Comment: The Fallacy of the Coalition Government in the Maldives

Integrity and ethical behavior has never been a cornerstone of politics in the Maldives throughout its history.  In fact, Maldivian political history is littered with examples of treacherous behavior, shifting allegiances, banishments to remote islands and  assassinations as the elites of the country jostled to assume, retain, or regain the seat of power.

Not much has changed since the country ditched the sultanate system in favour of a republic in 1968 – a move aimed more at consolidating the power of one man than changing the citizenry’s political philosophy. Indeed, it was the continuation of the sultanate by another name, and probably conferred even more power on the newly titled president than the outgoing sultan.

Forty years later, in 2008, when the country once again underwent a political awakening with a new constitution allowing for political parties, independent institutions and newly guaranteed freedoms for the individual, there was much hope and expectation that, finally, the people will reign supreme in the country’s political arena.

Yet, in the aftermath of two cycles of presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections under the new constitution, a recurring reality clearly reveals that there is always one man above all else who demands and commands absolute fidelity from the lesser beings who are expected to – and d0 – serve his every bidding (constitutional limitations notwithstanding.)  And that is the person who occupies the seat of the presidency.

Raise your voice or dare to dance with another partner, you will soon be dumped into the dustbin of political history – discarded, forgotten, and laid to waste – your once dreamed of political fortunes fast receding into oblivion. The president needs no partners and has no reason to dilute his powers with ‘coalition’ co-presidents, even if it had been their support, sweat and financial assistance that had been the raison d’être that originally catapulted him to the presidential seat in the first place.

One is reminded of the age old Maldivian proverb, ‘No need of the tree, once the banana bunch has been plucked’.

The concept of a ‘coalition government’ is actually anathema to the Maldives’ political culture and attitudes. Whether it is a sultan or a president, it has always been a ‘one-man show’ when it comes to the actual wielding of power – a phenomenon that became even more pronounced in the post-independence presidential politics in the country.

There had never been, nor did the prevailing political system reward, ‘winner take all’ or encourage coalition building, especially for the president who can and does take all, once safely placed in the seat of power.

Coalition of the unwilling

The idea of building political coalitions gained momentum in the Maldives political scene in the aftermath of the 2008 constitution, which required that an incoming president must obtain a 50 per cent plus 1 majority of the voters in the election to be declared the winner – and provided for a run-off election in the event no presidential candidate obtained that magical figure in the first round.

That the impulse for coalition was driven more by the compulsion for denying an adversary the presidency, rather than by the necessity to retain power once in office has been clearly demonstrated during the developments that took place after both the presidential elections in 2008 and 2013, even when two different parties and personalities emerged the winner in the respective elections.

It should now be obvious to even a political neophyte in the country, that entering into a coalition agreement, even if the agreement is signed with God Almighty as the witness, is not and will never be a power sharing agreement that can be subjected to any effective enforcement.  Its efficacy lies at the total discretion and mercy of the person occupying the presidential seat.

Much ink has flowed in the media in recent days, and probably even more angst will be displayed in the days to come, as the recently jilted ‘coalition partner’ loudly proclaims its right to a ‘fair share’ of the government largesse, and demands ‘consultative status’ on important matters of governance based on the ‘coalition agreement’ signed between the two political parties in the presence of God Almighty prior to the second round of the presidential elections in 2013.

The party appears to be oblivious to the stark naked fact that this was an agreement that had no constitutional basis and can command no legal status – nor can it be considered a document having the status of a holy writ, considering that the voluntarily entered union was no more than a manifest symbol of a dastardly collective imperative to deny power to the common adversary.

This was not a sincere attempt at good governance, even if couched in the language of nationalism and religious fervour. That this was a marriage of extreme inconvenience that was doomed to accelerate towards abject failure once the presidential and parliamentary elections were over was evident to anyone with even a cursory appreciation of the acutely adversarial Maldivian political environment of recent times. Indeed, it didn’t take too long for the shine to wear off the coalition victory cup and cries of ‘foul’ to reverberate loudly across the country’s political sphere.

