Comment: Maldives caught in Russo – American tiff

Through a deft post facto damage-control, the Government of President Abdulla Yameen seems to have diffused and warded off – at least for the time being – what threatened to be a major diplomatic incident for Maldives, and involving the US and Russia, the two ‘Cold War’ era competitors who havce lately been flexing their political muscles in distant Europe.

The issue relates to the arrest of a Russian national on Maldivian soil, and his immediate handing over to waiting US marshals, who flew him away, seemingly without giving Male enough time for second thoughts – and naturally so. How things shape may now depend more on how events play out on the domestic front in Russia and/or on the international arena relating to the Russo-American stand-off/trade-off in the ‘Ukraine-Crimean crisis’ which refuses to die down, than on anything Maldivian.

Maldives was literally and possibly unknowingly caught in the Russo-American politico-diplomatic cross-fire after the local police reportedly arrested Roman Valerevich Seleznyov, the 30-year-old son of a Russian parliamentarian, whom the US has claimed was a ‘hacker and bank fraud’ wanted by American courts since 2011. Seleznyov was apprehended at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Male and handed over to the US Secret Service – though a slightly different version has claimed greater credence.

Russia sought an immediate explanation from Maldives. Valery Seleznyov, the parliamentarian-father of Roman, even wanted Moscow to impose economic sanctions on Male, for allowing three waiting US marshals to fly away with his son. He also claimed that the US flew his son to the western Pacific territory of Guam, where not all protection under US civil laws were available/applicable, for his son to seek relief.

MP Valery charged the US with ‘kidnapping’ his son for a (possible) trade-off against the return of Edward Snowden, a sub-contractor of the US’ National Security Agency (NSA), who has taken refuge in Russia after leaking top-secret American phone-and-email tapping records the world over. Thankfully for the US – and possibly for Maldives, too – the Russian Government is not known to have shared the parliamentarian’s claims linking the US action now to a Snowden ‘trade-off’.

‘Abduction’ and ‘outrage’

Either owing to domestic pressure, or the opportunity to hit the US once more in the prevailing circumstances of ever-dipping bilateral equations, the Russian Foreign Ministry lost no time in coming down heavily on the ‘Cold War’ era adversary. “It is not the first time that the US resorts to de facto abduction of a Russian national, ignoring the bilateral 1999 treaty on mutual legal assistance” ministry said. With much of the rest of the world media reporting near-nothing on the episode – it’s true in India, too – the Maldivian media reported that Russia had compared the Seleznyov incident to two other extradition cases. One was of Viktor Bout, whom the US claimed was an arms-dealer. The other related to an alleged drug-smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko. They too were “forcibly taken to the US from third countries and convicted on dubious charges”, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed in its early reactions to the Seleznyov incident.

Moscow simultaneously claimed that Maldives had not kept them informed of the imminent arrest, and called upon Male to provide the necessary explanations. “The stance of Maldives’ authorities cannot be but outraging, since despite the existing international legislation norms they allowed another country’s special service to kidnap a Russian citizen and take him out of the country,” the ministry said further. Independent of ‘sovereignty’ issues that may be weighted in Male’s favour, in practical terms, these were strong Russian words against a small country like Maldives.

Seleznyov’s father advised fellow-Russians not to travel to Maldives, whose economy is heavily dependent on international tourism. Whether he had this alone in mind when he demanded ‘economic sanctions’ against Maldives, or something more specific pertaining to possible abrogation/cut in government-to-government arrangements is unclear.

As the Maldivian media recalled, in September 2013, Russia had issued a travel advisory, asking its citizens to avoid countries where US law- enforcement can arrest and extradite its citizens. Would Maldives’ name be found on the Russian list, if any, too is unclear. It is another matter that according to available statistic, the Russian market for inward tourism in Maldives “deteriorated further posting a negative growth of 7.5 percent for the period from January to May 2014. Market share of Russia stood at 6.4 percent at the end of the period”.

‘Cyber crook’, says US

According to the US, Seleznyov was arrested by the US Secret Service and was transported to Guam Island where he was presented to a court. He is under detention until a second hearing on July 22, the US has clarified since. In a related development, US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, Jenny A. Durkan, in a statement thanked the US Secret Service for apprehending Seleznyov. “Cyber crooks should take heed: you cannot hide behind distant keyboards. We will bring you to face justice,” said Durkin, who also heads the US Justice Department’s Cyber-crime and Intellectual Property Enforcement Sub-committee of the Attorney-General’s Advisory Committee.

According to the American statement, Seleznyov was indicted as far back as March 2011 in the Western District of Washington for hacking into point-of-sale systems at retailers throughout the country between October 2009 and February 2011. He is said to have been involved in the criminal underground for carding (verifying validity of stolen credit card data), where he is known as “Track-2??.

In this, Seleznyev is accused of engaging in a bank fraud scheme, hacking into retail POS systems and installing malicious software on them to steal credit card numbers. He is also accused of creating and operated infrastructure – among the servers that hosting carding forum websites selling stolen credit card numbers.

“The arrest of Roman Seleznyov is yet another example of how the Secret Service continues to successfully combat data-theft and financial crimes,” according to Robert Kierstead, Special Agent in Charge of the US Secret Service Seattle Field Office. “The Secret Service utilised state-of-the-art investigative techniques to dismantle this criminal network. Our success in this case and other similar investigations is a result of the extraordinary work of our investigators, and our close work with our network of law-enforcement partners,” the Maldivian media quoted US official statements as saying.

The US statements clarified that Maldives acted under its own law in the matter. Yet, the local media also referred to the fact that the current passenger-identification system installed at the Male airport was a gift from the US. If they had questions if the same had been linked to American computer-aided person/passport identification systems installed elsewhere in the country other than that of the Interpol’s, to facilitate tracking and detaining persons ‘wanted’ by the US, the media has been silent over flagging such issues – at least thus far.

Procedural lapses, if?

In between, the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) lost no time in bringing out the nation’s purported embarrassment through media statements, and laying the blame at the doorsteps of the Yameen Government. The MDP statement claimed that Seleznyov was not accorded ‘consular services’ from the Russian Embassy in Colombo before his detention, nor was a court order obtained under the law in Maldives for his arrest.

It is another matter that the MDP, which is now being seen as more sympathetic to the ‘Russian cause’, as if by a matter of principle, was more inclined towards supporting the American line in international fora when party leader Mohammed Nasheed was the nation’s first democratically-elected President, but short-lived in the post (2008-12). At the time, Maldives was seen as backing the US line UN fora, boldly inviting Israeli farm scientists and medical doctors to work in the country despite the nation’s traditional reservations flowing from the ‘Palestine issue’. The one issue that keeps coming to mind from that period was the reported Maldivian decision to accept a Guantanamo Bay detainee at American instance – though domestic protests put paid to the proposal before long.

No detention order from court?

According to social media claims, the criminal court in Maldives had declined to issue the detention order, indicating that the airport detention was the last-ditch but successful effort at ensuring that Seleznyov did not jump the American coup. These reports also indicated that Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed, whom the MDP Government had detained in January 2012, but restored later, was at the centre of the current controversy attending on the possible denial of detention order against Seleznyov.

The reports also indicated that the Russian Embassy in Colombo might have been brought into the picture post facto, and not before Seleznyov’s detention and transportation to Guam. Whether the official Maldivian intimation to Russia came before Seleznyov’s father’s public statement or not remains unclear, however. However, reports indicated that it might have been otherwise, thus upsetting Russia, and the Russian Embassy in Colombo.

Social media circles have since pointed out how a section of the Maldivian media had removed previous references to possible legal advice purportedly provided to the Government in the matter, sometime during the course of the detention discourse within. It is unclear if the removal of an earlier media reference to the advice that the Government could stamp Seleznyov’s passport as ‘Departed’ and then have him arrested inside the airport was removed at anybody’s instance and insistence. It is however not uncommon for the media to remove such references in subsequent despatches, if later inquiry or clarification had put things in perspective.

There has been relative silence from the Russian side after the US statements that Seleznyov was a ‘cyber crook’ and ‘bank-fraud’. If nothing much comes off on that front, it may remain that the Maldivian lapses, if any, might have been procedural at best. Sooner than the Russian reactions came out, President Yameen, and the Maldivian Home Ministry, in quick succession, lost no time with their clarification. Accordingly, Maldives had acted on an Interpol ‘Red Alert’, as always.

“As Interpol is the biggest international police institution and the Maldives has been a member of the Interpol since 1984, the government of Maldives considers Interpol ‘Red Notices’ to be of high priority and takes serious action (regarding such notices),” the Maldivian Home Ministry said in a statement. The ministry also said the Maldives respects international treaties it is party to and strives to sustain relations with friendly nations.

