Originally Published 2013-01-03 00:00:00 Published on Jan 03, 2013
Maldives parliament vote barring registration of political parties with less than 10,000 verifiable members may have set the cat among the pigeons in the Maldivian polity. For, included in the list could be the Quamee Iththihad Party of none other than President Mohammed.
Maldives: Party-time may be over for smaller parties!
A People's Majlis' vote barring registration of political parties with less than 10,000 verifiable members may have set the cat among the pigeons in the Maldivian polity. For, included in the list, and embarrassingly so, could be the Quamee Iththihad Party (QIP) of none other than President Mohammed, Dr Waheed Hassan Manik and the Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP), founded by Presidential Advisor, Dr Hassan Saeed.

Yet, of greater consequence still could be the possible de-recognition of the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP). The party has been at the head of political movements claiming to represent the larger society. Rightly or wrongly, and for right reasons or wrong, those movements had spearheaded the early exit of erstwhile President Mohammed Nasheed, and later the exit of Indian infrastructure major, GMR Group, from the Male airport deal. The party is now targeting Parliament, if not parliamentary democracy per se - and all this in one year or even less!

Unattainable 'magic figure'?

The Bill, passed by a high 64-4 vote in a 77-member Parliament, is yet to obtain the mandatory presidential assent. It grants three months' for existing political parties to enrol new members to reach the 'magic figure' of 10,000. Most, if not all the remaining 12 political parties, now registered, could face de-recognition, thus, as and when the Bill obtains presidential assent and is gazetted thus.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of former President Mohammed Nasheed is at the top of the heap of parties that would survive the new law, with 47,192 registered members. The Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP: 25,190 members) and the People's Party of Maldives (PPM: 17,900 members), two parties successively floated by Nasheed's predecessor, President Maumoon Gayoom, follow suit. The Jumbhooree Party (JP) of former Finance Minister Gasim Ibrahim, does not have the numbers as yet on the Election Commission's record, but has reiterated the confidence and resolve to take up their numbers to 30,000. Others neither seem to be at it, nor seem intent on attempting it.

Interestingly, Parliament voted out an amendment to the original Bill, 59-6, seeking to reduce the upper-limit for membership at 5,000. It, however, has passed a clause, providing for finger-printing of party members, as proof of authenticity. However, the Election Commission has since discontinued the finger-printing process. It is unclear as yet how the law and/or the Commission are going to address authentication issues, if membership figures are contested, or needed to be verified otherwise.

Immediate question

The 2008 Constitution earmarks 0.1 per cent of the GDP for State funding of political parties. Since then, the Budget each year has spelt out the specific figures for the new fiscal. Funding has also been dispersed on this score, rather promptly, based on the registered membership of each party. This scheme would be altered under the new Bill.

In a nation of islands and atolls, where campaign expenses are high in terms of per-voter expense on transport in particular, the new Bill seeks to deny Government funding for those parties that do not now qualify for registration. At one stage during the low-profile national debate on the question, a proposal was made to deny State funding for parties with less than 5,000 members even while allowing them to remain in circulation on their own steam.

The 'immediate question' is if the Bill would become enforceable law in time for the presidential polls in the second half of this year. Presidential Advisor Hassan Saeed, a former Attorney-General, is on record that he would advise President Waheed against giving assent to the Bill. However, he clarified that it would be for incumbent Attorney-General Azima Shukhoor to advise the President on the matter.

According to media reports, Dr Hassan Saeed said that the Bill, which was researched by the Independent Institutions Committee of Parliament before it was taken to the full House for debate and vote, was ultra vires of the Constitution. According to him, the Constitution provides for the basic right of the people to form political parties, and the new Bill sought to compromise this position.

At present, Parliament is on a two-month recess, and should reopen with the annual presidential address in March. The question thus would be on Parliament's reaction and follow-up if President Waheed were to return the Bill. The present Parliament has set a precedent in returning a Bill to the President after he had asked it to reconsider the same. President Nasheed however had to give assent to an amendment to the Finance Act within the statutory upper-limit of 14 days.

It is not unlikely that President Waheed would spell out the position of his Government on the 'political parties Bill' in his annual address to Parliament. Such a course could be wrought with contradictions as the PPM and the DRP, forming part of the Government, have voted for the Bill in Parliament, along with the MDP initiator of the process. The alternative would be for the Government to refer it to the Supreme Court for its advisory opinion.

'Targetting Adhaalath Party'

Among the active partners in Government, President Waheed's QIP and the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) do not have representation in Parliament. The DQP of Presidential Advisor Hassan Saeed has a lone member after a second one defected last year. At a news conference after the passage of the Bill, AP chief Sheikh Imran Abdulla claimed that the Bill targeted his party and the Majlis was now controlled by "the black money"of GMR (the Indian infrastructure group. He pointed out how throughout the committee-level considerations of the Bill, it had provided for a 5,000-member lower-limit, up from the original 3,000, but in the final draft, this figure had been increased to 10,000.