What is really astounding in this whole farce that had been promoted as the ‘coalition government’ is that it is the same political leader and his minions that have fallen victim to their political gullibility if not stupidity in both the 2008 and 2013 presidential elections. Perhaps they should spend some time re-reading the chapter in the 2008 constitution on the election of the president, along with the powers and privileges granted constitutionally to the elected president in the Maldives. That should make certain incontrovertible facts abundantly clear.

‘One man show’

Firstly, the president of the Maldives is elected in his individual capacity, not as the representative of a particular group of people. He may certainly run for the office as the representative of a party who has endorsed his bid for the presidency, but his candidacy is certainly not dependent on this fact. This fact is clearly borne out in the 2008 elections, when one of the four presidential candidates ran as an independent.

Indeed, once elected, he is numero uno in the country – presidential powers, privileges and prerogatives granted by the constitution are for him alone and not for sharing with co-partners – just as he alone, and no one else, is accountable and answerable to the parliament for any acts of omission or commission  during his term of office. It should also be remembered that the president is the only person who is elected nationwide and thus enjoys a national mandate.

Secondly, the mandate to govern for a constitutionally prescribed time period is given to the newly elected president, not his party.  The constitution does not recognise ‘coalition partners’ or ‘co-presidents’ – indeed it does not provide for a power sharing arrangement either with a party or with other individual(s) or group.  The extent to which any one of these parties may influence his policies or style of governance is entirely at the discretion of the elected president and is likely to depend on his own assessment of the political costs or benefits of continuing to heed or reject their demands.

Thirdly, the right to hire and fire political officials is yet again the sole prerogative of the president albeit with certain constitutional limitations. While his choices may be determined by a combination of factors, including his campaign promises, party affiliations or any other innumerable dynamics, the final decision to appoint or dismiss a person in his administration lies solely with him.

Indeed, he is not and cannot be bound by any other limitation than what is imposed by law in his exercise of this right, whether or not he had made any ‘arrangements’ during the campaign.  Such arrangements have no legal standing whatsoever. That there may be a moral obligation is quite another matter and irrelevant to the legitimacy of his presidency.

A ‘figment of the imagination’

Fourthly, given the Maldives constitution quite clearly stipulates the separation of powers between the executive and legislature, the president is not dependent on the support of the parliament to retain office. Lacking parliamentary support, he may of course find it extremely difficult to get legislations of his choice passed through the parliament and could become a lame duck president, but he would still remain the president unless of course he is impeached – but that’s quite another story.

This fact was made quite clear during the period between February 2012 and November 2013, when the then president did not have a single member of his own party in the parliament but continued to enjoy the perks, prerogatives, and powers of the office.

Fifthly, the cabinet of ministers appointed by the president are constitutionally bound to serve him – members of the cabinet are also accountable to the parliament in the exercise of their duties and responsibilities, which is the execution of the president’s policies.  While their names may have been recommended to the president for consideration of a particular post based on some pre-arranged understanding with certain political allies, once appointed to their posts, cabinet ministers cannot have another unelected master to whom they are expected to report and be accountable. The president can, will, and should demand complete and undivided loyalty from his cabinet.

The persistent claims, therefore, of the Maldives government being a ‘coalition government’ is in fact a misnomer and a willful misrepresentation to the wider electorate, of the political reality of the current system of governance in the country. It has never been a coalition government, at least not constitutionally and not in its true sense – neither in 2008 nor in 2013.

However, truth be said, it has been politically advantageous to speak of ‘coalition partners’ prior to the election, but as have been proved time and again, a ‘coalition government’  is nothing more than a figment of the imagination of the minds of political leaders. That they have managed to sell this idea to the electorate twice over is indicative of the continued political naiveté of the Maldivian electorate.

Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed was the former Maldives Ambassador to the UN and defacto non-resident Ambassador to the US.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Desperately seeking justice

Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed was the Maldives Ambassador to the UN, defacto non-resident Ambassador to the US and one of the Maldives’ most experienced and respected diplomats. He resigned live on Al-Jazeera following February 7’s controversial transfer of power, expressing “certain moral and ethical concerns I had that surrounded the departure of the former President [Nasheed].”