However, questions have been raised, particularly pertaining to the ‘due process’ – followed or not by the Maldivian authorities. Maldives does not have an extradition treaty with the US, and ‘social media’ critics in the Indian Ocean archipelago have asked how their Government could hand over the detained person to the waiting American marshals, without handing him over through the Interpol, under the circumstances. Questions have also been raised about the kind of coordination required to apprehend the Russian and hand him over to the US personnel, who might have already been there on Maldivian soil.

The social media has gone viral with purported details that no Government has denied, or clarified, since. According to eye-witness accounts quoted in these reports, US marshals were the ones who actually effected the arrest at the airport after shouting their presence – as seen often in Hollywood films — even as Maldivian Tourist Police personnel looked on. If however there was any visual evidence to the same – as it often happens by the use of a mobile-phone camera or the like — it has not made its appearance on the social media networks.

The first and foremost question remains — why the Maldivian authorities did not go public about the 5 July arrest until after the Russians had made an issue of the same. Though initial confusion remained if Seleznyov was apprehended when he was landing or departing at Male, the social media has since come up with reports that have not since been denied.

Accordingly, a woman (variously described as his wife or girl friend) and child had accompanied Seleznyov, and they had been staying in Maldives for five days before departure. Having been allowed to proceed to Russia with Seleznyov’s detention, they had taken up the matter with his family and the Government. Father Seleznyov, reportedly heading a regional political party in Vladivostok that is partnering with President Vladimir Putin’s Government, his anguished voice could not have but found resonance in official reactions, initially. Or, so goes an argument.

‘An isolated incident’

With strong and unexpected reaction from Russia possibly taking the Maldivian Government by surprise, President Yameen lost no time in sending out a delegation of senior officials to Colombo, the seat of the Russian Embassy and Ambassador, co-accredited to Sri Lanka and Maldives, to explain the situation. This has since been followed in double-quick time by Maldives’ A-team, comprising Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon and Attorney-General, Mohammed Anil, meeting with Russian officials, again in Colombo, to take forward the discussions.

Critics of the Yameen Government nearer home would want to believe that the first-round official-level talks with Russia did not go on Maldives’ expected lines, hence the need for despatching a senior minister and the AG, personally. However, after her round of talks, Foreign Minister Dunya said later that the “strong, mutually beneficial” relations between the two countries would not “derail” due to an “isolated incident” like Seleznyov’s arrest.

According to a Maldivian Foreign Ministry statement, the two ministers explained to the Russian officials that the Maldives had followed “past practices” in dealing with Interpol ‘Red Notices’. The two sides also discussed on entering into agreements in order to avoid such incidents in the future, the ministry added. With President Yameen now on expanding the nation’s external relations with a visit to Japan earlier this year, and one to China next month, the two countries may also consider a presidential visit to Russia on a subsequent occasion. Or, would they, just at the moment when things would still be hot in Moscow?

India’s ‘sphere of influence’

Weeks ahead will determine how the ‘Seleznyov episode’ plays out in the Russo-Maldivian relations. Considering in particular that the US, withdrawing from Afghanistan yet wanting its political and naval presence relatively intact in the Indian Ocean region has been wooing nations like Maldives and threatening those like Sri Lanka in the neighbourhood, the current Russian diplomatic stand-off with Male, may have consequences for India too in its ‘traditional sphere of geo-strategic and politico-economic influence’.

With the new Government in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi lending greater focus to the immediate South Asian neighbourhood, it remains to be seen how India views the recent developments in Maldives. It is another matter that in the overall context, India has no role to play per se, either before, during or after the event, as it pertains entirely to Maldives’ ‘sovereign’ decision-making capacity and inherent capabilities as a nation-State that cherishes its independence even more. Yet, India may not be able to look the other way if the current Russo-Maldives impasse were to blow out of proportion. Or, if the US marshals’ presence and actions in Maldives, without due information to a neighbour like India – or, Sri Lanka – came to be viewed as something more, and well into the future.

The question would then arise when and how far did Maldives take India into confidence on the ‘Seleznyov affair’, if at all. The sub-text would relate to the need – or, absence of it — for Maldives doing so, particularly in the context of the new and ‘independent’ Foreign Policy that President Yameen unveiled after assuming office – but which would have been on the works earlier, too. In context, the question would arise if the Maldivian Government would have benefited from any Indian advice or intervention in the matter, had it been sought.

For now, however, as and when the entire issue blows over, there could be an internal inquiry into the entire affair within the Maldivian Government on the facts and circumstances leading to Seleznyov’s detention, and the diplomatic precautions that the nation would have to take in similar circumstances in the future. All of it with the full realisation that no two episodes of the kind are one and the same – in terms of facts and circumstances, politics and diplomacy.

N Sathiya Moorthy is a  Senior Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation in India.

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: Putting democracy on a firm footing

First, it was the symbolic cut in salaries for junior ministers. Then it was the move to replace monthly salaries for local council members across the country with sitting-fees – pending parliamentary approval. The more recent one is the shutting down of the Maldivian Embassy in Dhaka as part of the substantial 40 percent slash in the Foreign Ministry’s budget.

President Abdulla Yameen has proved that he means business when it comes to economising on government expenditure. As a former Finance Minister, he made no bones about pledging to cut down on government-spending in a big way during the closely-fought presidential elections last year. None can thus complain that they were not forewarned.

Whether the nation is on the right economic path will take time to evaluate. For now, for a variety of reasons, including government initiatives of every kind, the US dollar – the nation’s fiscal life-line – has become relatively cheaper. This could encourage the Yameen leadership to attempt more important and equally genuine reform measures on the economic front.

Before the Yameen leadership, the short-lived Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government had taken bold moves to initiate across-the-board ‘economic reforms’, as had never before been attempted. Going by successive voter-behaviour since, the huge slash in government employee strength and salaries was not as unpopular as had been thought.

Despite programme-based differences, the MDP and President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) have shared an overall common approach to economic reforms. When conceding the election last year, Nasheed promised his cooperation to President Yameen for all policies and programmes that are in the greater interest of the nation.

The MDP has not since criticised, nor even commented upon, the fiscal measures of the new government. It is thus for President Yameen to take the MDP on Nasheed’s word and to initiate a ‘policy consensus’ to the nation’s problems – starting with those on the economic front. He too has begun well by reiterating that his government’s programmes would be meant for all Maldivians without party-bias.

Re-visiting democratisation

If the economy is one area where there seems to be an overall consensus of some kind, political populism still seems to be having an occasional say. The fragile economy is unable to withstand the pressures that are alien to larger and stronger economies for which the IMF model had been built, for Third World nations to follow without adapting to local demands.

Worse still may be the case of the democratisation process in the country, which was a straight import of a template, text-book model. None at the time considered the wisdom of such mindless aping of the West because that was what was better known. That was also the only scheme acceptable to those demanding multi-party democracy of the western model, wholesale.

Maldives and Maldivians had the option of choosing between two broad western models, namely the presidential scheme and the Westminster parliamentary form of government. The nation chose the former, but with institutions and priorities that were originally adapted with the parliamentary model in mind. This has produced a jinxed system, which has to be exorcised of some misunderstood and at times misinterpreted elements from the immediate democratic past if democracy has to take roots.

While the current Maldivian system provides for dynamism, it’s only a part, a tool. Democracy is more than the sum of its parts. For them to juxtapose well, they need to be crafted in ways they were intended to serve the greater cause of democracy and nation – and not necessarily in that order. Rather, that order, the nation itself has to prioritise, and in ways that they all dovetail well into one single piece called ‘democratic experience’, as different from democratic-importation.

Having lived an isolated life owing to geography and topography, not only Maldives as a nation but also Maldivians as islands, that too under a one-man system, either as a Sultanate or as a relative democracy in the twentieth century, the nation and the people need to give themselves time to assimilate democratic values from elsewhere and tone them ways that becomes acceptable and adaptable under Maldivian circumstances.

That way, the upcoming five years are crucial to Maldives as a nation in terms of democratic experience than maybe even the first five – which was full of experiences, mostly of the wrong and/or misunderstood kind. The nation needs to re-open itself to democratic discourse and debate without such dissertations and dissections getting in the way of normal life and livelihood of the people, and politics and public administration by the Government, political parties and leaderships.

The Maldives has to open a new page in democracy, and the initiative for the same rests mainly – though not solely – with President Yameen and his ruling coalition. He cannot keep the rest out of it for reasons already explained. They cannot escape ‘accountability’ either, as the less-emotional parliamentary polls and their results have shown, since.


Comment: Polls underline coalition reality of the times

In a not wholly unexpected development, President Abdulla Yameen’s ‘ruling’ coalition – led by his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) – has won an absolute majority in the recast 85-member People’s Majlis.

