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Public relying on Maldives first parliament to make President Nasheed accountable

As the Maldives first parliament elected under its newly ratified constitution swears in tomorrow, the general public impatiently looks to their representatives to make President Nasheed accountable and to uphold their democratic rights and liberties. The continuing public outcry for President Nasheed to deliver on his election promises and for his slack government to get down to real business dogged Nasheed throughout his state funded campaign for his party in the recent parliamentary elections. The people now look to their representatives to make the struggling regime accountable to them.

With state media muzzled by the Nasheed regime, and the ongoing extra legal activities of MDP and police force, and independent media unable to pin down the Nasheed and his top officials to any consistent dialogue, the new parliament has a vital role in shaping the immediate future of the country. The country is in a deep recession, the government budget and supplementary budget is a public joke, inflation is on the rise, tourist arrivals have dropped drastically, fishing has stopped and the islands face food and water shortages. Under the new constitution, the powers of the Parliament include the core power of supervising the exercise of Executive Authority. Under Article 70, Parliament must ensure that executive authority is accountable for the exercise of its powers and take steps required for ensuring the same.

During his campaign race across the length and breadth of the country, island communities clamored for Nasheed’s promised 10,000 units of social housing, the 3000 volunteer teachers for their schools, improved health services and the fancy transport network promised to “liberate” them from island prison. President Nasheed (now publicly referred to as Flat Dhombe, in honor of his promised 10,000 flats) was greeted on many an island by citizens carrying paper cutouts of public housing flats.

The whole nation watches with bated breath as events unfold in the chess match between President Nasheed and his political opponents. Although heavily defeated at the public referendum in 2007 to decide on the system of governance, Nasheed and his party Maldivian Democratic Party have steadfastly maintained their belief in a parliamentary system of government. Nasheed sought to implement this in principle at the parliamentary elections, campaigning with the theme that he required a parliamentary majority in order to deliver on his presidential election promises. Continuing his tradition of suffering major defeats at the polls, Nasheed again crashed in the parliamentary elections on May 9th. Former President Gayoom’s Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party and his coalition partner People’s Alliance walked off with 35 of the 77 member parliament. Nasheed’s MDP won 25 seats.

In the aftermath of the elections during the three week wait for the new parliament to sworn in, both Nasheed and opposition parties are working feverishly to sign up allies from amongst the 13 independent MPs. As the new session unfolds, it will be interesting to watch if MPs obey Article 75 of the constitution which enjoins MPs to keep national interest and public welfare foremost. Further, under Article 75, MPS “should not exploit their official positions in any way for their own benefit or for the benefit of those with whom they have special relations. They shall represent not only their constituencies but the country as a whole”.

Seventy six members of the 77 member parliament are scheduled to take their oath of office tomorrow. The 77th parliamentary seat, the seat for the Thaa Thimarafushi constituency, remains empty, as its ballot pends a decision by the Maldives High Court as to the legality of the election there. Although voting in at least two other constituencies have been challenged in High Court, the Elections Commission has declared finals results for these seats. They include the very critical seat for President Nasheed, that of his cousin by marriage and top advisor, Hinnavaru MP elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Solih, is Nasheed’s candidate for the key post of Speaker of parliament.

Nasheed’s persecution and intimidations campaign against opposition leaders has not surprisingly picked on opposition leader Gayoom and two MPs, MP for Meemu Dhiggaru and Deputy Leader of People’s Alliance Ahmed Nazim, and MP for Baa Eydhafushi and Leader of Party for the Alleviation of Poverty Ahmed Saleem. Ahmed Nazim is the opposition coalition’s candidate for the post of Deputy Speaker, while Ahmed Saleem holds an important deciding vote in tomorrow’s session as one 13 independent MPs. Maldives Police Service, under executive orders from President Nasheed has tried unsuccessfully to obtain arrest warrants for both MPs. The Judiciary has steadfastly rejected police appeals for these warrants, citing insufficient evidence to issue arrest warrants.