More than eight months since the first democratically elected government in the Maldives was brutally cut short by a mutinous mob on 7 February, the country continues to be divided on intensely partisan grounds.

Emotion, rather than rational discourse, has become the mainstay of political debate, both in and outside of parliament. In the meantime, the country’s economy appears to be in freefall, violence and brutality is on the rise and social norms are declining. A country once hailed as a haven of peace, both by its citizens as well as visitors, is fast becoming a playground for drug peddlers, criminals, pedophiles, bootleggers and knife-wielding gangsters.

This is not the country I grew up in; nor is it the country I wish to bequeath to my children.

I write this, not because I wish to blame one or the other person or party for the plight we find ourselves in; nor because I have any definitive or fanciful solutions to the seemingly ceaseless arguments of right or wrong pervading through our society at this particular junction in our history. There must be, indeed, there has to be, a better way of resolving our differences, of rising above narrow partisanship, of being able to settle our political scores, while respecting the views of those who diverge from us in belief and conviction.

Almost four years ago, when we so eagerly adopted a new Constitution granting us many freedoms hitherto unfamiliar, both at the individual as well as at institutional levels, we rejoiced proudly at our ability to instigate change through discussion and debate, and transform our country from a 30 year authoritarian regime to a multi-party democracy peacefully through the ballot box. The whole world heaped unbounded praise on the good judgment of a small nation that had lit a beacon for peaceful democratic transition other small nations could hopefully emulate; Maldives was in fact regarded as a ‘success story’ by the United Nations and the international community – a ‘poster-country’ for peaceful democratic transition!

There was indeed a sense of poetic justice as the once all-powerful old ‘dictator’ humbly bowed down to the will of the people, and without much fuss handed over the reins of governance to a new democratically elected youthful leader, who in fact had been repeatedly incarcerated by his defeated predecessor for demanding greater political freedoms in the country.

On that joyous day, we all believed in the depths of our hearts and souls that a new era of political pluralism, with concomitant freedoms and longed for justice, had dawned on the shores of our beautiful isles; we were marching in step with civilization and progress.

Regrettably, our elation seems to have been short-lived.

As we decline further into an abyss of political and economic disaster, following the abrupt and unceremonious regime change on 7 February 2012, many in the Maldives seem to be fast losing faith in the anticipated promises of democracy, in our politicians sworn to serve the people, and the independent institutions that were set up to protect the system.

Today, the people of Maldives, especially in Male’, yearn for some normalcy in their lives; to be able to send their children to school; do the shopping; cross the street safely; enjoy a ride around the island; above all, have their loved ones return home in one piece. Yet, unfortunately, normalcy for the people of Maldives appear to be increasingly elusive as the politics of vengeance, mutual distrust, personal enmity and party rivalries take precedence over every other national interest.

This is no better demonstrated than in the current efforts to convict the ousted President on charges of alleged abduction of a judge, whose ‘unorthodox’ rulings in the execution of his judicial duties, to say the least, is common knowledge.

It is not my intention here to vilify the said judge, but suffice it to say that there are many who believe, and seemingly justifiably so, that his continued stay as a judge is an affront to the ‘independence’ of any respectable judiciary. For them, he represents, in many ways, the worst and most manifest example of judicial abuse, in an already weak and compromised judicial system that has consistently been meting out systematic injustice, according to more than one international observer who have analysed and commented on the Maldivian judicial system.

Be that as it may, the arrest of the said judge by the then President was roundly condemned both nationally and internationally as legally untenable, the perceived moral imperatives of the President’s actions by some notwithstanding.

During the ensuing months since that fateful Tuesday, our country has been thrown into a seemingly never ending cycle of turmoil and turbulence. Our society has been brutalised, violence has become commonplace, respect for and confidence in the various state and government institutions and high ranking officials has never been so low. Indeed, even the very legitimacy of the newly sworn in President and his cabinet continues to be questioned by a considerable section of the Maldives polity, despite an internationally recognised Commission of National Inquiry having deemed the transfer of power as being legal and constitutionally mandated.

