Majlis under threat, suggests outgoing speaker

“My projection of what I see for the next five years is very bleak,” says Abdulla Shahid.

“Those who want to make sure that the institution of parliament is a weak one – those who would like the institution to just be an executive office – have a majority today in the parliament.”

Shahid was today sworn in to stand alongside his fellow MPs in the 18th Majlis after having led the house from the speaker’s chair for the past five years.

With controversy already surrounding the appointment of his successor, Shahid has told Minivan News of his disappointment regarding what he sees as the persistent erosion of the institution’s powers and independence.

“What we are hearing, especially from President Abdulla Yameen today, is that the parliament has to be an institution which would continuously back the government, and that is what it has been from 1932 to 2009 – an institution that has always rubber-stamped whatever the executive or the president or the sultan wanted,” said the member for Henveiru North.

A member of the Majlis since 1995, Shahid was a founder member of the country’s second registered political party, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party – formed as part of the country’s democratic transition over the past decade.

However, in the aftermath of the chaotic transition of executive power in 2012 , Shahid switched his allegiance to the deposed Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), citing his fear that “opportunists & extremists” were trying to reverse the country’s democratic gains.

“There have been times when I have been slightly satisfied that the Majlis and the country are on the right path, but the entire five years put into context – looking back – I think we have not met the aspirations of the people, or what the people aspired for in 2008.”

Oversight and immunity

Looking back on his term as the first democratically elected speaker of the first democratically elected parliament, Shahid described an institution whose constitutional powers were under concerted attack.

“If you can look at the last five years in parliament – the continuous battering that parliament as an institution took was immense,” he recalled, suggesting that the source of this obstruction was the legislature’s oversight mandate – unprecedented in the Maldives’ history.

“The people over whom we have the oversight wouldn’t have liked it – like the executive, like the judiciary, like the military, like the police – no one liked the parliament bringing officials, executives, or officers to the parliament.”

“Peoples representatives asking questions – they didn’t like it, so they used whatever means – and I’m sad to say this, but the media extensively, to batter the institution of parliament,” said the former speaker.

The 2008 constitution also determined that the proceedings of the Majlis must be open to the public, a consequence of which appears to have been a collapse in the public’s confidence in the institution, according to a recent survey by Transparency Maldives.

The culmination of this “systematic attack”, argued Shahid, was the erosion of parliamentary privileges, almost as soon as the privileges act had been introduced after overriding a presidential veto.

“There was once again systematic propaganda to mislead the public on immunities and privileges, which are two different aspects of the parliament, but they were combined – it was projected to be the same thing and as a result I would say the parliament has suffered immensely.”

In November, the Supreme Court voided a number of articles included in the privileges act and subsequently sentenced MDP MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor to a jail sentence for his failure to attend court hearings scheduled during voting hours – later overturned by the High Court.

MDP MP Abdulla Jabir has also been handed a jail sentence in relation to refusal to submit to urine testing, while two other opposition MPs were removed by the Supreme Court over decreed debt.

Speaking at the launch of a book chronicling the history of the Majlis this week, Shahid noted that over 100 MPs had been convicted and removed from office during the institution’s history.

“The new parliament coming in on the 28th, and even the sitting parliament, we don’t have any immunities,” lamented Shahid. “All these have been incorporated into the immunities act and the constitution based on our experience in the last several decades but they’ve all been taken away.”

He called upon all incoming MPs to work to ensure the institution’s immunities are restored in order to ensure they can fulfil their roles as representatives of the people.

“I think all MPs coming into the new parliament should understand that they are coming with a direct mandate from the people. They are not elected because they have the duty to protect the government of the day.”

“My advice would be to try and bring back the immunities that have been taken by the executive, and by the judiciary.”

The new speaker

During the interview, conducted prior to today’s ballot, Shahid appeared to predict the dissolution of the governing Progressive Coalition which the election of a new speaker has brought about.

With President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) keen to place a member in the speaker’s chair, and with coalition partner Gasim Ibrahim receiving the backing of the opposition MDP, the PPM this week forbade the Jumhooree Party leader from standing.

Gasim’s refusal to defer to his electoral allies appears to have resulted in the splitting of the coalition, leaving the PPM and the Maldivian Development Alliance just short of what had previously been a handsome majority in the 85-seat chamber.

While  today’s vote was subsequently won by the PPM’s Abdulla Maseeh, Shahid’s thoughts on Gasim’s candidacy and the ensuing divisions in the house again echoed his concerns over parliamentary independence.

“I talked to Gasim in the parliament about the immunities and he agrees that these immunities should have been incorporated into the constitution,” said Shahid. “If anybody would have the experience and not let the same mistakes be repeated, it would be Gasim.”

Of foremost importance, maintained Shahid, was the appointment of a speaker who understands that the parliament has moved on from its traditional role as an extension of the executive.

“Nobody holds a majority in the parliament, so once again we would have a parliament which is dysfunctional, which is not controlled by anybody and which on many occasions I foresee working with the opposition trying to block things that the government would wish to do,” he said.

“That is the only encouraging part in this scenario, because many of the things that the current government would want to do – based on what they have been talking about in their rhetoric – is making sure that there is a slide back to autocracy.”


Coalition to field separate candidates for Majlis speaker position

President Abdulla Yameen yesterday announced that his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) will forward its own candidate for the position of speaker of the People’s Majlis.

