Parliament Update – April 2015

This update looks at the developments concerning the Parliament in April 2015 and will focus on how political parties have opted to navigate the current political hurdles in the Parliament in legislating key amendments and bills.

It is important to note the political developments in the country have had a profound effect on the conduct of parliamentary sessions. With the arrest and conviction of former President Nasheed, sessions were marked by disorder that has resulted in the erosion of principles of good governance such as pluralistic debate and constructive contribution to legislation from all sides of the political divide, as well as limiting public scrutiny on parliamentary performance. With the opposition not participating in the proceedings, the government aligned parties have utilized these circumstances to pass a number of laws without proper consensus. It is also important to highlight that the Parliamentary leadership have also failed to instruct dialogue between the contending political parties, particularly at a time where such discourse and consultation are crucial to overcoming the obstacles facing democratic governance.

In its legislative agenda, twenty-nine bills and amendments were proposed by the government to be sent to the Parliament in the first session of 2015. These include several key legislation dealing with civil, socio-political and economic aspects. While some of these bills have been submitted, the majority of listed legislation in the agenda have not been forwarded. While the government has not provided an update on the status of these pending laws, it is important that a review of the existing legislative agenda be undertaken to take into account the ongoing developments in the Parliament that may have constrained the progress of much-needed legislation.

Parliament proceedings
As highlighted in our March update, the protests by opposition MDP MPs have continued since the opening of the Parliament and has resulted in disorderly sessions in April. These vociferous protests to disrupt sessions, often carried out with the help of megaphones and sports whistles, resulted from the arrest and incarceration of former President Nasheed for 13 years on terrorism charges in March. Former President Nasheed’s arrest, his trial, and sentencing have been contentious on many fronts, as noted by local and international commentators, including the UN Human Rights Commissioner, who have been following the trial proceeding.

While some sessions were adjourned or stopped as a result of the opposition protests, it is interesting to note that neither the Parliament’s speaker nor the Deputy Speaker had opted to eject any opposition MPs from the chamber. In some of the disorderly sessions ruling coalition MPs have continued with debates and voting was conducted even though the debating was inaudible over the sounds of megaphones and whistles. This was noted by opposition MPs who contended that sessions were being conducted in contravention to parliamentary procedural rules.

On 7 April, MDP MPs suspended their protests and did not attend the Parliament chamber in the build-up to a meeting with the Speaker to seek a negotiated settlement to the ongoing Parliament impasse. While this was a slight reprieve, disruptions have continued since. The Parliament also resumed broadcasting a live feed of sittings to television stations, which had been suspended since the start of the opposition protests.

The proposal, highlighted in our March update, to revoke allowances of MPs who approach the Speaker’s desk unsolicited to disrupt proceedings was bolstered by a proposal by MP Moosa Manik to ban sirens, megaphones and horns from parliamentary premises. Both proposals were voted on and passed by the Parliament in April with only government-aligned MPs participating in the vote. Following its passing, the 22 April Parliament session was conducted with the help of parliamentary security officials who prevented opposition MPs from approaching the Speaker’s desk. Since then, opposition MPs have also been summoned to the Parliament’s conduct committee – proceedings of this committee being carried out in secret with no access to media or observers – to answer charges of session disruption. These developments are largely seen as retributive measures against opposition as a means of intimidation and as incentives to discontinue protests in the chamber.

Key legislation
There were some new bills ushered into Parliament in April as well as updates to legislation introduced in March.

1. Unconstitutional parole amendment sent back to Parliament
The problematic amendment to the 2013 Prisons and Parole Act, which we noted in our March update, that was passed by Parliament and forwarded to the Executive for ratification was returned to the Parliament by the President for revision. The return follows the Attorney-General’s comments on the incompatibility of some provisions of the amendment with the constitution. As noted in our March update, this amendment contains problematic provisions such as the revoking of the freedom of association from incarcerated prisoners, which is guaranteed under the constitution, and places further restrictions on other rights which may flout the ambit of constitutional rights restriction limits. The President Office further specified the controversial parts of the amendment as contained in the advice from the Attorney-General.

