Comment: Time to put nation first

The result of the last presidential election proved that we are a divided country. There is no glossing over this fact. But those who wanted to build a new, modern and democratic Maldives just edged out those who wished to remain in an old, stagnant country rooted in autocratic values.

The deposed ruling elite out did not go quietly. Unable to accept the change, they fought back. Perhaps it was a belief that the government, facing tough times due to the economy, could be toppled on the streets.

Opportunity knocks

Now, just over a year on, it is clear that we need a new way of thinking. There is a role for constructive opposition in any democratic system of governance. Some ascribe the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party’s (DRPs) behaviour to posturing in the lead up to their congress. Now, their congress is over and a new leadership is in place.

DRP Leader Thasmeen Ali and his team no longer need to pander to the bitter activists in his party. He would recognise that in order to mount a successful challenge for the presidency in 2013, he would have to shake of the “activist” label that his party has inherited through their actions of the last year. The party needs to appear to be mature and able to contribute substantially to national development during this presidential term- even if another party is in power.

Similarly, the government would also recognise that even with their new recruits it does not have an absolute majority in Parliament. There needs to be give and take for things to be achieved. President Mohamed Nasheed has already indicated in a recent radio address that his government stood ready to work with other political parties in the interest of the nation. Now is the time to follow through on this promise.

Bipartisan politics

The opening of parliament tomorrow presents a unique opportunity for all parties and factions within the Majlis to enact important and necessary legislation. Indeed, readers will recall that the most commonly heard statement on the campaign trail during the parliamentary elections was that successful candidates would work to implement the government’s manifesto programme.

MDP candidates argued that they should be elected to ensure that the government’s programme was implemented successfully. Opposition candidates said that they should be elected to ensure that the government did not deviate from their pledges. There was a broad recognition and acceptance of the merits of the pledges.

We cannot afford a repeat of the “do nothing parliament” that graced our television screens and blocked the airwaves during the last session. MPs pursued petty and vindictive agendas such as the motion of no confidence against the foreign minister. The public expects much more from their elected representatives. And it is high time that MPs woke up to this reality.

As parliament begins its sitting for this year, it faces two important bills. One needs to be passed because the constitution says so. The other is critical to ensure that the country remains fiscally solvent.

The first is the decentralization bill. It is a constitutionally required piece of legislation and the stipulated deadline has already passed by. Effective local government has always been a big demand in the islands. This is a demand that needs to be met early on in the parliamentary session.

Parliamentarians should not allow a petty debate over semantics (“provinces” or “atolls”) to stand between the people and their ability to take on municipal functions at the island level, and local development programmes through economically viable units at the sub national level.

The other important item on the Majlis agenda is reform of the tax system. One of the governing party’s central pledges was to lower the cost of living. Regressive taxation, through customs duties should be replaced with a proper and efficient taxation system. Furthermore, the steep decline in government revenue last year needs to be reversed.

This is why it is of paramount importance that the business profit tax is introduced as soon as possible and an ad valorem tax for the tourism sector ensures that resorts are taxed per bed night on a percentage basis rather than the flat $8 that is currently the case. This reform is both more equitable and will see the fruits of the country’s largest industry passed onto the people.

No more distractions

Of course politicians need to work together on other issues. Malevolent political agendas outside of parliament also need to be put aside. The distraction of the regulation to allow foreigners to purchase alcohol in city hotels (in addition to resorts as is currently the case), is a case in point, and has cast a shadow over the country.

The hysteria that has been whipped up over an issue that would not really affect Maldivians’ lives, and actually go to improve it through the curb on alcohol by restricting the 800 “bars” in Malé, is nothing more than political posturing by those with a political, rather than religious, agenda. But the government’s position that it would not push ahead with the regulation if people did not wish for it was probably the sensible thing to do given the circumstances.

There is also the distraction of public sector restructuring. The Civil Service Commission (CSC) has been used as a political tool. It has been acting like a labour union and not been fulfilling its constitutional mandate. The Commission needs to be reappointed before August 2010 according to the constitution, and hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later so that the country can put this sorry episode behind it. A genuinely independent CSC needs to be appointed to guide public sector employees through these hard times.

Though there are signs that the economy will pick up this year, tough times are still not ever. Redundancies and wage cuts will inevitably hurt people. This is an opportunity for all in the political sphere to work together to ensure that the effects are mitigated. Job creation in the productive sectors of the economy is needed. The social protection system needs to work to ensure that no one falls through the net.

In short, it is time for politicians to put nation first- at least until 2013.

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From “Anni” to “H.E.P”

“You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said that this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.”

So spoke Barack Obama on the night that he won the Iowa caucuses. It was the night that he proved he could win the presidency by claiming victory in a largely white state.

These are words that could have easily been spoken by Mohamed Nasheed (Anni) when he won last year’s presidential election.

People try to put us down

When Anni and other reformists first launched the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) many did not believe that it had a chance of succeeding. After all, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s government was all-powerful and exercised a huge degree of control over society.

Anni himself was seen as a figure who did not “look” like a president and thus would be unable to mobilize support in a country which was still deemed too conservative. This partly explains why MDP opted to go for a dual leadership structure, with a party president and a chairman. Ibrahim Ismail and Mohamed Munavvar both served as party president but did not manage to make much headway.

Anni and MDP were seen as too divisive. This led to all opposition forces trying to unite behind one candidate, with both Hassan Saeed and Gasim Ibrahim vying for that spot. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, speaking on behalf of Saeed tried to convince Anni to stand aside by asking whether Maldivians were more likely to vote for “foreigners” like the two of them, or for a “mullah” like Saeed.