Miadhu quoted Sheikh Imran as saying that the "Adhaalath Party believes that the party is necessary to function to balance the political arena of the Maldives given the current political situation of the country. The Adhaalath Party has been making huge efforts to protect and preserve the Islamic unity of Maldives since its registration. We have been holding on to very firm stands in major national matters. Therefore, this challenge faced by the party now is a challenge against the future of Maldivian politics,"he said.

Sheikh Imran said that the new Bill was a political and legal challenge thrown at the party. He argued that more people should join the party to balance and neutralize the political situation of the Maldives. "I urge all people who sincerely love Islam and the Maldivian nation to join Adhaalath Party and to stand firm against these challenges,"Miadhu quoted him as saying further.

Targeting Parliament?

The new Bill comes in the midst of increasing Adhaalath Party animosity towards Parliament. After the exit of President Nasheed, and later the GMR Group, for which the AP spearheaded a 'National Movement', with religious NGOs and non-MDP political parties as its partners, it is seen as taking on Parliament, where the Government alliance, of which it is very much a part outside.

The AP took a strong position after Parliament came to be seen as clashing with the Judiciary over a couple of issues, starting with the issue of the House summoning three Judges trying President Nasheed in an abduction case flowing from his days in office. The AP had declared that the party would 'run after' MPs. More recently, House passed the Parliament Privileges Bill, and Sheikh Imran has since warned that MPs could not enter the Majlis if they caused loss to the country.

Equally vociferous against Parliament was State Minister for Finance, Abbas Adil Riza, who labelled parliament as a 'terrorist organisation'. Speaking to Minivan News, Riza claimed that Parliament was continuously failing to respect the sentiments of the public and that the National Movement sought to hold a referendum on the institution. "The constitution clearly states that the power of the State is derived from the people and would remain with the people?Representing the people, we are expressing our concerns,"he said.

Known for his acerbic tongue, Riza, as the President's Spokesperson, had called Indian High Commissioner as 'corrupt' and a 'traitor of Maldives', from a public platform. Earlier, holding the same post, he had publicly stated that he would 'break up' Parliament if it went ahead with its decision to impeach President Waheed, and withdraw its pleasure and confidence in Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim.

Making it personal, too

Taking his politics to a personal level, Riza also criticised Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid, dismissing his decision to "challenge"the Supreme Court's ruling against proceeding with the no-trust move against Nazim as a "cowardly act". Minivan News has since recalled him as saying, "Unless Shahid immediately ceases his efforts to violate the Constitution while holding the post of Speaker of Parliament, the National Movement will ensure that this comes to a stop."

In the more recent phase, the AP-led National Movement (NM) has sought to 'take the Majlis back to the people' and has proposed to conduct a referendum to study the popularity of MPs. Reiterating the demand, State Minister Abdulla Mohamed, Deputy Leader of NM, too made it more personal by lashing out at Speaker Shahid and accusing him of betraying the people. Repeating an earlier NM threat, he warned that Speaker Shahid "will face the consequences for letting down the people".

PPM too moves away

Demonstrably the single largest party, both within Parliament and outside, the MDP has said that the National Movement was a 'rather irrelevant group'. MDP's International Spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, MP, said: "If they are planning to attack Parliament, or threaten national security, then perhaps Parliament may look into it?If there happens to be a time where they attempt to attack Parliament, then the police and military would obviously not let that happen,"he added.

Independent of the MDP, the PPM adversary of the party with its strongest pro-Government political base within and possibly outside Parliament, has distanced itself from the National Movement. Despite AP Minister for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Mohammed Shaheem Ali Saeed's defence of PPM's parliamentary group leader and presidential hopeful Abdulla Yameen, the damage caused by public criticism of his by NM leaders at the first anniversary of the 'December 23 Movement', for President Nasheed's exit, had become irreparable.

Outside the mainstream?

Independent of the issues involving the AP-NM within the Government coalition, question remains how the AP would react to its de-recognition if it finally came to that. Would the party strive hard to meet the 10,000-membership criteria or would begin operating outside the mainstream, where it has now come to occupy political space disproportionate to its current membership, is a question for which there are no ready answers at present.

Having joined the Government after President Nasheed adopted an 'inclusive approach' to the party by inducting AP representatives as Ministers the party soon fell out with his leadership. In doing so, it cited 'Islam' as the centre-piece of its problems with the Nasheed Government, and went on to head the loosely-held National Movement of religious NGOs with anti-MDP political support, demanding the President's exit.

Today, the AP is a part of the Waheed Government as any other, and is at loggerheads with the two important partners in the ruling coalition, namely the DRP and the PPM. While de-recognition for the party may not alter the electoral politics in the country beyond a point, its non-political presence and participation in the political space could have consequences for the nation as a whole, in the months and years to come.

(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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