To an infant democracy that was tottering through the first five years, it should be a welcome first step, ensuring political stability for the government to address equally important and immediate issues – beginning with the nation’s tottering economy.

Between them, President Yameen and former President Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed – leader of the losing Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – have hinted at a stable polity for the next five years. Nasheed readily conceded defeat long before the official results were known, congratulating President Yameen on the victory. Though Nasheed may not have added the names of any other leader of the ‘ruling’ Progressive Coalition, from the MDP’s side, it was saying a lot.

President Yameen had commenced the reconciliation game even before the parliamentary polls. In one of his last campaign rallies, he was quoted as saying that his government would not resort to witch-hunting or appointing commissions to probe alleged wrong-doings by previous governments. This was a reiteration of the commitment Yameen had made in public immediately after winning the hotly-contested presidential polls against Nasheed in November last.

When numbers add up

Give or take a seat or two, the provisional results – being updated sluggishly by the local media owing to a slow vote-count – showed (at the time of writing this piece) that the Progressive Coalition had won a total of 53 of the 85 seats. The opposition MDP bagged 26 seats, down by a single seat from the numbers held in the outgoing house of 77 MPs.

From among the ruling coalition members, the PPM – founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – of which President Yameen is at present the torch-bearer, has won 33, the Jumhooree Party (JP) of former Special Majlis chairperson Gasim Ibrahim 15, and the Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA), five.

Five seats have gone to independents, with Progressive Coalition leaders claiming that they are either ‘rebels’ from constituent parties and/or would soon back the government. If true, the government would have a two-thirds majority in the new parliament.

Apart from the independents, one seat has gone to the religion-centric Adhahalath Party (AP), which had backed Yameen in the decisive second run-off round of the presidential polls last year. The party has fallen out with its ally from the first round presidential polls, the JP, over seat-sharing for parliamentary elections.

The lessons from the current series of three elections – to the presidency, the local councils, and now parliament – are clear. The Maldives will not escape the rigours and realities of coalition politics for some time to come. Coalition politics and administrations need not be bad after all, and party leaderships should accept this reality if democracy is to take deeper roots.

The absence of such realisation on the part of the MDP after Nasheed’s election as President in 2008 may have been among the major causes for the troubles that the nation and the constitutional scheme had to face in the years that followed. This meant that, unlike at present, the Nasheed government had to do without an absolute majority in parliament, which was controlled by an opposition comprising the traditional rivals in the Dhivehi Progressive Party (DRP) – then of President Gayoom – the People’s Alliance (PA) of President Yameen, and Gasim’s JP.

Nasheed attributed the poor MDP showing to the low voter turn-out, caused in turn by the Supreme Court’s alleged compromising of the independence of the Elections Commission by sacking two members a fortnight before the poll. With less than a sixth of the vote-sheets to be counted, the reported voter turn-out was 16 percent lower than the highest ever 91.41 percent in the high-voltage second-round of presidential polls on 16 November, 2013.

MDP to rebuild

While conceding the parliamentary polls, Nasheed has called upon the leaders of the MDP (which is still the single largest political party in the country in terms of registered membership) to share the blame for the electoral defeat. He has also called for laws to prevent post-poll defection by elected members, apprehensive as he may have been on that count.

While neighbouring nations like India, the world’s largest democracy, has an effective anti-defection law, the fact remains that the MDP itself mustered a parliamentary majority in the outgoing house only by encouraging defections of the kind.

Nasheed has also called upon the MDP to restructure the party organisation, and to induct younger members into positions of decision-making. As may be recalled, the MDP has been without a president and vice-president since 2012.

At 47, Nasheed may have had enough of politics and elections, and he has indicated that he is ready to pass on the baton, while continuing to remain and work in the party of which he is a co-founder as well as its most-popular face and effective advocate – both at home and abroad.

In restructuring the party, the MDP leadership would also be addressing the requirements of the future, to face the presidential and parliamentary polls five years hence. Three years from now, the MDP may have an occasion to test capacity of the restructured organisation in the local council polls. In a way, these will be a referendum of sorts on the Progressive Coalition.

Commitment to the coalition?

Even with all five independents on its side, no government is possible for the Progressive Coalition without the JP and Gasim on board. Though not immediately, but possibly after the next local council polls, the partners of the ‘ruling’ combine would be tempted to review their own positions and partnerships in the long run-up to the presidential polls, if they have not started doing already.

For now, President Yameen and JP’s Gasim – whose party has won rich dividends in the parliamentary polls owing to the continued commitment to the alliance – among others, have sworn by the Progressive Coalition.

Going by preliminary figures, the JP has now won 15 parliamentary seats against the lone seat Gasim had won for the party in 2009. Gasim has since argued that the coalition lost a few seats owing to ‘rebel candidates’ and ‘cross-voting’. Other coalition leaders have claimed that all five independents who have won this time are natural allies of the ruling combine.

An occasion would present itself immediately on testing the Coalition’s resolve to stay together when they short-list a nominee for the speaker’s post. Going by the multi-party democratic experience with and under outgoing Speaker Abdulla Shahid – who crossed over to the MDP last year – the government parties would be cautious in their choice of the next speaker.

Gasim has now thrown his hat into the ring, having previously shown his efficient floor-management as the Chair of the SpecialMajlis and effective coordination with Gayoom at a crucial stage in contemporary Maldivian history – just the qualities that are required of a parliamentary chair in the country just now. It would still be left to the twin PPM leadership of President Yameen at the administrative level and Gayoom at the political level, to take a call on this issue.


Comment: EC crisis ends, polls as scheduled

The crisis that sought to engulf the March 22 parliamentary polls has ended as quickly as it appeared, with parliament unanimously filling an existing vacancy in the Election Commission (EC), ensuring the constitutionally-mandated quorum of three after the Supreme Court had disqualified two members – including EC President Fuwad Thowfeek and his deputy Ahamed Fayaz.

Of the three individuals nominated by President Abdulla Yameen to fill three vacancies – including the two ordered vacant by the Supreme Court – parliament cleared Ismail Habeeb to replace Ibrahim Waheed ‘Ogaru’, who resigned last October, citing health reasons.

That parliament was in no mood for any confrontation, either with the judiciary or the executive, became clear early on during the emergency sitting called by Speaker Abdulla Shahid when only 60 of the 77 sitting members turned up. No political party, starting with the the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was known to have issued a whip on any vote that was considered imminent.

With opinion divided within the MDP on the future course of action deriving from the court verdict, as expected, the People’s Majlis took the relatively honourable  rpute of filling the earlier vacancy and leaving the court-ordered vacancies and the attended issues to be taken up possibly by the post-poll parliament. For now, Speaker Shahid announced – based on a decision by all floor leaders – that parliament would convene only after the scheduled polls of 22 March. This would help end speculation and rumours of every kind during the crucial residue of the run-up to the polls.

Second time in a row

Whatever the cause and justification, President Abdulla Yameen’s leadership – despite heading a diverse ‘ruling’ progressive coalition – has proved to be a better floor manager, twice in four months. Earlier, despite the MDP issuing a whip, the government ensured that the house cleared his 13-member cabinet as required under the constitution, without any confrontation – but cross-voting, nonetheless.

Now for a second time, MDP leader and vote-getter, former President Mohammed Nasheed, repeatedly asserted that any judicial intervention in the functioning of the EC could lead to a total boycott of the polls, the post-verdict national council meeting of the party demonstrated that many, if not most, members did not have the stomach for a showdown. It may be reflective of the national mood after the conclusion of the highly-polarised presidential polls, which also divided families in what is otherwise a closely-knit community.

The MDP’s predicament was summed up when party chairperson ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik declared himself against boycotting the polls. Talking to Haveeru after an inclusive session of the national council, he openly indicated that the national council was divided over the question. Having spent their time, energy, and more importantly their money for the upcoming polls, MDP candidates were obviously in no mood to extend their personal agonies any more than absolutely required. That was also possibly the mood within the governing parties.

Post-poll, however, the MDP leadership may be called upon to address the emerging/evolving internal crisis, which could take some form or the other in the weeks and months to come. Possibly taking a cue from the leadership, Speaker Abdulla Shahid – a relatively recent entrant into the MDP-fold – suo moto wrote to the president, the Supreme Court and others, contesting the content of the sack order against the two EC members.

MDP-controlled parliamentary committees also reacted likewise and even declared that the court-ordered sacking of the EC president and deputy was not on. However, when the matter came up before parliament, the mood was different.

Miscalculated, mistimed?

