The board is set. The pieces are in play. Only the outcome remains to be determined.
This weekend, the people of the Maldives face the starkest of choices: democracy or a return to autocratic one-family rule and authoritarianism. The game of political chess that has ebbed and flowed for the past year and a half reaches its finale on 16th November. It is for each individual to decide what the endgame will be. They should cherish this opportunity to choose their president because, if they choose unwisely, it will be their last.
So what is the choice?
If you cut through the rhetoric, the claim and counter-claim that “we are for democracy” and “the other candidate is a dictator”, and look instead at actions over recent months, the choice is stark.
On one side of this political game of chess are arrayed the forces of elitism, the ‘deep state’, one-family rule; those who wish to maintain the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few, those who believe human rights are mere words on a piece of paper. These individuals, led by Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of the country’s old autocrat, are people who bribe judges to do their bidding, who beat up protesters and torture men and women with impunity, people who ignore Constitutional term limits as though they are a simple nuisance. This side – and let us be very clear on this – are enemies of democracy because, quite simply, they treat the will of the people, as exercised through democratic elections, with complete contempt. If they do not like the result, they ask people to vote again. If the timing of the election does not suit them, they ask their friends in the courts to delay the ballot. And make no mistake: if they do not like the result on Saturday, they will do exactly the same again.
On the other side are the forces of democracy, people who, while no more or less perfect than any other politician, nevertheless believe that the only way to govern is with the consent of the people as determined through regular free and fair elections. This side believe a judiciary should be independent in action as well as in law, that judges and the police should be there to protect everyone, not just PPM party members. They hold that the press and independent institutions must likewise be free and independent, and should work with the other ‘estates’ – the Majlis, the presidency and the judiciary – in a delicate balance of government power. They believe in the power of Islam to do good, to bring people together and to foster tolerance, not as a political tool to be wielded and to frighten. They instinctively understand the importance of human rights – the right of freedom of expression, the right of freedom of assembly, the right to food, the right to adequate housing, the right not to be tortured or be arrested arbitrarily by armed thugs calling themselves police. And, crucially, they believe that these rights should be applied equally, to everyone without discrimination.
At its most basic level, the choice is this: if on Saturday you vote for MDP and you don’t like how they govern, then in five years you will be able to vote them out. If, however, you vote for PPM and they seize the presidency, you will never again have a chance to remove them through the ballot box. They will be there, in one form or another, for the rest of your life. The Gayoom clan made the mistake once of allowing free and fair elections, and they lost. They will not make the same mistake again.
It is tempting to wonder how it came to this. How the brave hope of 2008 descended into this fight for the democratic life of the country. A large part of the blame lies with Mohamed Waheed, a man who PPM see as a Pinocchio, a marionette who dances to their tune, while the international community, particularly Sir Don McKinnon and Kamalesh Sharma, probably now view more as a Frankenstein, a monster they created then found they couldn’t control. It is Mohamed Waheed who time and again allowed his limitless ego and frustrated ambition (frustrated because he is as unpopular as he is inept) to get in the way of making the right choices and doing the right thing. He should have resigned in February 2012 and called fresh elections. He didn’t. He should have resigned again on Sunday. Once again he failed to do so. By taking this course all he has achieved is to give time and space for the forces of autocracy to more firmly embed themselves in the Maldives body politic.
Mohamed Waheed should forever be remembered as the man who took Maldives democracy to the edge of a precipice and then went on holiday.
However, now is not the time to look back. It is the time to look towards Saturday and to make the right choice.
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