While allegations of corruption are being leveled by the Nasheed government against many DRP and PA MPs, concrete evidence has not been submitted to the public, media or judiciary. Ruling party MDP’s immediate strategy appears to be removal of opposition MPs and independent MPs, and to hold by-elections. Under Article 74, any question concerning the qualifications or removal, or vacating of seats, of a member of the parliament shall be determined by the Supreme Court

In addition to making the Executive accountable to the people, the powers of the parliament include amendment of the Constitution in accordance with the terms provided therein, enactment of legislation with regard to any matter, or amendment or repeal of any law, which is not inconsistent with any tenet of Islam; approval of the annual budget and any supplementary budget; determination of matters relating to Independent Commissions and Independent Offices in accordance with law.

In this respect too, the new parliament faces a heavy workload of existing bills, harmonization of existing laws with the new constitution and formulation of new laws to implement the new constitution, including new laws to enable citizens to realize their rights under the Bill of Rights (Chapter 2) of the new constitution.

Article 70 (e) gives the parliament the power to accept or reject the appointment or dismissal of any appointment or dismissal submitted to it for approval. Opposition MPs are united in their view that membership of independent commissions and independent offices such as the Maldives Human Rights Commission, the Civil Service Commission, the Anti-corruption Commission and the Auditor General’s Office need to be cleaned up and President Nasheed’s stooges ousted in order to ensure that these institutions are indeed independent, as required under a liberal democracy.

Under Article 84, the incumbent President is required to address the parliament at the beginning of its first session of each year at the first sitting on the state of the country. In such address, the president may present proposals for improving the state of the country to the parliament. Current practice is for the parliament to debate the President’s address and proposals if any on the floor, elect a committee to evaluate the address and make recommendations to the whole. It is anticipated that opposition MPs will take President Nasheed to task for his appalling lack of delivery on election promises to the country.

Other critical issues with respect to the accountability of the Executive likely to be taken up immediately by the new parliament are the issue of the Nasheed government accepting bribes to accept Kosovo independence, the issue of the missing Home Minister and now the missing Attorney General, the issue of budget mismanagement and most importantly the outstanding issues that were being investigated by the Parliamentary committees on national security, on finance, and on national development.

In the light of these important upcoming decisions, the key question is what will be the deciding factor. In reality, the much touted 35 seat majority held by the opposition may not account for anything if opposition members do not attend important sittings, a very common occurrence in the outgoing parliament. Under Article 86, the presence of at least twenty five percent of the members, shall constitute a quorum of the parliament. With the present 76 membership, a parliamentary session can be held with just 19 MPs in attendance. The crux of the matter lies in Article 87 (a) which provides that unless otherwise provided in the constitution, all decisions by the parliament shall be decided by a majority of votes of the members present and voting. This means that unless otherwise provided in the constitution a motion may be passed by the parliament with just 11 MPs voting in favor.

Fortunately, citizens can take heart from the provision in Article 86 (b) providing that voting on any matter requiring compliance by citizens shall only be undertaken when more than half of the total membership of the parliament are present at the sitting at which the matter is voted upon.

The real life implication of just 11 votes to pass a motion is that both MDP and opposition MPs have to be very coordinated in their attendance at crucial votes in parliament. Even more critical then is to control the job of Speaker and Deputy Speaker of parliament, as they will control the agenda of the parliament. The Speaker can therefore schedule a vote for when he/she is assured of required majority attendance by his party’s MPs and their allies on the parliamentary floor.

This power of the Speaker to thus manipulate the decisions of the parliament were very clearly demonstrated by the outgoing Speaker Mohamed Shihab, whose record as Speaker shows how he scheduled important votes for times at which MDP was assured of a winning majority.

Under Article 82 (a), until such time as a Speaker and a Deputy Speaker is elected the parliament shall be presided over by the consecutively longest serving member from among those present. From amongst the newly elected parliament the honor goes to Shaviyani MP Mohamed Hussain. With the important election of Speaker and Deputy Speaker scheduled for tomorrow’s first sitting of parliament, and President Nasheed and his party on the warpath to elect their nominee Solih as Speaker, the going promises to be rough both within and outside parliament.

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