The ruling party-controlled parliament on Tuesday moved ahead with contentious legal changes that would allow individuals convicted of serious crimes to contest in the April 15 local council elections.
MP Ali Mohamed of the Progressive Party of Maldives proposed relaxing the eligibility criteria to allow individuals to contest two years after being pardoned or completing their jail sentence.
Following a heated debate at today’s sitting, MPs voted 41-23 to send the amendments proposed to the 2010 local council elections law to a committee for further review.
The law presently bars individuals convicted of graft, bribery, drug abuse, drug dealing, child molestation, rape, and offences with punishments prescribed in Islamic shariah from becoming candidates for island, atoll and city councils.
Individuals convicted of other offences and jailed for more than a year are allowed to contest three years after their release or pardon.
Ali Mohamed also proposed removing a clause that disqualifies full-time students. Presenting the legislation, the MP for Noonu Holhudhoo said his intention is to pave the way for as many Maldivian citizens as possible to seek a council seat in the upcoming polls.
But MPs of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party accused the ruling party of seeking to grant its ticket to individuals who are presently barred from contesting. Allowing “thieves and rapists” to contest is unacceptable, they said.
The third local council election was previously scheduled to take place on January 14, but was postponed after the PPM petitioned the civil court for a two-month delay citing its inability to prepare for the polls in the wake of a bitter leadership dispute.
Earlier this month, the elections commission – which the opposition contends is stacked with loyalists of President Abdulla Yameen – postponed the polls again to April 15, claiming that public schools were unavailable to set up polling stations at an earlier date.
The PPM was split into rival factions led by Yameen and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom last year after the civil court stripped the latter of his powers as the party’s elected leader.
Yameen’s faction of the PPM had planned to hold a rally last Saturday to launch its campaign and introduce the party’s candidates. But the event was delayed on short notice with PPM Secretary-General Dr Abdulla Khaleel citing the election’s commission’s decision to push back the deadline to submit candidacy papers from February 6 to February 20.
During today’s debate, MDP MPs blamed the delays on the PPM’s alleged failure to find enough candidates to contest on the ruling party’s ticket.
MP Imthiyaz Fahmy suggested that the speaker’s decision to expedite the legislative process shows that the PPM wants to push through the changes as soon as possible.
Preliminary debates are normally tabled in the agenda at least a day after a bill is introduced to the parliament. However, shortly after Ali Mohamed’s bill was introduced at the beginning of today’s sitting, Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed called a vote to start the debate.
Several PPM MPs also expressed concern with the proposed changes during the debate. However, with the exception of Gayoom’s son MP Faris Maumoon, all of the ruling coalition lawmakers in attendance later voted in favour of the bill.
A meeting of the PPM’s parliamentary group took place ahead of the vote.