how we deal with elections in this country. And how we deal with the current situation or the situation that will arise on November 11. Just for arguments sake, some are saying the sitting president will continue on November 11. This is happening because certain candidates are refusing to sign the voter registry.
My proposition is come parliamentary elections – and I for one, if I contest – I will perhaps refuse to sign the voter registry. Will I continue in my seat until such time that I feel the voter registry is OK? And if I feel that I may not win this seat, I may continue to refuse to sign for the next five years. Because it is guaranteed that I as sitting MP will continue with this seat. So I do not see elections happening for parliament or local councils because whatever precedent we set on November 11 is what is going to be the standard that will be used for local councilors as well as parliament. The 77 MPs will be more confident of their seat if they do not sign the voter registry. They get to sit for the next five years, ten years.
ZR: What kind of work have you been doing with the IPU? What do you think about the criminal charges pending against several MPs?
AS: We have an IPU delegation in town as we speak. They are trying their best to impress on the institutions in the Maldives the privileges of elected parliamentarians and the international norms in dealing with parliamentarians. In the Maldives, there is a lack in understanding of the privileges of parliamentarians, purposefully or unknowingly. The Parliamentary Privileges Bill was vetoed by President Gayoom twice, President Nasheed once, and President Waheed once. It was finally adopted by the parliament with a majority overruling the veto. It is one of the most criticized pieces of legislation in the country. It has been challenged in the Supreme Court by the Attorney General. And the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) lawyers.
I think the way things are going in the country today, all the privileges enshrined in the Privileges Act are going to be taken away. At least for the time being, from what I hear and from the way things are happening, I think that is what is going to happen. People don’t believe that members of parliament should stay in parliament to take part in parliamentary work, including the right to vote in their name. They believe they could be summoned to court and investigative authorities at any given period of time.
But this is a country where we have had a parliament since 1932. And I think – off the top of my head – 97 members of parliament have been convicted and removed from office during their tenure. Including President Nasheed. So if you are outspoken enough, you are removed. There would be some excuse to remove you. The 2008 constitution tries to guarantee that this does not happen. It projected parliamentary supremacy. For the first time in history, the chapter on parliament comes first and not the President. But still, in the mentality of our country, we cannot accept it. For us as a country, we still look down on the parliament.
I have been in parliament since 1995. I have seen what the people call the good old days, where we would come in at 9 o’clock. The minister to submit a bill would come in, probably the Attorney General. He would read out the bill. There would be half an hour debate. There would be a vote and the bill would be adopted. The job is done by 10:30 and we would have tea and go back to our offices and work. In the good old days, a parliamentary session would never be held without the president and the speaker in town. Even a parliamentary committee will not be held if the president is not in Malé. Even if he was traveling in the atolls, a parliamentary committee will not be held. This is how disciplined, if I may say so.
And now we have a parliament, according to many people, there is shouting, there is disruption, disagreement, and in many cases fist fights. But democracy as we have received at this initial stage, is something of that nature. We have given the opportunity for disagreement for the first time in parliament. When a bill is submitted, even within a party itself, we see differences in opinion. So, we have received for ourselves a system whereby we provide the opportunity for disagreement and through disagreement we come to an agreement. This has been so foreign to this country that people cannot accept the parliament to be functioning like this.
They accuse us, the media and many other well wishers of the parliament, they accuse us of not working. But in the history of all parliaments – this is the 17th parliament – we have been the parliament that has adopted the most bills. The parliament that has had the most number of parliamentary committee meetings and parliamentary sittings. The parliament that has been charged by the constitution with many other mandates that we are fulfilling. But this has been brushed aside, because some people want to project the parliament as undisciplined.
Yes, I do not agree with fighting on the floor. I do not agree with some of the language that is used. But this is a phase we are going through. It’s like a clogged drain. We have been blocked for so long. It has been opened now and it will take some time to flush this out. My estimate is that the next parliament, which will hopefully come in on May 29 – if we are able to hold elections – will be better. But it will not be a perfect parliament.
AS: I am surprised the Ministry of Defense has come out against it. Because this is something we have already talked about. Number one, MNDF personnel are very uncomfortable when they are asked to come into the parliament floor and physically remove MPs. This is something MNDF did not want to do and they have been forced to do and they do it very reluctantly. I personally believe that the MNDF personnel should not be asked to come into confrontation with politicians, especially Members of Parliament. MNDF is a much higher institution.
On many occasions, the former Chief of Defense Forces, has come and seen me and we have discussed the appointment of a sergeant at arms. This is included in the Standing Orders. It just so happened that we have been able to start up this process at this time. This has nothing to do with the current political climate, crisis or recent developments. It is just a process that needs to be completed for the smooth functioning of the parliament. The security forces are mandated by the constitution to protect the parliament. But I do not believe this includes the day to day running of the parliament. It is a higher calling. I believe article 105 is a higher calling on the security forces.
You would have heard of the incident recently where some medical pills were discovered at the coffee machine. I personally believe the MNDF should not be called on to guard every individual coffee machine or equipment inside the parliament. We should have our internal security to look after such matters. Having the military to look after these types of matters, belittles the military itself and it does not go well with the democratic principles either. They are not in combat fatigues inside the parliament. Nevertheless, having the military inside the parliament itself is not good for democracy. I think the military should be in the barracks.
ZR: You’ve criticized the MNDF storming the parliament when Ali Azim was arrested. What happened on that day?
