President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on Sunday ratified landmark changes brought to the decentralisation law in line with signature campaign pledges for fiscal devolution and women’s empowerment.
The signing ceremony took place at the opening of a conference held at the Crossroads resort near Malé with more than 200 councillors.
The law was revised to devolve powers for local councils to provide utility services, maintain roads, repair harbours, carry out infrastructure projects under MVR5 million (US$324,250) and collect 100 percent of earnings from land rentals in their jurisdiction as well as a portion of revenue from leasing islands and lagoons.
The country’s first-ever gender quota was also introduced by reserving one-third of seats on city, atoll and island councils for female candidates.
In his speech at the conference, President Solih hailed the “beginning of decentralisation in its true meaning” and the development of the country as a Jazeera Raajje (Island Nation), referring to his campaign slogan that drew a contrast with the previous administration’s policy to consolidate 70 percent of the population in the capital.
With financial autonomy and devolution of decision-making powers, Solih said questions previously posed by councillors to the central government would now be asked of them as “we have relinquished funds, discretion and power.”
The next council elections in April will see the election of 384 female councillors on 179 islands and three cities in addition to 929 members to women’s development committees, Solih said. With 1,313 representatives, the number of women in elected office will outnumber men, he noted.
Ascribing the ideology of decentralisation to the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, Solih urged the public to vote for the party’s candidates in the upcoming election.
Speaking at the conference, UNDP Resident Representative Akiko Fujii called the amendments brought to the decentralisation law “a bold attempt” to tackle systemic inequalities.
“First, it empowers you, members of local councils, with resources and means to carry out policies aimed at reducing the gap between the quality of life on the atolls and in Malé,” she said.
“And second, I am particularly encouraged by the decision to reserve 33% of local council seats for women. This system change can effectively tackle the democratic deficit, and will help to produce elected bodies which better reflect the composition of the societies they represent. Many other countries in the region and other small island states, including Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Mauritius and others have enacted similar measures, with very positive results. Congratulations on this historic milestone.”
Last week, Solih also ratified a constitutional amendment that increased the term of local councils from three to five years. Parliament also revised article 231 for voters to directly elect mayors of cities and presidents of island and atoll councils. Mayors and presidents were previously chosen from among council members.
Elected councils were introduced for the first time after the decentralisation law was passed as mandated by the 2008 constitution. The first municipal elections were held in February 2011. Ahead of the third elections in May 2017, parliament revised the law to reduce the number of councillors to 653 from more than 1,000.
With the eighth amendment brought to the law, the number of councillors will also increase to 980 after April’s polls.
During the two-day Viyavathi conference with council members, the government’s Isles website was relaunched with information about elected representatives and the status of development projects.
In his concluding remarks on Monday evening, President Solih advised councils to seek public opinion before making decisions, providing examples of budgeted projects that have not commenced after the planning and design stages.
On Madifushi island in Thaa atoll, the construction of a new office stopped this week. Protesters prevented builders from starting work as they opposed the site chosen by the council, he said. Land reclamation projects on Guraidhoo and Maafushi in Kaafu atoll meanwhile stalled because the island communities were opposed to the plans, he said, appealing for wider consultations to ensure the implementation of the record 2020 budget.
Photo from president’s office of Solih giving the pen he used to ratify the amendments to Speaker Mohamed Nasheed.