Originally Published 2013-01-17 00:00:00 Published on Jan 17, 2013
In Maldives, the stage is now set again for a possible, limited confrontation between the Executive and the Legislature with President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik returning two of the three crucial Bills passed by Parliament.
Maldives: Competitive, combative, yet cooperative, too...
With Maldivian President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik returning two of the three crucial Bills passed by Parliament, the stage is now set for a possible, limited confrontation between the Executive and the Legislature, all over again. For the third Bill, the President has given his assent, but the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) says it would defy the law if it came to that.

The President has rejected the Bill that mandates 10,000-strong membership for political parties to be registered by and with the Election Commission (EC), up from the existing 3,000. As the Maldivian Budget provides 0.1 per cent of the GDP for State funding of political parties, which in turn is based on registered membership, the law has serious consequences for 'smaller parties'. Included in the list are the QIP of President Waheed and DQP of Presidential Advisor Hassan Saeed. The latter was the second runner-up in the first round of presidential polls in 2008.

In a nation, where democratic education and elections are a costly affair, given the vastness of the seas that has to be traversed for poll campaign even in individual parliamentary constituencies, and also the smallness of the electorate covered in comparison to other countries, few political parties can sustain themselves as electoral entities without State funding. With a few other parties too neck-deep in campaigning already, for the presidential polls due later this year, any last-minute change in the law could have consequences for them all.

Against the political parties' Bill, the one on privileges of Parliament and MPs, which has also been returned to Parliament by the President, has limited application in the normal course. However, the Bill assumes greater significance in the context of some Ministers in the Government and other leaders of other parties in Government ridiculing parliamentarians and threatening them from public platforms. In the case of the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP), for instance, the two Bills together could stall its recent efforts at projecting itself as the self-appointed defender of Islam among Maldivian political parties and of the Maldivian people's rights viz their elected representatives. Needless to point out, the AP does not have any elected member in the People's Majlis, or Parliament.

The Bill that President Waheed aims at regulating public assemblies and rallies. It is a fall-out of the MDP rallies since the February 7 transfer-of-power, some of which turned violent. Protests and counter-protests had a tendency to multiply, and the security forces had little powers or even scope for regulating them, and distancing rival rallies from one another. Armed with the 2008 constitutional guarantee protecting the citizens' rights in the matter, an air of permissiveness was threatening tranquillity in the tourism-driven country.

Consensus and cohabitation

Parliament is in recess at present, and is not expected to meet again till March. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the House would vote the two Bills 'returned' by the President, and send it back for what then becomes a mandatory assent for both, within 14 days of such passage. The Opposition MDP as the single largest party cannot protest in the interim as party leader Mohammed Nasheed as President had similarly returned a Bill amending the Finance Act, only to grant his assent at the last-minute after the Majlis had passed it a second time.

What is however interesting is the combination of votes that each of these Bills polled. Though moved by MDP members in the House, the political parties Bill and the privileges Bill had the support of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), the top two parties in the Government of President Waheed. The MDP opposed the Bill regulating public assemblies, but parties in the Government mustered their strength to have it passed.

The combination can pose an embarrassment, though not a challenge, to the Government in general and President Waheed in particular, as and when Parliament votes on the two 'returned' Bills. The MDP can then actively consider moving the no-trust motion against President Waheed, about which it has been talking for long. The Government parties could be expected to rally round their President, whose term anyway expires later this year, to deny the mandatory two-thirds vote in the House, for the impeachment of the Head of State.

For the MDP, it could still have served a limited purpose, if at all, for the MDP, to show up the ruling combine as a divided house, incapable of pulling along for too long if granted presidency for a second term, after the polls - that is if they are capable of putting together a winnable alliance. Indications are that every party in the Government now would want to put up a candidate for the presidential polls, and could rally round the top one in the second, run-off round. Some parties in the coalition may also develop other ideas in and for the second-round polls, where MDP's Nasheed may be considered for their support.