In the Maldives today where you stand on any conceivable issue of national significance depends almost entirely on with whom you party rather than on any sound judgments reached based on a rational analysis of facts. Truth, when it impedes the political interest, is summarily discarded.

Consequently, a government that had been formed on the claim of ‘national unity’, by stitching together a coalition of disparate political parties, appear to be going through a complete policy paralysis, as competing factions in the government fight for greater leverage on every issue. Many, in fact, are inclined to believe that this has become a one-issue government – that being the denial of candidacy for the ousted President in the 2013 presidential elections. Indeed, it seems that it is only on this one issue that the government is really united.

Little wonder then that the state’s decision to relentlessly pursue criminal charges against the former President, on charges of alleged human rights violations of an ‘innocent’ man, appears to meet with so much skepticism both within and outside the country. Justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done.

There are those who passionately argue that the former President must be tried and sentenced to jail for his alleged abduction of the judge. There are others who just as vehemently argue that his actions, even if wrong, were understandable, in the larger interest of establishing an enduring and robust judiciary, claiming the charges to be based more on political expediency rather than a quest for justice. Both claim to be seeking justice for the people of Maldives.

It is my belief that, taking into consideration the events that led to the resignation of the then President, the mayhem that followed and the current emotionally charged atmosphere in the country, not to mention the questionable reputation of our judicial system, the pursuance of criminal charges against the former President is unlikely to serve the best interests of our nation which we so dearly claim to love; indeed it could possibly result in even more injustices being heaped on the people of Maldives.

At a time when we are so desperately in need healing the many wounds pervading through our nation, it is even more imperative that the state should not try to further fan the fires of distrust, disharmony, hatred, instability, and even political insanity. Indeed, it is duty bound to make every effort in harnessing greater harmony, mutual trust and increased cooperation amongst the various factions of the community.

It is quite evident that whatever the eventual outcome of the on-going court proceedings against the former President, the country will be further split on party lines. A conviction and possible disenfranchisement of the defendant will provoke the ire and indignation of his intensely loyal supporters who comprise a considerable mass of the country’s voting population. An acquittal will be an equally devastating blow for the many who have been so vociferously demanding the former President’s incarceration in jail.

Indeed, whatever may be the final decision of the three magistrates entrusted to hear the case, it would be a lose – lose situation for the country as a whole. Instability will continue to reign supreme.

Even more sadly, the moral authority of any President elected in a presidential election that had disenfranchised the chosen candidate of the largest political party will be considerably compromised, both domestically as well as internationally.

No one can doubt the steep uphill battle ahead for any new President, whose first and foremost task on assuming office will be to begin the healing process for a nation that had been torn apart over the last few months. The new President will require much goodwill and trust, moral and material support, both from within the country and international friends.

If our presidential elections do not receive the unequivocal stamp of approval as being free and fair, both nationally as well as internationally, there will always be a cloud of doubt hanging over the legitimacy of the new President. That would be a shame the people of Maldives should not have to bear, nor a burden we should impose on a newly elected President.

I believe our country currently face a very particular and unique situation in its short democratic history, in which the people of the Maldives desperately deserve the opportunity to have their say in determining whether or not the former President’s actions were justified, even if legally suspect. Let the people decide!

It is for all these reasons, in the larger interests of the future of our small yet beloved nation, that I would urge the State to cease the on-going prosecution of the former President on criminal charges. This becomes even more critical when there appear to be near universal agreement on the systematic weakness of our judiciary and its questionable competency to provide justice.

A long time ago, when I was still a young and impressionable student, a professor of mine once advised me that regret is something we should not waste our time on; we can never change what happened yesterday, but we can do something today to help shape our tomorrow, he said. Much has happened in the Maldives during the recent past, many of which perhaps regrettable, yet today unchangeable.

It is time for us to move forward, learning from our past, with confidence in a future shaped by our own actions taken today in the larger interest of our country, as the people of Maldives so desperately seek justice.

Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed was the former Maldives Ambassador to the UN and defacto non-resident Ambassador to the US.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]