The crisis may have exposed foreign governments and international organisations for their continued lack of understanding of Maldivian politics and political manoeuvres. While sounding altruistic in the cause of Maldivian democracy – for which some of them tend to claim authorship – they refused to understand that the Maldivian polity and society had enough resilience to address internal issues, without blowing it out of proportions, or taking it to the international arena.

Even before the Supreme Court had pronounced its verdict on its suo moto contempt case against the EC, and coinciding with President Nasheed’s threat of poll-boycott, some western governments and institutions had cautioned the judiciary against such a course. They had followed it up with a more direct and more severe criticism of the judiciary and in defence of an ‘independent EC’ as it existed.

In doing so, some of them also called for ‘inclusive polls’, a term that the international community had used ahead of last year’s presidential polls, when President Nasheed faced possible disqualification flowing from a pending criminal case dating back to his presidency. The peaceful conclusion of the crisis may have now shown that they may have miscued, miscalculated, and definitely mistimed it all.

Indian non-interference

At the height of the global reaction to the judicial verdict – including from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon – President Yameen and Supreme Court Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz (he had dissented against the majority judgment) criticised the international community for interfering with the internal affairs of Maldives. Faiz, addressing critics both near to home and further afield, also cautioned that challenging verdicts ‘threatens Supreme Court’s existence’.

Yet, both simultaneously acknowledged the need for judicial reform. President Yameen, in a public rally, declaring his government’s decision to abide by the court verdict in this matter as in others also expressed the hope that the MDP would not have a problem working with his leadership on such reforms. Clearly, all this would have to wait until after the parliamentary polls, whose results, could impact on the future course. Whatever that be, the initiative would still lie with President Yameen and his ‘Progressive Coalition’ leadership.

Compared to the West, the post-verdict reaction from the immediate Indian neighbour was not hurried in coming. When it came, it was balanced. Noting “with concerns the removal of the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Elections Commission of Maldives”, a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs, welcomed the post-verdict “commitment expressed by the Government of Maldives to holding the parliamentary elections” as scheduled on 22 March.

The Indian statement was noticeable for absence of any reference to the Maldivian judiciary, this time as throughout the presidential poll crisis last year. Traditionally, too, the Indian political class and public administrators have been extremely respectful of the judicial processes back in the country, and have been even more wary of commenting on them.

Independent of their private opinion, if any, on judicial behaviour, processes, and pronouncements, successive governments in India – and more importantly, all legislatures across the country – have been known to honour court verdicts. Where a confrontation had looked imminent, particularly between the judiciary and legislature, the habit has been for the latter to honour the final pronouncement of the former, after what initially might have looked like deadlock.

The discourse and debates on such matters have mostly stopped within the court premises, or within the precincts of the legislatures. Court verdicts have rarely been made subject of public debate or discourse in India.

Even where political, journalistic, or academic criticism has been made, the authors have been circumspect to the point of erring on the right side of the public regard for judiciary as the final arbiter of constitutional issues and public morals. A situation like the one that could have evolved in Maldives just now has had the potential to create a constitutional deadlock, which the Indian leaderships at all levels have consistently avoided in the country – and would not wish on any other country, particularly a ‘friendly neighbour’, where such a course could have threatened political stability for a long time to come.

Era of the unknown

Post-poll, Maldivian polity could be expected to slowly but surely re-position itself for the future, targeting the series of presidential, local council and parliamentary polls that are now due in 2018-19. Among the ever-increasing numbers of young voters, including first-time voters, democracy is here to stay, and purported threats to the democratisation process that commenced at the turn of the century, are in their parents’ memory, possibly still fresh.

Developments, such as the one now confronted, could flag concerns in their minds, but such concerns would come to pass as the crises too pass as fast as they emerge. This could set off a sense of democratic complacency that is commonplace in most, if not all, democracies. They could see motives where altruism may still be the only cause. In turn, this could contribute to, and necessitate in political parties and leaderships a realignment of their policy priorities and programmes over the next five years, in preparation for an ‘era of the unknown’.

Immediately, however, after the conclusion of the last of the series of polls this season, individual parties would be tempted to look internally and take stock, to reposition themselves for the future. Figure-head leaders of every party and group and the parties that they are associated with will (have to) take stock.

In helping the transition to the future, where the adversity of the past decade, requires to be tempered by reason and a collective will to make Maldives peace-loving and prosperous all over again, the government will have to initiate legal and political measures that are aimed at institutionalising facilitating mechanisms for the purpose. Again, the initiative would lie with the government and President Yameen – no matter the parliamentary poll results.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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: Institutions crying for reforms faster than expected?

With Maldives Supreme Court serving a ‘contempt of court’ notice on all four remaining members of the nation’s Election Commission (one had quit closer to the presidential polls last year), a case can be for a review of the statutory provision pertaining to the rights, powers, and responsibilities of what in constitutional nomenclature has come to be termed as ‘independent institutions’.

While such a need has been acutely felt over the five-year infancy of the 2008 constitution that ushered in multi-party democracy, increasing differences and purported diffidence involving the Supreme Court and the Elections Commission (EC) have made a case for a review without further delay.

For a nation of its size, population, and requirements of ‘good governance’, the Maldives may have saddled itself with more ‘independent institutions’ than may have been required. In a politically-polarised society, where the presidential polls late last year witnessed a turnout of 91.41 percent and a narrow victory-margin in the second round, it is hard to claim that every member manning these constitutional institutions is ‘independent’.

Even while ‘independent institutions’ and their individual members may be impartial, it has not been uncommon for political players to make sweeping charges of partisanship, at times reiterated ad infinitum without substantive evidence. Given the small population (350,000) and the thin density/spread outside of two or three ‘urban centres’, the advent of private television news and social media have not contributed to a healthy discourse on politics and public administration.

Some of the legitimate concerns of the nation’s polity at the time of constitution-making were based on the societal desire – particularly of the new IT-era generation – to usher in ‘good governance’ as understood in industrialised and democratised nations. ‘Accountability’ thus became the watch-word for the Special Majlis entrusted with the task of statute-making.

In turn, most, if not all members of the Special Majlis were also under watch for their past deeds, either as administrators, or parliamentarians – or both – under then-incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Final arbiter, or law-maker too?

The current urgency for fast-tracking a possible review of ‘independent institutions’ flows from the Supreme Court’s notice to EC members for contempt of court. In doing so, five of the seven Supreme Court judges, constituting a bench under Chief Justice Ahmed Hussain Faiz, have noted that EC members had been making comments “in various forums on the court’s decisions and orders that are contemptuous of the court”.

As the court reportedly told the EC counsel in the first hearing of the case on 12 February, the commission had in a way defied the judicial pronouncement for restoring the registration of ‘small parties’ with 3,000 registered members and less after the EC had de-registered eight of them, based on a parliamentary amendment that pushed up the figure to 10,000.

Law and practice in the country is clear on this count – that the Supreme Court is the ‘final arbiter’ of the constitution and laws made by parliament and its interpretations and orders on this count have to be acknowledged and acted upon. To that extent the EC may have erred, even if it were to hold that it was only enforcing a law (or, an amendment in this case) passed by Parliament. For the EC (and/or its members) to argue otherwise could frustrate the ‘constitutional scheme’ and democratic traditions.

In this case, however, the issue does not stop there. While hauling up the EC members for ‘contempt’, the Supreme Court has purportedly drawn its powers from a unilateral regulation that it had passed only days earlier. According to Minivan News, the “new regulations, titled ‘Suo Moto’ and publicised on 6 February, allow the Supreme Court to initiate trials against any organisation or individual”. It says that the “defendants must be allowed the right to defend themselves” and adds that the Supreme Court “must refer to how free and democratic countries act in such cases, in a manner that does not contradict the Constitution of the Maldives”.

Under the regulation, the full seven-judge bench of the court should hear such petitions, “unless the Supreme Court decides otherwise”. It is not clear at this stage if this is an administrative decision, to be handled by the chief justice on his own, or a judicial procedure, wherein the opinion, if not presence of all seven Judges should be sought for the chief justice to implement the majority-decision. It is also unclear why only five of the seven judges were present at the first hearing of the case.

Other questions remain. Firstly, can the court seek to punish individual members of the EC, for a ‘collective decision’ of the commission as an ‘independent institution’ under the constitution. If so, what if the court were to initiate contempt proceedings after some or all individuals had ceased to be members of the EC?

In the reverse, is there any provision for the court to ‘penalise’ a constitutional body like the EC for contempt, other than by ensuring that its judicial pronouncements are meant to be acted upon, not contested through word or deed? Where there is a conflict of positions, the court could at best seek the intervention of either the executive or the legislature, or both, to set right matters and ensure that judicial orders are enforced, in letter and spirit.

