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.
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