Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar has announced plans to seek legal changes to bar soldiers from voting, citing the need to safeguard the army from political influences.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of a military drill competition at the Kalhuthukkala barracks on Tuesday night, Shareef said the government has decided to abolish article 20 of the Armed Forces Act, which assures the right to vote for servicemen and women in the Maldives National Defence Force.
“Arranging legal matters so that soldiers can work in service of the nation while remaining free of political influences is something that we have to do,” he was quoted as saying by local media.
Stressing that soldiers should be exclusively devoted to national service, he said that discipline, ethical standards, and unity among soldiers as well as public confidence in the military have improved under the guidance of the current administration.
Shareef said a bill will be submitted to the ruling party-dominated parliament this year.
The constitution, however, guarantees the right to vote for all Maldivians above 18 years of age. It is unclear whether the government plans to amend the provision, which would require approval from a three-quarters majority of the 85-member parliament.
Soldiers were barred from voting before the armed forces law was passed along with the new democratic constitution in August 2008.
The defence minister’s announcement has drawn criticism on social media. Jumhooree Party MP Abdulla Riyaz, a former police chief and ex-serviceman, strenuously objected to disenfranchising soldiers.
Condemning the move as “dictatorial”, Riyaz contended in a tweet that it was prompted by the lack of support within the military for President Abdulla Yameen.
Hassan Latheef, newly elected chairman of the Maldivian Democratic Party, told the Maldives Independent that the main opposition party will not support the proposed changes.
However, the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives controls a comfortable majority in the People’s Majlis.
Latheef said soldiers have the right to choose their representative in parliament and local councils and to vote for a presidential candidate of their choice.
He also contended that the government has lost the support of the rank and file in the military.
“Security forces are important institutions, they love their country. They will not accept the corruption, stealth nor the sale of our atolls,” he said.
“They know how these things happened very well. So President Yameen wants to take away the basic civil right of voting from everyone. The military is just the start. From the path that we are going on, I would say that police and employees of state institutions will also be barred from voting, in violation of the constitution.”
But MDP MP Ibrahim Mohamed Didi, a retired brigadier, said he doubted whether the change could provoke any serious consequences.
“I joined the military in 1979 and soldiers didn’t vote until the late 2000s. So I think they will probably adjust,” he said.
In August last year, the MNDF barred soldiers from meeting politicians, including ministers, and foreigners without prior permission. The move came amidst heightened tension in Malé after a newly formed opposition coalition vowed to remove the president over the Maldives’ biggest corruption scandal.
In late August, eight soldiers were also detained at the military barracks on charges of canvassing for support within the MNDF for Yameen’s ouster. Four soldiers were later dismissed and placed under investigation
Shortly after Yameen’s inauguration in late November 2013, nine high-ranking officers were fired over accusations of sowing discord within the military ahead of the presidential election.
Several soldiers had signed a letter expressing concern about the delays in concluding polls by the end of the presidential term on November 11. After the letter was leaked online, the MNDF amended its regulations to punish officers who promote “upheaval and chaos.”
Additional reporting by Shafaa Hameed.