In this context, the contending parties should now acknowledge that for democratic institutions to function properly and democracy to take roots in the country, there is the urgent need for individuals and others to follow the diktats of the ‘final arbiter’ that is the Supreme Court. In a situation where the legislature were to re-enact a law that had been thrown out by the judiciary, and the executive were to assent to the same, then a constitutional deadlock would arise, with no solution possible.

Secondly, and more importantly, by empowering itself through the mechanism of ‘Suo Moto’ regulations on initiating contempt proceedings, has the court aquired for itself law-making powers, which otherwise rest exclusively with the legislature? It is more accepted for the judges to take it up with the legislature, through the good offices of the executive or the attorney general, or for parliament to legislate on contempt of court.

It is also conceivable that, while pronouncing on a piece of legislation passed by the legislature, the Supreme Court’s orders could create a new or an amended law, which may remain in force until the legislature intervenes appropriately at appropriate times. It is entirely another thing for the courts to initiate procedural regulations of the present kind, particularly when the judiciary is also a party to the legal proceedings – as the plaintiff in this case.

At least Minivan News’ reporting of the Supreme Court’s regulation does not provide for examination or evidence and documents, or cross-examination. It is not as if courts elsewhere have not initiated contempt proceedings, Suo Moto, but in most –  if not all such cases – the law for the purpose had been made by the legislature and given assent by the executive.

In some cases, either the government’s top law officer, namely the AG has been granted such powers to move a ‘contempt of court’ petition of a general or specific nature (the latter flowing from a judicial order, not enforced either by an individual or the government). In the none-too-distant past, the Supreme Court had not shown any aversion to communicating directly with the legislature, though at the latter’s initiative, though it had directed trial court judges not to appear before parliamentary committees (as it may have interfered with their judicial functions on hand, and thus be seen as ‘influencing’).

In the normal course, parliament – now in recess – is not expected to get into the act of law-making. Nor is it feasible for any legislature, new or old, to wrap up larger issues of the kind overnight. The problems regarding ‘independent institutions’ are not confined to the Supreme Court and the Election Commission.

There is an urgent and unavoidable need for a free and frank national discourse on various institutions, including the presidency and parliament, judiciary and other ‘independent institutions’, of which the EC is only one of many. In the process, there may also be a need to review the greater relevance of some institutions, and the merger of a few others, at least in the interim, to avoid/minimise duplicity of responsibilities and/or to cut down governmental costs.

For now, on the submission of the EC lawyer, the Supreme Court has adjourned the hearing of the contempt case, without assigning a new date for the next hearing, to facilitate the EC members to study the papers. It is unclear why the court could not have waited until after the parliamentary polls, as it could have helped avoid charges of the kind now being made by Nasheed and other MDP leaders.

In the interim, all institutions of the Maldivian state should consider other institutions – similar creatures of the very same constitution – as equals. For instance, the Supreme Court and the EC have specific roles, functions, and powers under the constitution. They need to constantly remind themselves that, like all other arms of the government and the creations of the constitution, they also serve and constitution. They must provide enough space for one another, and thrash out the differences and difficulties as a part of the collective nation-building exercise, which is still incomplete.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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: Talking of another possible coup

Former President and opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supremo Mohamed Nasheed has given what may be seen by some as a timely warning to the nation and incumbent, Abdulla Yameen, about ‘another coup’.

In doing so, he has implied that there is an urgent need for institutional reforms if such a course is to be averted. In an interview to MDP-supported Raajje TV, he claimed that some Supreme Court Judges were also behind what he reiterated was a ‘coup’ to oust him from office in February 2012 – but did not elaborate or provide substantive evidence.

That there is an urgent need for ‘institutional reforms’ in democratised Maldives is conceded readily by all sections of the nation’s polity. Most leaders now in the fray were also members of the Special Majlis that drafted and adopted the current 2008 constitution. For them to concede that they may have blundered, without actually having the courage to acknowledge it as such, should be welcome.

There is, however, a need for urgency in pursuing these issues within a more substantive and meaningful national dialogue. Such a dialogue may have to wait for a new parliament to be elected in the 22 March polls. It will be equally interesting to observe what various political players have to say on such issues during the current campaign period.

The various political positions that could be taken by different political parties will in turn be based on their own experience with the existing constitution (as they perceive it), and their expectations (as they conceive it). There is no guarantee that they would not err again, but ‘dynamic societies’ like the Maldives would always have to make constant and continuing compromises – either now or later.

It may become more difficult under different circumstances and under newer players on a distant day to attempt such changes.

Mis-reading, mis-leading

The present reference to ‘another coup’ apart, this is the second occasion in almost as many weeks that former President Nasheed is hinting at a change of national leadership. On the earlier occasion, media reports quoted him as saying that the MDP would move a no-confidence motion against President Yameen in the post-poll parliament, and have him removed at the first available opportunity?

Such reports will sound credible only if the MDP is able to muster the required two-thirds majority in what will become an 85-member parliament, up from the current strength of 77. It also implies that all MPs belonging to the party would stand by the leadership and its diktat, to vote out the incumbent. Whether it would have to be accompanied simultaneously by a no-trust move also against the incumbent vice-president – if the political strategy was to ensure early polls to the office of the president – is a moot question.

Alternatively, the MDP – which is still the single largest party – both within the People’s Majlis and outside, could muster those numbers if, and only if, MPs belonging to the ruling coalition led by President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) were to cross floor, either as constituent parties or individual members.

In a country where ‘defection’ has been a password for political survival, both before and after the advent of multi-party democracy, such a scenario is not unimaginable.

In this background, Nasheed’s caution towards the incumbent and the nation is likely to be mis-read and hence misunderstood. Whatever the scenario one were to look at, such a scare has the potential to destabilise the nation’s polity and political administration all over again. In political terms, it could become an electoral tool in the hands of the adversaries of President Nasheed and the MDP, in that order, during the run-up to next month’s polls.

In the ensuing melee, both the MDP and former President Nasheed could be dubbed ‘over-ambitious’ and politically greedy – which need not be the case. The two will have to remember that within the high vote-share for Nasheed in the final-round poll in the November elections, a substantial numbers were ‘non-party’, non-committed voters. Given the turbulent, and at times violent, turn that multi-party democracy has taken since inception in 2008, this section of voters in particular could feel ‘uneasy’ and ‘uncomfortable’.

Going by the second scenario, encouraging defection can cut both ways. The present parliament saw both the MDP losing and gaining from defections. To an extent, it also dependent on the ‘incumbency’ factor. It was among the various factors that helped the MDP become the single largest party after coming second in the 2009 parliamentary polls, and later going on to become the ‘majority party’ as well.

Cross-voting, if not outright defection, also worked against the party’s diktat when MDP parliamentarians more recently helped ensure the mandated Majlis clearance for President Yameen’s cabinet.

It is the third of Nasheed’s possible apprehensions about a ‘possible coup’which should be of greater concern. It is here that his reassurance that he “will do everything” in his “personal capacity” to prevent a coup from taking place assumes significance. Given the context, and the MDP’s claims to his losing power to a coup in the past, it has now become morally, if not legally, binding on both to share whatever details that might come their way, now or in the future, with the nation and the government of the day.

In the same vein, however, Nasheed has possibly reiterated his past reference to a no-confidence vote when telling Raajje TV that “we will work within the legal ambit to ensure that the transition of power takes place through an election”. This may have made the earlier ‘reassurance’ as unsettling as it may be untimely – not only for the nation but possibly for the MDP too.


Comment: Balancing political myth and poll realities

Barring the symbolic pay-cuts for junior ministers at its inception, an 80-plus team for a 77-member parliament appears to fly in the face of President Abdulla Yameen’s promise of a lean and efficient government.

It also adds fuel to the off-again/on-again debate on the existing presidential form of government as, under the Westminster parliamentary scheme, there cannot be more ministers than MPs, which there are now. The situation is not going to change, even with the addition of eight more MPs at the end of the 22 March parliamentary polls.

Yet, the numbers also speak for the reality of ‘coalition politics’ that the Maldivian psyche has come to acknowledge – and, in a way, accept. Whether or not it will find continued acceptance will be influenced by the conduct of the coalescing partners. Independent of the players involved, for the concept to succeed, the present-day players have the arduous task of ensuring that theirs is ‘collective governance’ and not ‘collective non-governance’ under mutual threat and political blackmail.

The concept of ‘coalition politics’ was overlooked at the inception of multi-party democracy in 2008. Whatever the defence, former President Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) paid a heavy price for wantonly overlooking this reality. Five years later, ‘coalition politics’ is becoming institutionalised, going beyond the half-hearted ministry-making of 2008, now extending to seat-sharing for the local council polls (17 January) before the upcoming parliamentary elections.

