Speaker censure vote: A matter of political perspective

The narrative of a story completely depends on who is telling the story. You could be listening to a lot of facts, but the conclusions derived from these facts solely depend on the perceptions and the pre-conceived notions of the storyteller.

A recent example is the US President Trump’s inauguration and the “alternative facts” that was presented by his press secretary about the audience that gathered to witness it. There was no way of accurately calculating the size of the crowd present at the inauguration. Most medias compared pictures of crowds gathered at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration with Trump’s inauguration, while Trump’s press secretary came armed with confusing – but not inaccurate – numbers of commuters from the Metro on the inaugural day to support his argument. Everything that was presented was all true – but they were all laid out in a manner that supported each side’s argument.

Similarly, last Monday’s censure motion against the parliament speaker Abdullah Maseeh brought a lot of facts to light – and the opinions on the legitimacy of the vote and the events that transpired in the parliament that day vary depending on the side of the argument one listens to. Both parties make reasonable, (mostly) factual arguments that support their own claims. However, the problem in Maldives is that the opposition and pro-government supporters only listen to what their respective parties claim and completely ignore what the other side is saying. In Maldives, the truth is subjective, and completely depends on the side of the political-spectrum one aligns with.

Undoubtedly, the pro-government legislators emerged triumphant on Monday’s censure vote. They needed 42 legislators to oppose the motion, and 48 members had, indeed, voted “no” on the motion out loud. The numbers are as they are: 48 to nil – an overwhelming win for the government. Technically no lawmaker had voted against the motion and it was a clear victory – as it appeared. The celebratory cakes and the pizzas were completely called for.

On the other side, the vote was taken amidst fierce protests in the parliament. Opposition lawmakers had deemed the whole procedure of how the vote was taken to be unlawful and protested till the deputy speaker MP Moosa Manik had called the names of as many as 13 legislators and expelled them from Monday’s sitting, ahead of the censure vote. Rest of the opposition legislators walked out after expressing their discontent before the vote could be taken. They alleged discrepancies and absurdities in the whole voting procedure – but the vote went ahead, and Maseeh has comfortably secured his place as the parliament’s speaker for now.

Electronic Vote vs Roll Call Vote

Chaos in the parliament erupted after the chief legislator of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Villi-Maafannu MP Ahmed Nihan proposed a roll-call vote, instead of the usual electronic voting system to decide whether the speaker should be ousted. The reason he cited was an assumption that the opposition would claim a “rigged system” if the vote does not go in their favour. He proposed the parliament opt for a roll-call vote instead so that the vote would be more transparent and determent.

A pro-government legislator’s assumption about how the opposition may react does not seem like an appealing enough reason to defy parliament’s rules of procedure on one particular motion either. As the opposition rightfully claimed, the suggestion was a violation of section 164 of the parliament’s rules of procedure, which clearly states that all motions in the parliament must be decided using the electronic voting system. Unless the system is proven to be faulty, the outcome of the electronic voting system is to be fully trusted. So why should the parliament defy its procedures on this particular motion on a claim that appears dubious?

However the regulation itself is somewhat confusing – especially for a layman who is inapt at reading legal literature. While section 164 of the parliament’s rules of procedure clearly states, on the very first line, that all votes in the parliament must be taken with the electronic voting system, in the section that follows (section 165), it states if a roll-call vote is submitted by a parliamentarian, the parliament must agree upon the decision with majority votes. However, the problem is that, how this vote is determined is not specified in the section. Unlike the opposition, Nihan did not cite the exact regulation that would have supported his roll-call suggestion either – and an assumption about the opposition’s reaction seems hardly a just reason to go against usual parliament rules of procedure.

Nonetheless, for the pro-government supporters, the vote was legitimate. Technically, as section 165 of the parliament’s rules of procedure suggests, the roll-call vote was voted on (using the same electronic voting system) and the motion passed with 45 votes in favour. The opposition MPs did not participate in the vote. The vote that decided whether electronic voting or an individual roll call should be used in the speaker’s censure motion was decided over the now-controversial electronic voting system. This was undoubtedly suspicious and it put the sincerity and the intentions of the government legislators in to question; a question that was raised by the opposition. Why was it okay to vote on the method of voting using a system that the pro-government lawmakers did not want to use for the censure motion? Why was the electronic voting system deemed fit to decide whether the speaker should be ousted using the same system, but flawed when it came to the actual vote at-hand?

