Parliament at odds, as expiration of the term of councilors looms

A voter casts his ballot during the Local Council Elections 2017. (File Photo/Sun/Fayaz Moosa)

The term of incumbent councilors, elected before the 2019 constitutional amendment to extend the term of councilors, is three years. Their term will expire on June 3. The COVID-19 pandemic now makes holding the local council elections before their term expires impossible; creating a dilemma as to how best to avoid the legal vacuum and keep the councils running.

Maldives declared a state of public emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, and the local council elections, which was originally scheduled for April 4, has been postponed to April 18 – the latest the election can be postponed to without requiring the intervention of either the Supreme Court or the Parliament.

In this race against time to avoid the collapse of councils, the government has submitted a sunset bill to postpone the elections as late as January 6 next year, and a separate bill to amend the Constitution to accommodate an extension to the term of incumbent councilors until such time Maldives is able to hold the elections to elect new councilors.

However, the Parliament stands divided over this issue. Some have opinioned that a constitutional amendment at such a time was against the spirit of the Constitution.

Many said that the move to extend the term of incumbent councilors would overstrain the government’s budget.

Some suggested that either the President himself, or the Civil Service Commission could appoint people to run the councils, once the term of incumbent councilors expired.

“I don’t believe it extending the term of these incumbent councilors and granting them another opportunity is very democratic. And neither is it very decentralization-like,” said Funadhoo MP Mohamed Shahid.

And neither did he believe it to be democratic to grant the President the authority to appoint people to run the councils. He suggested that the best option was for the Civil Service Commission to appoint a secretary-general or in-charge to oversee councils.

Ihavandhoo MP Mohamed Shifau also voiced his opposition to extending the term of incumbent councilors. He said that the councilors could then no longer be called representatives of the people.

“And if we do not find the President appointing councilors to be the best approach, we, the Parliament, have the option of producing good solutions through legislature,” said Shifau.

Nilandhoo MP Ali Riza opinioned that the President, as the Head of State, may be awarded the authority to appoint people to run councils. He suggested that the approach could also save money and provide employment opportunities to the people who were getting laid off due to the pandemic.

It had been the former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, who is now the Parliament Speaker, who had abolished the system of island chiefs and had appointed a councilor to each island, during his presidency.

But Nasheed said that he did not believe such a system to be the best approach.

“However, I hadn’t believed that to be the best practice, even then. And no one among us had either,” said Nasheed.