The Supreme Court has commenced hearings on a constitutional petition seeking clarity on the legislative process outlined by the Standing Order of the 19th Parliament, regarding a no-confidence motion against the incumbent Speaker of the Parliament, former President Mohamed Nasheed.

The petition is reviewed by a five-judge bench, presided by Justice Uz Mahaz Ali Zahir, and includes Justices Dr Azmiralda Zahir, Uz Husnu Al Suood, Uz Ali Rasheed Hussain, and Dr Mohamed Ibrahim.

Who are the players?

The case was filed by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which holds a majority at the current parliament with 56 out 87 seats. MDP submitted the no-confidence motion against Speaker Naseheed, who broke away from MDP along with 12 other MPs to form the Democrats. 

The Democrats has high stakes in the proceedings as being minority party at the parliament, loosing Speakership would significantly diminish its power in the legislative body. Deputy Speaker Eva Abdulla also belongs to the Democrats and has been at the core of the current impasse as her untimely ailment is the cause of five consecutive sittings on the impeachment proceedings being stalled. 

The incoming government of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and the People’s National Congress (PNC) coalition has also intervened in the case along with the Democrats, as MDP has raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the swearing in of the new government at a parliament sitting presided over by a speaker who has an impending no-confidence motion against him. 

The state (Parliament) is represented by the Attorney General (AG), led by the AG’s Counsel General Fathimath Haleem, along with Parliamentary Counsel General Fathimath Filza. 

What is being sought, and what is at stake?

The central issue hinges on the impasse on parliamentary sittings due to the prolonged absence of the Deputy Speaker, Eva Abdulla. MDP’s petition aims to rectify this by seeking a ruling by the Supreme Court to acknowledge that there is no constitutional or statutory ground preventing the impeachment proceedings from progressing under Article 44 of the Standing Order in Eva’s absence. They also seek confirmation by the apex court that no other parliamentary decision can take precedence over a pending no-confidence motion. 

The stakes of the impeachment have added layers, and it impact extends to the functioning of the state. According to the constitution, a President should take oath of office at a special sitting of the parliament. With the new government set to take office on 17 November, and the state budget for 2024 along with a supplementary budget for the rest of the year still pending parliamentary approval, the implication of the deadlock goes beyond legislative functioning. 

On who should preside over the sitting

The Parliament argued that only the Deputy Speaker should preside over a sitting considering the impeachment of the Speaker. This interpretation stems from Article 205(e) of the parliamentary rules of procedure, which the Secretary-General has upheld, stating that in the event of the Deputy Speaker’s absence, no other person can preside over such a session.

However, the state, represented by the Attorney General’s Office Counsel General Fathimath Haleem, asks the Supreme Court to acknowledge that there is no constitutional or statutory obstacle preventing the impeachment proceedings from progressing under Article 44 of the rules of procedure in the Deputy Speaker’s absence.

Article 44 allows for the appointment of one of five longest-serving members of Parliament to preside over sittings when the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are excused. This article has been a focal point of discussion, as it appears to offer a solution to the deadlock, a perspective opposition PPM-PNC also argued in favour at the hearing.

Parliamentary Counsel General Fathimath Filza countered, stating that the responsibilities of the Deputy Speaker cannot be transferred to ordinary MPs according to existing rules and emphasised the gravity of a no-confidence motion, asserting that it should be managed by the most senior officials in Parliament.

Separation of powers in the spotlight

The main argument put forward by Nasheed’s Democrats was the court had no jurisdiction to rule on procedurally. As the Democrats were only allowed to intervene in the case last evening, the Court granted them more time to prepare their argument. 

Representing the PPM-PNC, former Attorney General Azima Shukoor contended that routine parliamentary sessions should not be halted due to the no-confidence motion, asserting that proceedings connected to the motion should continue. 

Azima has urged the court to ensure those vested with state powers continue their functions without interruption within the constitutional bounds.

In response, the Supreme Court queried whether it holds the authority to issue such directives without infringing upon parliamentary privileges. Azima argued that the Supreme Court, as the pinnacle institution for constitutional interpretation, has the power to issue orders that would not violate parliamentary privileges. She emphasised that the parliament operates independently within the constitutional framework and is subject to judicial review.

Justice Husnu Al Suood highlighted a viewpoint that constitutional matters such as these require detailed judgments from the Supreme Court, raising the issue of how the parliament might react if it does not adhere to the court’s ruling.

Azima responded by expressing her belief in the necessity of judicial oversight in the administrative functions of the state, affirming that the Maldivian constitutional structure is inherently amenable to such review.

Validity of President-elect Muizzu’s Oath of Office

Justice Husnu Al Suood questioned the state regarding any potential hindrances the motion might pose to President-elect Mohamed Muizzu’s inauguration, as parliamentary protocol states that decisions and debates in parliament must be on hold until the no-confidence motion is addressed. 

The Attorney General’s Office responded that while the motion could disrupt parliamentary operations, it does not block Muizzu’s swearing-in. However, it may affect the appointment of his cabinet. 

Haleem explained that the prohibition in the parliamentary regulation applies to debates on motions or resolutions, and since the inauguration ceremony is not associated with any such motion or resolution, it should not be impeded.

Next Steps

At the hearing, Justice Husnu Al Suood highlighted the heart of the constitutional matter: what happens if the Parliament fails to comply with a Supreme Court order, reflecting the complex balance of powers between the legislative and judicial branches.

Either way, Monday’s hearing was adjourned with Justice Mahaz Ali emphasising the sensitivity of the case before the Supreme Court and his commitment to conducting the hearings concurrently to expedite its resolution, while also ensuring that all parties have adequate time to prepare.