In a more interesting turn of events, it appeared that the electronic voting system was, indeed, tampered with. A picture of the outcome of the electronic vote that decided how the parliament’s speaker should be ousted was circulating on social media shortly after the vote, and it showed that the jailed Galolhu-South MP Ahmed Mahloof and the Deputy Speaker who was presiding over Monday’s sitting had voted. Unless MP Mahloof teleported from prison to vote “no” and left without anybody noticing, there was something oddly suspicious about the electronic vote that was taken. And as the parliament’s rules of procedure suggest, if there is evidence that the electronic voting system is faulty, the parliament should opt for a roll-call vote anyway.

Clearly, the suggestion of a roll-call vote on the pro-government’s side was a violation of procedure – especially when they did not have enough grounds to back their argument. The electronic voting system did not appear faulty when they suggested the roll-call vote, nor did they notice any discrepancies in the system when they voted using the same system to decide on the roll-call vote for the censure motion. The motive of the pro-government legislators in suggesting the roll call vote was ominous, to say the least. However, later it showed that there was some fault in the electronic voting system – there are many theories as to how MP Mahloof’s vote ended up on the result sheet, and the Deputy Speaker has said that he will investigate the matter too. But until something is proven definitely, it can be argued that in black-and-white, the roll call vote to oust the speaker went through legitimately since the parliament’s majority had voted to opt for a roll call vote in the censure motion, and it later appeared that the electronic voting system was tampered with.

A Matter of Perspective

Last Monday was undoubtedly a historic and an eventful day in the parliament – and the analyses of the events that transpired varies depending on whose story you are listening to. There were heated protests in the parliament chambers by the opposition, claiming the vote was taken in contravention of the law. We even saw one of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) parliamentarians, MP Mariya Didi quite literally standing on the green paper-back the constitution of the Maldives in printed on. MDP – true to form – in a perfectly poetic and theatrical fashion gave the government supporters a picture of one of their leaders standing on the constitution. For government supporters, the picture was a direct translation of how MDP “felt about the constitution”; it showed the amount of respect the opposition held for the holy book of law. If they can’t even respect the physical book the law is printed on, how are they supposed to adhere to it?

But for MDP, what good is a constitution if nothing on it is followed? The opposition’s frustration is also understandable since the pro-government legislators were trying to defy obvious rules and procedures. They may as well walk all over the constitution because it holds no value if no one is following it (especially the people in the parliament, who are directly involved in making these laws). For the opposition, it did not make a difference.

Furthermore, MP Faris Maumoon, the son of former strongman and ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) founder Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had indicated that some pro-government legislators were ready to defect, depending on the amount of votes the opposition garners in their favour. Speaking to the press after the walk-out, Faris said that a few pro-government legislators were ready to vote “yes” on the speaker’s censure motion, if the opposition manages more than 35 – 36 votes in their favour.

However, A roll-call vote meant that the pro-government legislators who were uncertain of the vote, would have to stand up and boldly declare which stance they take; they were put in the position of openly declaring whether stand with the government, or defy them, and face the repercussions. Faris indicated that this may be one of the reasons that the pro-government legislators wanted to opt for a roll-call vote – so that they can single out the “bad eggs” in their bunch.

Whatever the case may be, last Monday’s vote revealed one thing – the government has lost the super majority they enjoyed at the beginning of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s term. The ruling coalition, at the beginning, enjoyed a comfortable 54-seat majority in the parliament. However, after the coalition broke and PPM split in two factions (PPM founder Maumoon’s loyalists vs. his younger brother, the incumbent president’s loyalists), Monday’s vote was a clear indication of their numbers in the parliament – which is now 48. MDP, who started out as the only opposition party in the parliament, with mere 21 seats, now has the backing of over 34 legislators and the entirety of the original government coalition.

For the pro-government supporters, they still hold the majority in the parliament, and was able to defeat a “politically-motivated and baseless” censure motion with majority votes. For the opposition, the vote was taken in contravention of the law amidst protests and was proof that the government is losing its numbers. Most of the arguments, on both sides are factual, minus the exaggerated details for theatrics. However, the conclusion remains the same – that the truth is subjective in the Maldives and everyone is (mostly) happy with the facts they have armed themselves with to justify their own beliefs.