This is how coalitions begin, but it is not how they should work. It is inevitable under the circumstances, however, considering that the monolith MDP opposition is threatening to ‘impeach’ President Yameen if they get closer to a two-thirds majority in the post-election parliament. The price that the incumbent may have to pay has the potential to make a mockery of the ‘coalition’ concept as a whole. Yet, such threats could irritate voters.

It is here that the Maldives and Maldivians will have to search for answers to some of the questions on the ‘coalition compulsions’ of Third World democracy. At the other end of the spectrum was the possibility of ‘anarchy’ as one such answer. The Maldives has already had a taste of it while under the scheme of multi-party democracy.

Thankfully, the nation rejected it even as it was cooking. Circumstances leading up to religious NGOs’ hijacking of what was essentially a political process at the height of the post-SAARC social turmoil was where it started – but more and new could follow at intermittent intervals if the polity and society are not vigilant.

In a democracy, it is not the job of the opposition to keep the government together and/or efficient. The shoe, for all concerned, is on the other foot. Either they can all learn the lessons that the nation’s short stint with democracy has taught them. Or, they can continue with their waywardness and the accompanying blame game. They will end up blaming the nation in the end, for what they would then say was the ‘wrong choice’. Given the consolidation of democracy in the country over the past five years, it would not be among the casualties. Or, that is the hope.

Either way, the Maldives and Maldivian polity have enough to learn from Third World democracies like India, not because it is the largest neighbour but more because it is also the world’s largest democracy – and a ‘coalition democracy’ at that. Going beyond national politics, which too is in its infancy, India has enough lessons for itself and the rest on how governmental coalitions should be run, as in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There are also examples of either in other South Asian nations like Sri Lanka and Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Maldives and Maldivians need not insist on re-inventing the wheel.

‘Two-party system’ that was not

After having shown the door to coalition partners from the presidential polls of 2008, the ruling MDP said at the end of parliamentary polls only months later that Maldivians had settled for a two-party system of sorts. It flowed from the relatively high number of seats that the pre-split Opposition Dhivehi Raayathunge Party of predecessor President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had won, followed by the MDP.

Subsequent events and developments, including the controversial power-transfer of February 7 2012 proved otherwise. In a way, the 2013 election consolidated political ‘gains’ in favour of ‘coalition politics’ – with distinctive political and non-political ‘social’ groups coming together on a single-point, anti-Nasheed agenda.

Prior to the evolution of the ‘December 23 Movement’ in 2012, the Gayoom leadership had taken pride in having promoted the Maldives as a ‘moderate Islamic State’, and having opened up island-resorts to improve the nation’s economy during his decades-long presidency. Under the new banner of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), they found strange bedfellows in religion-centric parties and NGOs that campaigned on the platform of ‘Islam’ platform to have President Nasheed ousted.

What is interesting in the reverse just now is that the 2013 presidential polls were not fought exactly on religious lines. The MDP may well complain about the presence of the Islam-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) in the fold of the opposing coalition. The party had sought and obtained the AP’s support in the second-round of presidential polls in 2008. It had accommodated the AP in the Nasheed government at all levels even when the party did not win a single seat in the subsequent parliamentary polls of 2009.

Though too early to say, the Yameen administration has successfully marginalised religious NGOs from any active-say in the day-to-day affairs of the government. They did not have any big role in Elections-2013. Whatever the end-game, the Jumhooree Party partner in the PPM coalition has thus far displayed calculated reluctance in accommodating the AP in seat-sharing for the parliamentary polls. The AP has since announced its decision to go it alone for the parliamentary polls.

‘Malé dynasties’ and beyond

Whatever the results of the parliamentary polls in March, and whatever the political consequences, the nation’s polity should be prepared for the day when emerging social changes are reflected in electoral politics. Independent of political and economic differences (purportedly based on ideology but personality-driven, mostly), Maldivian politics is driven by the ‘Malé dynasties’. The tendency for the nation to move away from Malé-centric, urban middle class politics was visible during the presidential election, and in more ways than one.

On the one hand, former President Nasheed’s MDP vote-share in the 2013 polls was no more urban-centric than in 2008. He did establish considerable leads in the islands as well. At the same time, Nasheed also lost some percentage points against expectations in the urban centres in what turned out to be a three-phase poll.

What cannot be similarly overlooked was Gasim Ibrahim improving upon his 2008 first-round tally of a 15-plus percent vote-share to 23 percent five years hence. In the final analysis, it was seen that Gasim, an ‘outsider’ to the ‘Male dynasty’ politics in ways, could transfer his vote-share in favour of PPM’s Yameen in the decisive second-round, almost in its entirety. It is doubtful if President Nasheed, who is acknowledged as the most charismatic leader in the country and the MDP, the single most popular party, could similalry transfer his votes to any other candidate of his choice.

Yet Yameen and the JP have other things to prove to themselves and the rest. In the 2009 parliamentary polls, for instance, Gasim could not ‘transfer’ his vote-share to party colleagues. He was the lone JP candidate to bag a seat in the People’s Majlis. His ‘transferability’ is again under test in the approaching March polls, where the JP has nine seats to contest in the PPM coalition.

It is acknowledged that the Nasheed votes this time owed also to the ‘Gayoom factor’ that the MDP could successfully propagate, just as the divided opposition of the time could do in 2008. Then, as now, the election in a way was won in the second round, on a ‘coalition plank’ against a single candidate – former President Gayoom then, and former President Nasheed now. Crudely argued, it could mean that both faced the same predicament of not being acceptable to the majority of Maldivian voters, however contrived it be, through coalition means.

Urban voters in the country comprise a substantial number of islanders. Shorn of their current identification with the ‘urban elite’, the ‘islanders’ are the deciding factor in national elections. The ‘Gasim factor’, of a rags-to-riches ‘outsider’ making it big in business and politics, has the potential to provide the trigger for the medium-term change-over. For historic reasons, it is then bound to find further electoral expression between the ‘South’ and the ‘North’, with urban Male holding the middle and decisive ground in its time.

Between now and five years ago, the new-generation voter will have moved further away from the ‘Gayoom era’, which alone continues to be the mainstay of the MDP’s political agenda and election propaganda. It was visible in the presidential polls last year, when fewer of the first-time urban voters than expected were believed to have voted for the MDP, upset as they were by the street-violence and months-long demonstration that followed the 7 February power-transfer.

With parliamentary elections now due in March, political parties and their leadership will wait until then for stock-taking about their past behavior and plans for the future. They would face different and differentiated issues and problems – from the PPM’s problem of changing with continuity, to the MDP’s need for continuity with change, and the JP’s compulsion for not changing yet continuing.

The answer for each one of them, and others outside of the list, lies as much with the rest as with themselves. Coalitions come in all forms, it is for the polity to decipher the intent and content of the society and act accordingly. At the advent of multi-party democracy in the Maldives, it took the natural, political course of coalition politics. It has been thus across the world in post-colonial democracies. But over the past decades of post-colonial survival as democracies, most if not all those nations have adapted western democracy to their ways and waywardness.

The Maldives is still in the process of discovering/re-discovering the local idiom for democratic change. It will take time, but it is inevitable under the circumstances. Modern education, moderate Islam, et al, are only one phase of the process – it is not the complete face, either. It is the preparedness of the nation and its evolving polity to identify those changes and acknowledge them in their framework that will make the difference, both to their own political future and to the future of democracy in the country.


Comment: ‘Awesome’ Indian ‘readiness’ in ‘accomplished visit’

“The first day of the New Year, I am spending not with my people, I am spending with India. I have come to India at a very difficult time to the Maldivian people. Maldivian economy at this point in time is impoverished. I have come to India at a time of great need for Maldivian people. Anticipation from my visit is high. India has assisted the Maldives in times of need. India continues to assist us in all areas of development. We will be coming to India time and time again. The readiness on the part of Indian Government has been awesome. While we have had slight differences in the past, my regime is committed to resolving all of these issues. The relationship India and the Maldives has cannot be matched by the relationship that we can have with any other country. My visit to India is an accomplished visit…”

It is not always that any visiting head of state would be as candid and frank about the state, status and inherent strengths of bilateral relations with the host country as the new Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen was during his four-day visit to India.

Coinciding with President Yameen’s visit, India restored the export of sand and aggregates required by the Maldivian construction industry. Taking note of the increased fiscal pressure on the country, New Delhi also restored the US$25 million stand-by credit facility to the Indian Ocean archipelago. Visa restrictions on Maldivians wanting to undertake medical treatment in India, particularly in south Indian cities have also been eased.

Given the steep increases in global oil prices, which has further brought pressure on successive Governments in the Maldives when it comes to imports, India is now offering to export petroleum products to that country. In bilateral talks with President Yameen, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh advised Indian agencies to “offer best possible terms and arrangements” for meeting the petroleum product requirements of the Maldives.