What however needed noticing at such a stage would be the emergence of 'consensus politics' of a kind in present-day Maldives, both inside and outside Parliament, at a time when the nation is otherwise burdened by political divisions and personality clashes. Independent of the issues involved, it could also set the tone for 'cohabitation politics', where the Executive and the Legislature too would be seen as learning to live with each other. Maldives would then have matured into a democracy capable of voting on issues, inside Parliament and outside, moving away from personalities even while retaining the party-tag, to a limited extent at the very least.

Jarring notes, still?

What however may send out a jarring note in this background is the MDP's declaration that the Bill regulating public assemblies could not stop the party from launching its promised 'revolution'. Considering that the 'revolution' call was given by a meeting of the MDP's National Council that had discussed the pending criminal case against President Nasheed, the two may be inter-linked. Thereby hangs a tale, as any conviction of President Nasheed on the charge of ordering 'illegal detention' of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohammed while he was in power, could disqualify him from contesting the elections.

Apart from the 'Nasheed case', the Supreme Court is already seized of litigation pertaining to the powers of the Legislature vis a vis the Judiciary, particularly in the summoning of sitting Judges trying President Nasheed before a House Committee. Interestingly, the majority decision of the House, endorsed also by Speaker Abdulla Shahid, favours the sovereignty of the people, represented by the supremacy of Parliament, over the powers and independence of the Judiciary under the constitutional scheme. A judicial interpretation in context would have consequences that the infant democracy has to learn in the interim, to absorb.

Of equal importance as the 'Nasheed case' in terms of the immediacy of the circumstances involved would be any case proceeding from the a second passage of the political parties Bill, with mandatory assent from the President. The Adhaalath Party has already declared its intention to fight it out legally, but such a course would now have to wait until after the Bill became law. The question is if the Judiciary would have adequate time to adjudicate on the issue between the time the Bill became law and the notification for fresh elections to the presidency. If not, would status quo be maintained in the matter? If in the process any judicial stay of the new law pending final disposal would be challenged by the Legislature - though not the Executive as it exists now?

Revisiting CoNI Report

Even as these complicated questions beg acceptable and adaptable answers, the MDP has gone ahead with revisiting the Report of the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), which upheld the power-transfer of February 7 last year. The MDP-controlled Parliament Committee on Government Oversight has opened investigations on the CoNI Report, which has been endorsed by the incumbent Government and the international community alike.

Under powers purportedly entrusted to it, the committee has decided to summon President Waheed and President Nasheed to appear before it. The committee has also decided to get two external experts (obviously of its choice) to comment on the CoNI Report. As if it were a tit-for-tat, a temporary committee of Parliament, where the Government has a majority, has decided to investigate the commissions and omissions of the Nasheed presidency with renewed vigour.

More recently, the MDP members of the committee, meeting in the absence of other party members, have directed the nation's Prosecutor-General (PG) to proceed legally against incumbent Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim and Police Commissioner Abdullah Riaz on charges of violating Article 99 of the Constitution, by their refusal to honour the panel's summons, for their interrogation on the CoNI Report. However, the committee has spared Ahmed Shiyam, chief of the Maldivian National Defence Forces (MNDF).

The committee's views are opposed to those of Attorney-General Azima Shakoor, who had earlier written to Speaker Abdullah Shahid that the proceedings were at variance with the Majlis' Rules of Procedure, and has failed to protect the rights and privileges of individuals summoned before it. If taken forward, this has the potential for a clash between constitutional institutions, though ultimately, the Supreme Court, if approached, could clarify the position, as may have to be in many other instances of the kind.

Apart from the legislative business and judicial pronouncements, such initiatives too have consequences that would cancel out each other at one level, but complicate matters, otherwise. What the political parties need to understand and accept is the fact that neither in constitutional terms, nor in political terms, are such measures expected to give them additional advantage, either in domestic elections or with the international community.

For that to happen, they have to be seen as winning the presidential polls first and the parliamentary polls next year. The rest of it all would be dismissed as fencing by their domestic constituencies and wagering by the international community. In the process, they would have dissipated their own energies and also frustrated their constituencies, nearer home and afar. For, they are all still working for more problems that the nation can ill-afford and is even more ill-equipped to handle, not on solutions to the existing problems, which are also of their own making.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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