AS: I have not only criticized it. I have sent a letter to General Ahmed Shiyam that he has violated the sanctity of the parliament. According to the constitution and standing orders, the speaker commands the parliament. I was never informed of Ali Azim’s removal; I was never informed by any authority that Azim is not a member. I read many stories on news websites and Twitter. And one of them was that Ali Azim and Mohamed Nashiz had been removed from their seats. Until the following day, I did not receive any written communication from any authority. In the absence of written document, I cannot be going around removing Members of Parliament. I think it was badly handled by the military.
ZR: The Parliamentary Privileges Committee in response to the Supreme Court ruling said Azim and Nashiz’s membership continues. When you have a situation such as this, where the parliament says one thing, and the judiciary says the other, how does one proceed? What are your concerns?
AS: It is very bad for the system. It is deeply sad. Because we as a country should be able to accept the final ruling by the ultimate authority. Be it the parliament, or the judiciary or the executive. The Constitution is very clear on the mandates of the three arms of the state. And once again, I sincerely believe this fight between the judiciary, the parliament and executive will continue for many years. This is because the system we have accepted for ourselves, we are at an infant stage and we get excited too quickly. In the United States they go through it almost every day. The Supreme Court comes out and says they do not accept the actions of the executive or this piece of legislation. It will continue. But we should have a system where people accept that the people in authority are making decisions not because of personal grievances, but because the constitution says so.
ZR: You just spoke about accepting the authority of the judiciary. Hamid Abdul Ghafoor is currently taking refuge inside the Parliament. How do you plan to proceed with this case?
I’ve asked the IPU to assist me in dealing with this situation. Hamid has been sentenced for contempt of court. He has been issued court summons in violation of the Privileges Act. He has been issued a sentence because he took the privileges he is legally afforded as an MP. I have written about this matter to the Prosecutor General. The Prosecutor General agrees with me. He has written a letter to the Supreme Court. He feels that the judiciary in this case has gone out of its way to punish Hamid. One can see that things are being done unfairly and injudiciously – it is very difficult to come to a solution. I have written to the Chief Justice to assist me in finding a solution. I am hoping that the Chief Justice will take up my appeal.
ZR: Would you extend the same assistance to any other political party MP?
AS: Definitely. I have in the past. You would recall when Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Gasim Ibrahim were arrested. I refused to conduct parliament without them because the parliament’s Standing Orders are very clear that any member who is under detention must have access to parliament. General Moosa Jaleel wrote to me then advising not to conduct parliament. I wrote to him, I told General Jaleel that it is none of his business. I will conduct my house as I would want to within the Constitution and the Standing Orders. His job is to make sure that people under his custody are brought to parliament. And he did. He did. And only then did I continue.
So my decisions will always be based on the constitution, the Standing Orders and now the Privileges Act. It is unfortunate that some MPs are trying to label me with political affiliations. Yes, I am a member of MDP. I want MDP to win this presidential election. But that is allowed in the system – the American system of government – that we have. The speaker has an active political role. The system is the Maldives is not the Westminster model where the Speaker is totally independent of any political affiliation. In our system – the American system which we are trying to simulate, the speaker is one of the most active politicians. But when I sit in my speaker’s chair, my only role is to defend the constitution, the Standing Orders, the Privileges Act and all other laws. And I will do it.
ZR: Do you think you will survive the no confidence motion tabled against you for November 20?
AS: I will. I think even PPM members, they have come out and saying all these nasty things. They sincerely believe I have done a good job as speaker under very difficult circumstances. When I was a DRP member, and the MDP submitted a no confidence motion against me. I got more votes in favor of me than when I was elected. It was an open vote, several MDP members voted for me, defying a three line whip. The current political situation is even more polarized now. I do not think any of the PPM members may support me openly. But many of them have come to me and said we appreciate what you are doing, but we on party lines, we may be forced to vote. Many of the independents have come to me and pledged their support. I am confident I will survive.
ZR: Do you feel threatened at all in this time period?
AS: Yes. I have received many death threats. My security is guaranteed by the Constitution. The MNDF is in charge of my security. And I think overall they do a fairly good job. But the latest incident has been little bit worrying. You would recall the resolution passed in the parliament on elections. There was a crowd of PPM supporters who gathered near the parliament. They were threatening to hang me, kill me, all sorts of nice things they would like to do to me. They were threatening my residence. So I called General Shiyam, the MNDF chief, and informed him of the situation. He assured me all action would be taken. Before I came back to the residence, General Shiyam called me and told me he had already informed the police commissioner and that my residence is protected.
But unfortunately around 4 o’clock I was awakened by one of the people downstairs who said the car in the garage had been torched. We have footage of someone coming in, with his face covered, and torching the cars. There were two cars. One was totally burnt. We were lucky that the fuel tank did not burst. Or else the whole building would have gone up in flames. I wrote to General Shiyam and his reply is in the parliament that he had informed the police commissioner, and the commissioner had guaranteed my house would be under surveillance. But nothing of that sort happened. Until today, I have not been informed of anybody being caught. Also, if it was under surveillance, that would not have happened in the first place. Now, the MNDF is guarding my residence.
I have received death threats in the past. On March 1, this year I received a text and forwarded it to the police and checked through the 131 service that Dhiraagu [Caller ID] has. To my surprise, this was sent by a mobile phone owned by the father of the Deputy Commissioner of Police. Mr Hussein Waheed’s father. The matter has been referred to the Police through the parliament. I don’t know what actions they have taken.
ZR: What is your appeal to the political parties in the context of the current crisis?
AS: My message to the political parties is that a political party exists to contest elections. And elections are the only way of knowing what the people want. That is the spirit of the 2008 constitution. To find out what the people of this country want. That is viable and possible only through elections. So let us have elections. If not, there is no need for political parties, no need for politicians to exist if they do not want to contest an election.