India is the single largest aid-giver and economic partner of the Maldives, although bilateral economic relations came under some stress in the face of anti-India protests that marked the change-of-power. President Waheed was seen not as reprimanding the kind of aides who had targeted then Indian High Commissioner, Dyaneshwar Mulay, but rather promoting them. In this background, the restoration of existing facilities that had been withdrawn augurs well for bilateral economic cooperation.

The present restorative economic measures from the Indian side may not be enough to put the Maldives’ on the recovery process wholly, or fast-track future direction and growth. Yet it could be a propitious beginning, considering that as a small nation desirous of catching up with the rest of the world in terms development, the Maldives has been swinging between the extremes of possibilities and desirability.

This has been the case ever since ‘resort-tourism’ became the mainstay of the economy in the seventies, when the Maldives was still an idyllic island-nation with capital Malé still one large fishing village, with a people eager to move up the development ladder. Today, the Maldives may have reached the next stage, in which fresh foreign investments have to be accompanied by fresh ideas for using those investments for the nation’s good.

While the nation’s energies and time may have been expended in the pro-democracy struggle and democratisation process through the past years, the economic travails did not lessen during the period. Now that multi-party electoral democracy has stabilised as the nation’s politico-administrative process for the foreseeable future, it is time that greater energy and urgency are conferred on the economy.

It is here that President Yameen’s past experience as the nation’s Finance Minister under his half-brother, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is expected to keep him in good stead. Having identified the economy as his government’s priority area, and having acknowledged that close to half the nation’s voters did not vote for him in the presidential polls, he is well-equipped and well-placed to work towards a ‘consensus approach’ to economic reforms, which his bete noire and predecessor, President Mohammed Nasheed, had initiated.

It’s compensation for GMR?

It is in this overall context and background that the future course of the controversial construction-cum-concession contract for the Indian infrastructure major GMR Group – initiated by the Nasheed Government and annulled by the Waheed administration – needs to be viewed. There are those in the Maldives who view that many of the Indian decisions on the bilateral economic front over the past year had more to do with the GMR contract annulment than real issues. They have refused to acknowledge that it may have had more to do with domestic politics in the Maldives and that India may have been badly hurt by the unprovoked and unjustified street-sentiments.

In a nation where ‘coalition politics’ came to rule the roost with the first multi-party democratic elections in 2008, there is precious little that the Yameen leadership could be expected to do by way of restoring the GMR contract. What the Government now seems to be looking at instead are the ways and means by which it could restore investor-confidence in the future, aimed mainly at Indian investors and the Indian Government. These groups had previously shown a tremendous interest in creating non-governmental Indian initiatives for improving and stabilising the Maldivian economy and moving the balance of trade a little closer to parity.

GMR was just one of the few big-ticket Indian investments that have run into hurdles in the Maldives. Yet it was also the single largest FDI in the Maldives, and may remain so for a long time to come. Other Indian investments whose futures were put on the limbo included the Tatas, whose Taj Group has been running two resorts in the Maldives. An ‘amicable solution’ thus sought by Prime Minister Singh to the GMR issue thus covers other Indian investors in the Maldives, existing and future. Needless to say, other investors from other countries will also be looking at the ‘GMR issue’ for clues on what all may lie ahead of them for investing in the Maldives.

In talks with the Indian delegation led by Prime Minister Singh, and later at a luncheon with Indian business leaders in Delhi, President Yameen readily conceded that the ‘GMR issue’ was ‘politicised’. He was not known to have elaborated on whether he was referring to the annulment or the agreement; the Nasheed government was seen as playing a cat-and-mouse game with domestic stake-holders to have the GMR contract pushed through the governmental processes.

Given that President Yameen is still at the top of a pyramidal political coalition, and will need to maintian this alliance until after the parliamentary polls and even beyond, there can be little hope or expectation for his government to revive the GMR contract. It only needs to be recalled that the coalition had together protested the GMR contract at it conception, calling for its annulment when President Waheed was in power.

It is sad that domestic politics in the Maldives, aimed at whipping up ‘nationalist, religious’ sentiments, was allowed to make India a political, if not an electoral issue, in the country. In a televised message on the Maldivian National Day, coinciding with his India visit, President Yameen said that the “nation’s independence and sovereignty must not be compromised when facing major challenges”. He called upon all Maldivian citizens to consider protecting and upholding the Islamic faith and Maldivian nationhood as their foremost duty.

In his public statement after the bilateral talks in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Singh said that he had asked President Yameen to settle the airport issue ‘amicably’. Both sides acknowledged the existence of an issue, and did not shy away from the need for the Maldives to address the investor-concerns regarding possible long-term investments after future changes of government. President Yameen also told the Indian investors that his government was all for an out-of-court settlement with GMR, thus partially trying assuring that even if a contract went bad, investors’ interests would be protected to the limited/highest extent possible.

Stand-alone issue and debt-spiral

Ahead of the presidential visit, GMR Group chairman G M Rao had told the Indian media that they would be willing to operate the Malé airport, if invited by the Maldivian Government. President Yameen’s declaration since may have put an end to revived hopes on that score. Back home in Malé from the India visit, President Yameen did not lose much time in telling newsmen he was looking only at compensation for the GMR Group for monies expended on the airport project.

President Yameen also reiterated the Government’s resolve to continue operating the Malé airport through the public sector corporation, as it used to be before and after the ‘GMR saga’. In a way, it may have been aimed at silencing critics who suggested the forced exit of the GMR was paving the way for the entry of other corporates from countries not exactly friendly towards India.

If the government were to demand upfront payment from other foreign investors and seek to rotate those moneys for compensation to GMR, it would only cause a ‘debt spiral’ from which it would become difficult for future governments to escape. A nation that has continued to live off budgetary support and aid from India even when per capita income and GDP had been the highest in South Asia would have to look inward more than it is willing to do. GMR thus would have to be handled as a ‘stand-alone issue’ – not only in terms of rebuilding investor-confidence but also on the compensation front.

In the past, the compensation issue itself had proved ticklish with the Waheed government, contesting GMR’s claims both on the investments and losses at the Singapore arbitration court. Thankfully, the fact that the GMR Group had paid US$78 million upfront to the Maldivian Government of the day and had also visibly invested massive sums on the airport cannot be contested. In New Delhi, President Yameen told Indian investors that his officials were already talking to GMR representatives.

Promoting and protecting investments

The joint statement issued at the end of the official leg of President Yameen’s visit clearly spelt out the desire of the two nations to sign an investment promotion and protection agreement at the earliest. This would also mean that unlike in the case of the GMR investments, where the Government of India had encouraged the Indian private sector to invest in the Maldives to help sustain and stabilise the economy, New Delhi may have to ensure that there is no cause or circumstance for loss of investor confidence in the southern neighbour.

Independent of an ‘amicable settlement’ to the GMR dispute, Indian investors – and their counterparts elsewhere – would be looking hard at the future of such investments, even if investor-protection laws were to be put in place. Once bitten, they would be twice shy. Both sides, for starters, would be looking at the fine-print in future, and reading the political barometer in the Maldives with greater scrutiny. They would be looking at laws that would have to address conceptual and contractual issues in clear terms, going beyond political polemic of a given time and holding true for all political conditions.

For instance, the question of ‘national asset’ not applicable while leasing out resort-islands (the only tangible asset of investment of the host government) to foreign investors came to be flagged post facto in the airport issue. Procedural issues like the authorised bank guarantor from the government side to protect the investor’s interests have also come under question. ‘Political consensus’, ‘legal protection’ and ‘due diligence’ would be the phrases that could be expected to be in vogue as the government settles GMR’s claims on the one hand, and also seeks to put in place a legal and/or constitutional framework aimed at separating ‘national issues’ from economic concerns.

Peace in the Indian Ocean

Independent of the Indian media’s focus on economic matters, more abiding bilateral interests in political, diplomatic and security cooperation came to be discussed with the visiting delegation. With Maldivian Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim having met with his Indian counterpart less than a fortnight earlier in Delhi, President Yameen’s meeting with A K Antony thus was confined to a passing line in official statements. That did not in any way reduce the importance of bilateral defence and security discussions that the visitor had with Indian leaders, more so in the shared Indian Ocean context.

It was thus that both sides in the bilateral talks at different levels kept referring to mutual cooperation in the sensitive areas of diplomacy and security. President Yameen in particular highlighted India’s rushing immediately help to the Maldives, both during ‘war-like situation’ and peace-time – the 3 November coup attempt of 1988, and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. He highlighted how the two countries had backed each other in international forums and would continue to do so.