The move follows Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim’s claim earlier this week that he had the full backing of his coalition partners to stand for nomination to the chair.

Parliament should be an institution that “sincerely and responsibly” fulfils the duty bestowed by the public, Yameen told supporters yesterday.

“For this reason, our party wants the speaker’s post in the next People’s Majlis,” he said during a rally held last night to celebrate the Progressive Coalition’s garnering of a 53 seat majority in Saturday’s Majlis elections.

Notably absent from the event were leaders of the JP – the winner of 15 of the coalition’s seats – with party Secretary General Dr Mohamed Saud telling CNM that the party had not attended as it had not been made aware of the agenda.

Complaints from within the JP immediately after polling, regarding PPM-affiliated candidates having stood as independents in constituencies reserved for the JP, appeared to have been justified today as local media reported that two of the five successful independent candidates had signed for the ruling party.

Following his loss to an independent candidate last weekend, JP MP for Lhaviyani Naifaru, Ahmed Mohamed, accused the PPM of attempting to “destroy” its coalition partner.

Differences of opinion among coalition partners should be settled through dialogue, President Yameen said during yesterday’s rally, suggesting that the coalition had lost 15 seats as a result of members of coalition parties contesting as independents.

“This wasn’t the fault of the people. It was a mistake made by our parties,” he said, noting that coalition leaders had “repeatedly urged” party members to vote for the coalition’s official candidate.

Senior members of the JP, including Secretary General Dr Saud and Deputy Leader Ameen Ibrahim, told Minivan News today that they were unwilling to comment on political issues on behalf of the party.

The addition of two members would bring the PPM’s parliamentary group for the 18th Majlis – scheduled to hold its first session in late May/early June – to 35 of the chamber’s 85 seats.

The third coalition partner – the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA), which is more closely allied with the PPM – took five seats on Saturday.

Local media yesterday, however, reported Ahmed Mahloof as saying that both he and fellow re-elected PPM MP Ahmed Nihan had pledged to support Gasim’s candidacy for speaker while negotiating during the 2013 presidential election.

Mahloof suggested that the nomination of a PPM candidate would be likely to cause a rift within the Progressive Coalition, and would be a decision he would find difficult to support.

Neither Mahloof nor Nihan were responding to calls at the time of press. PPM leaders have told local media that no official coalition discussion on nominations to the speaker’s chair have been held.

Adding further uncertainty to Gasim’s attempts to become speaker, reports published in the Gasim-owned Vnews media outlet today that the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – winner of 26 seats – had decided to support Gasim’s nomination to the chair have been denied.

“He’s capable, but there are many others in the parliament who are capable, we have not yet decided,” MDP Parliamentary Group Leader Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih told Minivan News.

The election of the new speaker – a position currently held by the MDP’s Abdulla Shahid – is scheduled to take place through a secret ballot of MPs at the first sitting of the new session.

Majlis regulations note that the speaker “shall be the highest authority of the People’s Majlis responsible for the conduction of all matters pertaining to the People’s Majlis including the administration, the sittings and the committees of the People’s Majlis in accordance with the Constitution and the Regulations.”

The speaker is also charges with preserving “order and decorum” within the Majlis, as well as observance of the institution’s regulations.


Majlis elections: Gasim reveals decision to stand as speaker of the Majlis

Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim has reportedly decided to stand as speaker of the  People’s Majlis following the Progressive Coalition’s success in Saturday’s elections.

Despite telling media that he had no plans to stand for the position on Tuesday, Gasim confirmed to Haveeru today that he will put his name forward, with the full backing of his coalition partners.

While the EC has yet to officially announce all the results, the governing coalition – which includes Gasim’s JP alongside the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and the Maldives Development Alliance – looks set to win a comfortable 53 seat majority, including 15 seats for the JP.

Despite expressing his satisfaction with Saturday’s results – which included re-election to his own Maamigili constituency seat – Gasim earlier this week accused coalition party members costing his party almost a third of the seats in which they contested.

Other disgruntled JP candidates accused the PPM of attempting to “destroy” its coalition partner, suggesting that PPM members masquerading as independents actively campaigned against Gasim’s party.

The party’s leader has assured Haveeru today that his decision has the full backing of the PPM and the MDA – winners of 33 and 5 seats, respectively.

“I wouldn’t have come to this decision if I didn’t have the backing of the coalition partners, would I?” Gasim asked the newspaper.

Reputedly the Maldives’ wealthiest individual, Gasim is one of the country’s most prominent businessmen. His Villa Group has interests in numerous sectors, including tourism, education, media, and aviation, as well as carrying out philanthropic activities through the Villa Foundation.

Having previously served as finance minister between 2005 and 2008, and speaker of the Special Majlis – charged with drafting the 2008 constitution – Gasim’s spokesperson Ibrahim Khaleel told Sun Online that the MP had the experience to handle the pressure.

The speaker’s chair is currently filled by Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Abdulla Shahid. Despite Shahid himself being returned to the Majlis following Saturday’s polling, 17 MDP incumbents failed to win election to the 18th Majlis, leaving the party with just 29 seats.

The constitution requires that the speaker and deputy speaker’s positions should be filled on the first sitting of the house following a general election, after a secret ballot among members.