The number of city, atoll, and island councillors to be elected in the upcoming local council elections is 653, the elections commission announced Saturday, significantly fewer than the present count of 1,095 councillors.
According to the electoral body, 563 councillors will be elected to 179 island councils, 67 councillors to 18 atoll councils, and 23 councillors to three city councils.
Some 946 island councillors, 132 atoll councillors, and 17 city councillors were elected for three-year terms in January 2014.
The changes come after the parliament revised the landmark 2010 Decentralisation Act to reduce the number of councillors from five to three for islands with a population of less than 3,000.
Only 13 islands will now have a five-member island council, down from a seven-member council at present.
The law was also changed to elect one atoll councillor for each parliamentary constituency in an atoll, down from two for each constituency. Three atoll councillors will be elected for atolls with two parliamentary constituencies.
The polls have been scheduled for January 14.
According to the 2014 census, only four islands have a population exceeding 5,000 and only 20 islands have more than 2,000 people. Some 38 percent of the Maldives’ 338,000-strong population reside in the congested capital city with the rest scattered across 186 inhabited islands.
President Abdulla Yameen’s decision to accord city status to Fuvahmulah will meanwhile reduce the number of councillors on the southern island from 30 to three.
As Fuvahmulah is uniquely both an island and its own atoll, it currently has an atoll council and island councils for each of its eight administrative wards, with a total of 30 elected councillors.
However, the island will now have a three-member city council, with one member representing each of its three parliamentary constituencies.
Yameen issued an executive decree last month declaring that the island meets the criteria for a city in the decentralisation law, which was amended last year to lower the minimum population threshold from 25,000 to 10,000.
Fuvahmulah became the Maldives’ third city after the capital Malé and Addu City.
The Malé and Addu city councils will have, respectively, 13 members and seven members, one for each parliamentary constituency.
The pro-government majority in parliament has also brought several other amendments to the decentralisation law, prompting accusations from the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party that the current administration is seeking to “destroy” the decentralisation system.
In July, three by-elections were cancelled after the law was changed to state that elections must not be held if a councillor resigns after one year.
After Yameen assumed power in November 2013, the government also gradually stripped the Malé and Addu city councils of their authority and staff. Both the Malé and Addu councils are opposition-dominated.
In late June, Yameen ratified a third amendment to the decentralisation law that authorised the president to determine the public services to be provided by city councils.
Most municipal services were transferred to government ministries, leaving the councils with providing registration services and issuing birth and death certificates.
The MDP said at the time the changes were aimed at reducing the city councils to an “administrative desk at the president’s office.”
The current model of more than 1,000 elected councillors approved in 2010 by the then-opposition majority parliament had been branded “economic sabotage” by the MDP government, as it was expected to add US$220,000 in wages every month. The MDP had proposed limiting the number of councillors to “no more than 220.”
Island councillors are paid between MVR15,000 to MVR11,000 (US$972 -713), while atoll councillors are paid between MVR25,000 to MVR20,000 (US$1,621 – US$1,297).
Elected island, atoll, and city councils were introduced in the Maldives for the first time under the decentralisation law as mandated by the 2008 constitution. The first elections were held in February 2011.
In the previous local council elections held in January 2014, the MDP won 457 seats (41.5 percent) and the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives won 281 seats (25.5 percent).
The PPM’s coalition partners at the time, the Jumhooree Party and the Maldives Development Alliance, took 125 seats (11.4 percent) and 59 seats (5.4 percent) respectively.
The Adhaalath Party secured 45 seats (4.1 percent) – including a majority in three councils – while the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party won one seat (0.1 percent) and independent candidates won 132 seats (12 percent).
Voter turnout was 63 percent, well below the 90 percent turnout in the presidential election of November 2013.