Maldives: EC re-opens old wounds, SC ‘usurps’ legislative powers?

N Sathiya Moorthy. 1 June 2017

With the Maldives Election Commission (EC) deciding to disburse money under state-funding for political parties, an inevitable old wound has been prised open all over again. Questions on the ‘largest party’ in the country as also those on the changing yardstick for state-funding remain.

State-funding for political parties with 3000 ‘registered members’ formed part of the democratic reforms of 2008. In the years after Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) became the President in 2008, the party’s ‘registered membership’ was claimed to be close to 50,000, or nearly half of all ‘registered members’ of every political party in the country.

Today, President Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), or the ‘official faction’ recognised by the courts and the EC, claims to be the single largest party with 39,502 members. The MDP comes a distant second at 29,350, with the latter’s numbers slashed almost by half from the earlier figures. While the PPM membership could be claimed to have grown ‘steadily’, the EC attributed the loss of MDP numbers to non-registration of finger-prints, to eliminate bogus and fraudulent members from the Commission’s rolls.

The MDP, though opposed to the EC decision of last October, did not protest too loudly. It is another matter that the party, while in power, had considered measures for effective disbursal of state-funding, which is protected under the 2008 Constitution. Accordingly, 0.5 percent of the Government’s annual budget is earmarked for the purpose.

Less than half

Quoting the EC figures, the Maldives Independent has reported that 101, 368 persons – or, 40 percent of the nation’s population in the voting age of 18 years and above — are registered members of one recognised political party or the other. Considering the above 90-percent polling in successive presidential elections, it is also clear that most of the ‘decisive voters’ are politically non-committal, ‘swing voters’, making upcoming Elections-2018, as much challenging as it is wide open.

According to the Maldives Independent, the EC has now disbursed MVR 23 million, or $ 1.5 m, to four political parties, at the rate of MVR 255.30 ($ 17) per registered member. While the PPM-Yameen received MVR 10 m, the MDP got 7.5 m. The PPM’s coalition partner, the Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA) and the opposition Jumhooree Party (JP), now in the MDP’s company, have been given MVR 2.7 million ($175,000) each.

Two smaller parties, the religion-centric  Adhaalath Party (3,823), the latter founded by former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother before he launched the PPM, did not qualify for state-funding. Parties without 3,000 members were dissolved last year. Both decisions were/are seen as a ‘collective conspiracy’ of the bigger parties to ‘choke’ futuristic voices of the democracy, given the high cost of elections in the archipelago-nation, where the newer parties alone could benefit from state-funding, at least initially.

Supreme Court ruling

On a relatively related – or, equally unrelated – issue, the Supreme Court has held that it was the final authority in matters of the Parliament’s impeachment of the President, Vice-President, ministers, judges and other constitutionally-mandated ‘state officials’. Parliament would have to follow the ‘due process’ and ‘stringent impeachment procedures’, but they would still be subject of ‘judicial review’, the court has ruled.

The Supreme Court order followed a clarification sought by the Attorney-General’s office “to establish that Parliament can only dismiss cabinet ministers for committing an impeachable offence” under Article 101 of the Constitution. The unanimous verdict of the full five-member Bench, headed by Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, ruled that no-confidence motions cannot be filed for political reasons.

The Supreme Court ruling comes ahead of the  June 5 reopening of the Parliament, where the combined Opposition was expected to agitate their demand for Yameen’s exit, and revive the no-trust vote against Speaker Abdulla Maseeh, which they had lost to alleged ‘technical glitches’ in March. As was expected, the political Opposition and jurists sympathetic to their larger causes have since questioned the ‘judicial interference’ in the Parliament’s powers, guaranteed under Article 87 (b). Former President Gayoom tweeted that unconstitutional decisions should be considered ‘invalid and non-binding’.

The Opposition can be expected to raise the Supreme Court verdict too in Parliament. However, ruling PPM leaders have charged the Opposition with fresh and unfettered attempts to move no-trust motions against one minister after another, if only to ‘pester us’. They also point to the post-March vote and changes to the rules, which now insist on half the numbers, or 42 members in the 85-seat Parliament, to move any no-trust motion of the kind, to check against such ‘non-serious attempts to stall the House’.

The Opposition, however, claims that they now have the members, and that the new changes, while daunting, has also made them even more motivated to work harder and together. It may also be noted that the new ‘minimum requirement’ of members for moving no-trust motion is also the numbers required to get it passed. In turn, it means that once the motion is submitted with being challenged later on by any ‘signatory’, then it is as good as passed – and technical glitches of the March kind could not hold.

Position of strength?

For now, however, the Government has shifted two (more) Opposition leaders from prison to ‘house arrest’ for the holy month of Ramadan. Sheikh Imran is the president of the religion-centric Aadhalath Party (AP) and has been ordered to a long-term prison-sentence for ‘inciting terror’ at an anti-government rally in March 2015. Col Mohammed Nazim, incumbent Defence Minister of Yameen, was arrested after ‘illegal weapons’ and other material evidence were purportedly recovered from his house, linking him to allegation of a coup plan.

It, however, remains to be seen if Yameen was planning to negotiate with the combined Opposition from a position of judicial strength, now available to him after the Supreme Court ruling, or the current ‘initiative’ could go the way of every one of the kind since he came to power in November 2013. According to the new law, only a simple majority is required for the passage of no-trust vote against ministers and Speaker while two-thirds majority is needed in the case of the President and/or Vice-President.

Now, the Supreme Court ruling has added a new dimension – that the court would be the final arbiter of what elsewhere in the democratic world has always been considered a legislative domain and prerogative. The fact, however, remains that the Constitution does provide for judicial review of impeachment votes, if only to check against misuse and abuse of the provision, owing to the numbers – and in a way to check against ‘defections’ for which there is no separate Maldivian law.

This could imply that the Opposition would have to wait until Elections-2018 to prove their self-proclaimed claims that Yameen does not enjoy popular support. Alternatively, they might end up taking to the streets, if they were able to prove their point on the floor of the House, if only to prove their point to the higher judiciary, which they claim is ‘captive and committed’.

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