Volume 21 Issue 6 June 2017
 
 

 


The Constitution of the Republic of the Maldives (2008) provides for an executive President and legislature. Both are elected directly after every five years by universal suffrage. A President can serve for a maximum of two terms of office. The Majlis (legislature) comprises two elected members from each of the 20 administrative atolls and Malé. Where residents registered in an administrative atoll exceed 5,000, one additional member is made available for each group of 5,000 in excess of the first 5,000. The Majlis has a total of 85 members. All elections are run on a multi-party platform. Under the constitution, there is an independent judiciary where judicial power is vested in the courts with the Supreme Court as the court of last resort.

According to Article 82(a) of the Constitution, a speaker and deputy speaker are to be elected from among the members through a secret ballot at the very first sitting of the Majlis. Parliamentary tradition all around the world requires that the Speaker must be politically impartial as he is to conduct the proceedings allowing the members of both the government and the opposition ample time to express themselves. He is also supposed to maintain discipline in the Majlis with decorum that befits his important political stature.

The recent events that have taken place in the Maldives hardly reflect this attitude of the present Speaker, Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed, who survived an impeachment motion but not without the strong support of his close ally, none other than President Abdulla Yameen himself. Thus, on 27 March 2017, this motion was defeated by 48 votes against none in an eighty-five member Parliament with serious allegations by the Opposition of manipulating the entire process as well as overpowering its own rebellious elements to force them to vote in favour of the Speaker by discarding the electronic voting system in favour of an open one. Prior to the voting, thirteen opposition members were physically pushed out of the Chamber with the result that opposition legislators staged a walk-out, giving a clean victory to Maseeh.

For students of political science this episode makes for an interesting study about a Muslim country where democracy is still in its nascent stage just as it is in any other country, especially those that were earlier European colonies and are now showing a clear tilt towards Islamic fundamentalism. Thus, on the one hand, there is a compulsion to follow the western style of democracy, boasting free speech and respect for human rights while, on the other, there is an inert desire to govern on the pattern of a monarchy as found in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where any uprising is dealt with an iron hand. Although there is a political Opposition in these democracies, yet the ruling party flexes its strong muscles to prevent any unrest or stifle dissident voices that may be raised against their policies.

The Maldives has emerged as a country that has become an arena of conflicting interests with the government which shows a clear tilt towards Chinese overtures of investment and development while there are elements that sympathise with American concerns of containing China’s infiltration in South Asia. This clearly proves that there is more to it than meets the eye. The geo-strategic position of the archipelago has caught the attention of different countries that are bent upon wooing it one way or the other but, in doing so, they have polarized the political elite of the country and have poised the defiant pro-West opposition against the government to the extent that, according to an interview by Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, to the Economic Times, almost 1700 political activists were either under threat, on trial or in jail. Where Yameen is toeing the Chinese and Saudi lines, former presidents Nasheed and Gayoom (half brother of Yameen) of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), Qasim Ibrahim MP who is the leader of Jumhooree Party (JP), and Sheikh Imran who is the President of the Adhaalath Party (AP), are forging an alliance to oust the present setup, which with each passing day is becoming more and more autocratic. However, no matter how oppressed they may sound, the fact is that when in power they were also notorious for clamping down on their adversaries with the same rigour as is being displayed by the sitting government.

At present, the main issues for the opposition are related to, among other things, some controversial pieces of legislation that include bills on:
• Anti-Terrorism which aims at barring persons convicted under this law, from contesting for the post of president. In effect this is to stop the imprisoned Nasheed from regaining political mileage.
• Defamation which is just another ploy to curtail freedom of speech. Obviously under the umbrella of this law, it would be very convenient for the government to crack down on anyone whether political activist or blogger, who tries to question any act or move.
• Foreign Land Acquisition under which it is intended to sell-off Faafu Atoll to Saudi Arabia.
• Through another bill, subsidies on staple food prices were done away with.
The main factors because of which the motion on impeachment of the Speaker was moved can be enumerated below:
• Misuse of office by Maseeh whereby instead of protecting the constitution, he is alleged to have changed the law displaying his open partiality towards Yameen’s government. In doing so he is instrumental in reducing the period of notice for impeachment of the vice president, from fourteen days to a mere seven days, allowing the Majlis to vote on his impeachment without conducting an investigation by a select committee. It may be noted that two ex-vice Presidents, Dr. Mohamed Jameel Ahmed and Ahmed Adeeb were impeached by the Speaker on charges of incompetence and disloyalty.
• The Speaker has also been accused of violating the rules of business of the Majlis by not taking any action against misbehaving members. He has many a times not conceded to the Opposition’s demand for calling in ministers for questioning.
• The recent incident during the debate over impeachment wherein the opposition members were literally dragged out in a harsh manner left the impression that Maseeh was a potential threat to the democratic system of the Maldives. Despite the walk-out of the opposition members over ill-treatment of their colleagues, the tampered impeachment vote was taken.
• Even the media was prevented from covering the proceedings by the riot police who were instructed to barricade the parliament so no one could enter the building.

In the aftermath of the crisis, it is feared that the government will aggressively tackle its opponents who have the potential to put up a strong challenge in the forthcoming 2018 elections. With a Speaker who is openly partial and vehemently supporting President Yameen, it will not be surprising if the opposition plans another impeachment motion against him in the near future?

The writers, lawyers and partners in HUZAIMA IKRAM & IJAZ, are Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

 
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