The conduct of the March 22 parliamentary polls in Maldives is now uncertain with the Supreme Court, on Sunday, sentencing all four Election Commissioners on charges of contempt of court. The Elections Commission chairperson, Fuwad Thoufeeq, who has won international acclaim for his lead role in conducting the much-postponed Presidential polls late last year, has been barred from holding the post of chair of the Commission.
In a late night clarification issued on Sunday, the Supreme Court clarified that only Mr. Thoufeeq was sentenced, local press reports said.
He was sentenced for his criticism of the court’s interference in the conduct of the Presidential polls last year. The court took cognisance of the matter suo motu, and declared that Mr. Thoufeeq, and the other Commissioners, were in contempt of court.
The court has handed down to Mr. Thoufeeq a six-month jail sentence, suspended for three years.
The immediate crisis is both Constitutional and practical: at a Constitutional level, the power to appoint or dismiss members of the Elections Commission rests with the parliament, the Majlis. At an operational level, of the five members in the EC, one had already quit. Debarring Mr. Thoufeeq and his deputy leaves just two members – one short of a quorum to take any decision.
The Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party reacted angrily to the development: “We are highly suspicious. There was no problem for the conduct of the local body elections. Suddenly there is this new development barely two weeks ahead of the parliamentary polls. We are very worried. We are shocked,” said MDP’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Gafoor, MP, who was also jailed recently.
The MDP is not alone. In a rather surprising move, the Majlis Speaker, who belongs to the MDP, and the Deputy Speaker, who belongs to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives – which is now the main ruling party – signed a letter on Monday, insisting that the court order was in contravention of Article 177 of the Constitution (gives Majlis the power to appoint and remove members of Independent Commissions).
“Have Informed the CJ, President and AG that power to remove Members of the EC rests with Parliament by virtue of Art 177 of the Constitution,” Speaker Abdulla Shahid tweeted on Monday.
The ruling combine headed by the PPM has a majority in the Majlis, though the MDP is the largest single party. With both parties on the same side, a motion moved in the Majlis is certain to be adopted – again sharply bringing to focus the serious nature of differences between the critical institutions in the nascent democracy.
The Majlis Committee on Independent Commission is also slated to meet to put forth the view that the domain of appointments rests with the parliament.
The MDP said that its national council will also meet soon to review the situation arising out of the court decision.