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Maldives: putting democracy back on track February 23, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Future Directions International, Guest authors, Maldives , trackback

Guest author: N. Sathiya Moorthy

First published in Future Directions International on 15 February 2012

A week after President Mohammed Nasheed resigned, to be succeeded by his Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, Maldives is limping back to normality. Hassan is to complete the residual part of Nasheed’s five-year term, ending November 2013. The deep political divisions remain, and the wounds of the previous week’s events have left a bad taste in the mouths of the people at large, and Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) cadres in particular. All now need to take stock of the recent developments with equanimity and arrive at solutions for the medium- and long-term good of the nation.

Nasheed’s sudden resignation had been preceded by a series of events, not just over the previous weeks, as is often being said now, in a reference to the ‘protect Islam’ call by the ‘December 23 Coalition’ launched by religious NGOs, to which desperate Opposition political groups, whose egos were matched only by the personal ambitions of their leaders, tagged along. It had commenced as early as mid-2010, when the parliamentary polls threw up a minority for the President’s party.

Though a new Constitution aimed at ending the 30-year long autocracy of President Maumoon Gayoom and ushering in multi-party democracy was adopted in 2008, it did not provide for the former in spirit. Although it did usher in multi-party democracy, all the stake-holders at the time had drafted the new Constitution while keeping in mind a high possibility of President Gayoom returning to power. This meant that the divided Opposition of the time focussed more on introducing checks and balances through Parliament, rather than ushering in the Westminster-style scheme that President Gayoom favoured.

As the 2008 presidential polls showed, Gayoom lost and MDP’s Nasheed won in the second run-off round, with two candidates accounting for close to 32 per cent of the popular votes endorsing his candidacy. Yet, by causing their exit from the nascent government and coalition, President Nasheed ended up losing the parliamentary polls. The various players did not know how to act out their new responsibilities and effectively lived in their respective pasts.

It was the beginning of a process that culminated in President Nasheed’s resignation, after over three long years of daily tussle between the Executive on the one hand and the legislature and/or the judiciary on the other. President Nasheed’s tendency to deflect issues by introducing new elements and the MDP members’ continuance of their pre-democracy, pro-activism stances in lieu of actual performance meant that the Opposition did not have to fight for issues. Instead, they had issues offered on a platter, to fight for and to fight over.

All this was in full view, first at the morning rally when some policemen joined the Opposition demands for President Nasheed’s resignation on 7 February. It was also the case the same afternoon, when the MDP staged a protest equal to the ‘protect Islam’ rally of 23 December, which was marred by violence. Though street-violence spread across the country almost simultaneously, with the MDP accusing the security forces of targeting them, normality was restored soon enough, with benevolent advice to all stakeholders by friends of Maldives. President Waheed, too, appreciated the need for him to play a positive role in the matter, and indicated that a subsequent arrest warrant issued against President Nasheed may not, after all, be executed.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding President Nasheed’s resignation, and apart from his belated disclosure of a mutiny in the armed forces, the development may have thrown up a situation for the nation to come to terms with its longish ‘democratic transition’ since 2008 and find common ways to settle down and make it work. Given the geo-strategic locale of the Indian Ocean archipelago, the country’s perceived identity crisis in terms of it being an Islamic nation where religious conservatism bordering on fundamentalism has crept in, and the permanently perilous state of the economy, a rudderless future is the last thing that Maldives can afford at this very critical stage in its experiment with Western-style democracy.

The nation cannot fail itself. Nor can it fail the polity, either. They need to strike a compromise on the issues surrounding President Nasheed’s resignation. As successor, President Waheed has called for a ‘national unity government’ and, after demands from the international community, has also spoken about probing the circumstances surrounding his predecessor’s resignation. He has, however, denied President Nasheed’s charges that he was a part of the conspiracy.

Friends of Maldives, starting with India and the US, and not excluding Germany and the UK, have called for the early restoration of normality, with some wanting President Waheed to prove his relative legitimacy early on. The US, in particular, has not accepted Nasheed’s demand for his successor to resign and order fresh polls within two months. Visiting US Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Blake, said that the state of independent institutions in the country, such as the Election Commission and the judiciary – a complaint reiterated by President Nasheed in office and afterwards – did not infuse confidence to order early polls.

President Waheed is unclear about the shape that the promised probe should take. One suggestion is for him to use the occasion to restore the confidence of the people and the polity alike in institutions like judiciary and the Election Commission, in that order. President Waheed has appealed to countries such as Australia to confer early recognition on his government, to which he has since added Cabinet Ministers from most parties except the MDP, for which he seems to have retained some slots, nonetheless. The MDP, however, is adamant. On that would also depend, not only the future of the MDP, but also that of Maldives.

N Sathiya Moorthy is Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, a multi-disciplinary Indian public policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi

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