Despite all this, against the odds, Anni managed to cobble together a victory in the presidential election. Many people familiar with the political spectrum would not have believed that it was possible. The election was, in many ways, a fairy tale. Or, as GQ magazine described it, a “momentous victory of belief against chaos.”

Talking ‘bout my generation

Since assuming power President Nasheed has further confounded critics by fitting into the role in a refreshing way. He has scaled back on the pomp and ceremony that Gayoom enjoyed. He fits in comfortably with the new, younger generation.

People now accept that the presidency is defined more by the strength of the occupant’s character than by gaudy displays of wealth and power. Nasheed walks to work everyday and is in the habit of making appearances at places like Al Fresco and the local market. “It’s better for the environment and I can stop and chat to people on the way,” explained Nasheed.

By all accounts, Nasheed takes a very business-like approach to government and gets deeply involved in policy issues. This has come as a bit of a surprise to opponents who subscribed to the school of thought that activism and intelligence could not coexist in one person.

The president’s hands-on approach was evident this Friday on DhiFM’s “One to One” show. It was the first time that a sitting president took questions from the public in a live radio show. Nasheed displayed a firm grasp of the issues as he engaged in a lively discussion with the programme’s host and those that phoned in.

Nasheed has managed to balance competing interests, keep the government in one piece, deliver on a few manifesto pledges; and all this while averting an economic collapse despite the empty treasury he inherited.

“It is one of life’s ironies that it falls upon this government led by a party, as has been criticized, accused of being activists with little experience of governing, to put the house back in order,” the president declared to a meeting of donors.

With twenty percent of his term up, the accusation that Nasheed is somehow not “qualified” no longer holds up. That his bachelor’s degree in maritime studies is the least mentioned line in his biography is unsurprising. After all, it seems to have had the least effect on his political career. Solitary confinement, exile, journalism, the study of Maldivian history, and the experience of starting a movement and managing a political party are what really inform his decisions.

Domestic bliss

And what has been achieved in one year? Better governance: corruption has been curbed and there is greater transparency. The influence of gangs, which are believed to have been in an unholy alliance with the former regime, has diminished.

An independent Anti-Corruption Commission and empowered customs and police services have seen the rule of law strengthened. The fact that more drugs have been seized during the last year than in the preceding five is testament to the work of these institutions.

The country is also closer to seeing real social justice. The old welfare system which was controlled by the presidential palace and saw much of the benefits go to family and cronies has been abolished. A new social protection programme provides a pension of Rf2,000 to all those over 65 years of age.

In what is a significant step for the government’s affordable healthcare pledge, about half the adult population of the country has been signed up for the Madhana insurance scheme. While utility tariffs are being raised in order to help plug the deficit, targeted subsidies are ensuring that the poor do not slip through the net.

Steps have also been taken to foster a climate for economic development. A responsible economic framework has been established with the assistance of the IMF. This involved tough political decisions which the former regime avoided taking. Rather than financing development projects through the budget, they are to be implemented through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

An early success story can already be seen. Transport networks, one of the MDP’s key pledges, have been established in two provinces and have brought markets and services closer to the local communities.

International affairs

President Nasheed’s star has really shone on the international stage. Seeing their foe being elevated to the role of global statesman has been a particular source of ire for his critics.

Since taking office, Nasheed has forged close links with democratic India, spent a night at Windsor Castle with Queen Elizabeth II, gave an impassioned plea for action against climate change at the United Nations General Assembly, addressed the Annual Conference of the British Conservative Party, grabbed the world’s headlines with an underwater cabinet meeting, scooped up the Anna Lindh Memorial Prize for Human Rights and Climate Change, been named Time magazine’s leading Hero of the Environment, and negotiated a $92 million dollar fiscal adjustment programme from the IMF.

Yet, all this pales in comparison to the Maldives’ role at the COP15 summit held in Copenhagen. With the talks on the brink of collapse, Nasheed and the Maldives delegation acted as a bridge between the developing and developed countries as they sought to come up with a compromise that would allow the process to carry on at the next COP summit to be held in Cancun, Mexico.

The leaders of the industrialized nations recognized that the support of the Maldives was essential if such an agreement was to be brokered and decided to invite Nasheed to the small group of 28 countries known as the “circle of commitment”.

What transpired in that room has since been leaked in The Guardian; that it was China and it’s proxies in the G77- led by its chief negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus-Kaw Di-Aping of Sudan (incidentally, one of the most brutal countries on earth) that wrecked the chances for a stronger agreement is now well known.

So what benefits have the president’s performance at COP15 brought to the Maldives? For a start, cash for adaptation measures: $30 billion in short term aid from the developed countries spread out over the next three years. It gets better in the long term with a commitment to raise the figure to $100 billion by 2020. The Maldives will get a large share as it is a vulnerable, small island state.

However, the diplomatic achievement is much more valuable. Nasheed has now guaranteed his place as one of the key global figures on climate change with access to all the world leaders that matter. His voice will be an important one in the fight against climate change in the months and years to come.

Great Expectations

This assessment began with a parallel to the 44th American president, and it ends on a similar note. In many ways, the situation this country’s 4th president finds himself in is not much different: universally adored abroad, met with a sceptical and divided country at home.

Both face bitter political enemies who question their legitimacy and are bent on disrupting their agendas. They face demanding coalition partners with whom they are forced to compromise with. And to top it off, the weight of expectation from the people who voted for them has been immense.

This balancing act is not a situation either of them would have wished for; but their actions show that it is a reality that they are comfortable with.

Playing with the hand you are dealt whilst not losing sight of the long-term objective is what this is all about. And it is in this sense that Anni and His Excellency the President have proved to be not so different after all.