On 28 April, the reworked amendment was passed by the Parliament by 40 votes – with just the government aligned parties voting in favour. While the new revised amendment does not bar prisoners from membership in political parties, it obstructs them from serving in leadership positions in political parties and other organizations. This provision, thus still potentially contravenes the reasonable rights restriction provisions in the amendment itself and in the constitution. In response, opposition MPs alleged that the government was specifically targeting former President Nasheed, as when President Yameen ratifies the amendment into law, Nasheed will lose his position as MDP President.

2. Tourism Ministry powers and resort leases to 99 years
In April, the government submitted a revenue raising bill proposing the increase of resort leases from the existing 50 year term to 99 years. The bill further proposes the increase in the authority of the Tourism Ministry by shifting the conduct of environmental impact assessments from existing semi-independent government bodies (the Environmental Protection Agency)  and also bestows the power to authorise infrastructure development on resort islands to the tourism portfolio. In response to this proposal, opposition politicians and commentators noted the reversal of the stance on this issue by the current government, who when in opposition during President Nasheed’s tenure, criticized the Nasheed administration decision to increase resort leases to 50 years in return for upfront fees. On 21 April, the bill was voted in Parliament and passed with 41 votes in favour with opposition members not taking part in debate or voting.

3. Party presidential primary elections update
In April, the amendment to the Elections Commission Act, submitted in March by former MDP MP Moosa Manik, to include administering party presidential primary elections under the purview of the Elections Commission was voted by the Parliament to be sent to committee for review. Opposition MPs did not participate in the vote. If this amendment is passed by the Parliament, it would put a substantial financial and administrative burden on the Elections Commission. Furthermore, it remains to be seen what the impact of this change will have on internal party mechanisms as well as the acceptance of Elections Commission oversight over party presidential primaries by the opposition parties in the current partisan climate. This impact is especially pronounced when there exists the opportunity to question the independence of the Commission following the dismissal of two Commission members, including the President Fuwad Thowfeeq, by the Supreme Court in 2014.

4. Penal code update
The Maldives’ Penal Code that was passed into law by the Parliament in 2014 and was due to come into force on 13 April was delayed by the Parliament. The amendment to delay its coming into force by three months was sponsored by the ruling PPM coalition. The PPM argued that more time was needed for preparing stakeholders on aspects of the new code. The opposition MDP alleged that the government was attempting to use the existing, outdated, penal code to intimidate critics. This postponement occurred amidst commentary by the Prosecutor-General and the Attorney-General stating there was no reason to delay enforcement. The voting for the amendment was surrounded by loud opposition protests against the tabling of the amendment and with MDP MPs taking over the Speaker’s desk and Parliament secretariat desks. Speaker Maseeh asked for votes utilizing a megaphone, which was carried out by a show of hands. MDP MPs contended that this voting violated parliamentary procedures.

In another development, as noted in our March update, Adhaalath party MP Anaaraa Naeem’s proposal to incorporate the “retaliation in kind” aspect or Qisas law in Islamic Shari’a in the penal code was rejected by the National Security Committee who scrutinized the bill. See our March update for details on this amendment. Following this, on 12 April, Naeem submitted her amendment to the Parliament floor for consideration again.
Parliamentary by-electionThe MP for Dhiggaru constituency, Ahmed Nazim, was sentenced to a 25 life sentence by the Supreme Court having being found guilty of corruption. With the conviction, Nazim’s seat became vacant and the Elections Commission has announced the by-election. Both major parties are fielding candidates.

In following the updates in the Parliament in April, the detrimental effect on democratic debate arising from the non-participation of key opposition is clear. The declining quality and integrity of legislation passed in this period, such as the problematic parole amendment and other proposals that limit independent oversight mechanisms such as the Tourism Ministry legislation, alludes to the unchecked dominance of government-aligned parties in the lawmaking process. To improve the status quo, the government must take steps to facilitate strategic implementation of much-needed legislation, as highlighted in its Legislative Agenda 2014-2018, and move away from reactive legislative objectives. Furthermore, the Parliament leadership should work to provide an impetus for a dialogue between the major parties to overcome the prevailing impasse and must exploit opportunities that exist for government-aligned parties to engage with the opposition to address their concerns.