From the Indian side, concern was expressed for ensuring peace in the shared Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which as during the ‘Cold War’ years is increasingly becoming a ‘hot-bed’ of geo-strategic competition as never before. In meeting with his Maldivian counterpart, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said that New Delhi “wishes to work with the Maldives and other like-minded nations to ensure peace in the Indian Ocean region. India and the Maldives are natural partners in this enterprise,” he said.

President Mukherjee said that as India, like the Maldives, has had to address the challenges of piracy, smuggling, extremism and religious fundamentalism, both countries would like to see uninterrupted peace and security prevail in the Indian Ocean region. “India remains fully cognizant of the needs of the Maldives in dealing with these issues and is committed to assist in achieving the defence and security objectives of the Government of the Maldives,” a Rashtrapati Bhavan statement said, quoting President Mukherjee.

Prime Minister Singh’s opening statement at the news conference with President Yameen made the point further. Stating that the two countries have agreed on a number of initiatives to strengthen bilateral defence and security cooperation, through training, equipment supply, capacity-building, joint patrolling, aerial and maritime surveillance, Prime Minister Singh said: “We are also deepening trilateral maritime security cooperation with Sri Lanka, and look forward to expanding it to other countries in the Indian Ocean. India is ready to provide further assistance and support to the Maldives in strengthening our collective ability to address our shared security challenges.”

The reference was obviously to India and the Maldives inviting and involving Sri Lanka in the 11th edition of bilateral, bi-annual Coast Guard exercise, ‘Dhosti’ in 2012, and following it up with a trilateral maritime security cooperation agreement, addressing piracy, extremism, smuggling and environmental concerns, etc, the following year.

Whether the current initiatives would take a deeper defence and security meaning on the military side, and/or a political initiative that goes back to the ‘Cold War’ era, with a call for declaring the ‘Indian Ocean as a zone of peace’, but with demonstrable collective fire-power to back the demand remains to be seen. That security cooperation among the three nations has been robust even through the recent periods of bilateral strains between the two nations and India needs to be noted with satisfaction.

Likewise, the Indian strategic community should learn to appreciate the need for acknowledging areas of fiscal and development cooperation between neighbourhood nations and extra-territorial powers like China and the US, Russia and the EU, and Australia and Japan (the last two being extended neighbours, all the same). The commitment of the two nations not to allow their territory to be used in ways inimical to other’s security concerns would go a long way in reassuring India in particular, but the Maldives too, on issues religious and political extremism creeping in through the sides.

State visit and more

President Yameen was in India only weeks ahead of the commencement of the presidential polls in September last year, which proved to be as controversial as it later became conclusive. That was candidate Yameen coming to acquaint himself with the Indian leadership and to update one another mutually on understanding bilateral expectations and personal positions. This time, he came on a ‘State visit’ after India consciously decided that it should be one.

This meant that President Pranab Mukherjee as the Head of the Indian State received President Yameen on the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, along with Prime Minister Singh, to the accompaniment of a tri-Services ceremonial guard-of-honour, not to be confused with such other ‘official visits’. As Prime Minister Singh later pointed out, it was appropriate that President Yameen was the first international visitor to India in the New Year.

India’s democracy experience over the past decades, including in areas of executive powers, legislative rights, and judicial activism – both in constitutional matters and others – can go a long way in the Maldives’ understanding of democracy and the role of democratic institutions in the South Asian or Third World context. As the Maldives aims at further economic reforms and investor laws, covering national interests and investment-protection, India’s experience with legislation-making could also be of help. The modern Maldives, always moderate, can also learn from India’s long experience in striking the right balance between religious codes and civil laws.

To this end already, the two nations signed an agreement during Prime Minister Singh’s bilateral visit in November 2011 (when the Addu City SAARC Summit was in greater focus) for helping with banking laws in the country. Agreements signed during the current visit of President Yameen also provide for increased cooperation in the all-important fields of education and healthcare, which are closer to the hearts of every Maldivian than is understood.

This could – but should – involve the deployment of experienced and well-equipped Indian doctors and paramedics in addition to teachers all across the Maldives, and equip Maldivian hospitals adequately. Though Indian medical and teaching professionals are already there, the Indian Government’s involvement in these peripheral areas would also go a long way toward improving people-to-people contact in a more meaningful way than already. And in a grassroots-level, electoral democracy that would also matter after a time – and at times, that alone would matter, too.

There is a long way to go in bilateral cooperation between India and the Maldives, but a lot was covered during President Yameen’s visit. Both in India and back home, President Yameen underscored the point that bilateral relations had peaked during the tenure of his half-brother and party boss, President Gayoom, indicating the scope and commitment to revive and continue on the same path, all over again. Democratisation in the Maldives, and the nation’s democratic experience and dynamism during the first five years may have identified even more areas of practical and pragmatic areas of cooperation.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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: President Yameen begins well, yet road-blocks remain

True to his public commitment on election to the nation’s highest office, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has extended an arm of all-round reconciliation. The MDP opposition, whose nominee and former President Mohamed Nasheed lost the polls by a narrow margin, has also risen to the occasion. Yet it will require all their collective will and commitment to stay the course, with scheduled elections to local councils and the parliament possibly occasioning a return to political adversity, if not unacceptable hostility.

Symbolising the reconciliation was the prompt MDP withdrawal of the no-trust motion against Deputy Speaker in Parliament, Ahmed Nazim who belongs to President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). As if by cue, the government side rendered a similar move against Speaker Abdulla Shahid ineffectual. President Yameen had to silence murmurs of protest from the PPM camp after two party MPs withdrew from the no-trust move against the speaker. It sent out ‘confusing signals’ but only for a while. The murmurs have died down and the reconciliation has held.

A more significant concession to the opposition was the resignation of Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz – the nation’s top cop. The MDP was critical of his role in the controversial power-transfer of 7 February 2012, when President Nasheed quit and his Vice-President Dr Mohamed Waheed took over as per existing constitutional provisions. The party was unhappy with the functioning of Riyaz even afterward.

Armed forces at bay

Addressing larger issues and concerns, the new government has proposed to bring up a bill before the People’s Majlis, proposing disciplinary action and procedure against errant personnel of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).

Both during the pre-democratisation era and afterward, the MNDF has been in the eye of political storms. Frequent transfers and summary dismissals – caused possibly by the over-politicisation and political misuse of the forces – were not wholly uncommon. It will surprise any student of military history that Maldives does not have a disciplinary law for the armed forces. It is hoped that the new law would address not only individual acts of ‘indiscipline’ but also ‘institutional lapses’, protecting the MNDF hierarchy from political acts of avoidable transfers and demotions, and continually testing their ‘loyalty’ to the State (read: ‘loyalty’ to the person of the incumbent president).

Despite bifurcation of the National Security Service (NSS) into the MNDF and the Maldives Police Service, presidents – both during pre-democratisation era and afterward – have been known to have commanded the former to execute what were patently illegal acts of arrests and the like. Anyway, under the bifurcation formula, such arrests fell within the mandated responsibilities of the police, which unlike the MNDF was directly answerable to the nation’s judiciary.

However, the current efforts come on the heels of the Yameen Government dismissing at least eight MNDF officials in two groups, on charges of ‘spreading hatred’. It was said that some of the dismissed officials, including two seniors in the rank of Brigadier-General – one of them demoted – were identified with what could be described as ‘independent’ or ‘anti-government’ campaign since the power-transfer of 2012.

The MDP’s Nasheed has promptly criticised the dismissals. It remains to be seen how the party reacts to the issue and the promised new bill – in parliament and outside. While defending the dismissals, the Defence Ministry has said that it was in consultation with authorities on initiating legal action against those making such criticisms. Both the MDP charges and the caution about possible action are remnants from the past, and have the potential to rock the ‘reconciliation boat’ in more ways than one.

One solution could be to address issues futuristically as a nation, to see if and how the uniformed services could be ‘de-politicised’ completely, as is prevalent in many matured democracies.

Responsive to internal compulsions

Responsive to internal compulsions of the PPM-led coalition from the second round, Yameen named Umar Naseer – who had contested against him for the PPM presidential nomination, taking his subsequent defeat to the courts – as the all-important Home Minister. Naseer had sided with Jumhooree Party (JP) presidential hopeful Gasim Ibrahim, yet throughout the campaign seemed not to have resorted to political or personal attacks against the PPM and its leadership. He is a JP nominee in the cabinet.

Unlike the observed approach of predecessors, President Yameen seems to be keen on sharing official responsibilities with Vice-President, Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed – a PhD holder in criminal law from the UK. That was an issue over which President Nasheed and Vice-President Waheed differed, for instance, contributing in no small measure to the subsequent controversies.

At the time, supporters of President Nasheed had argued that under the ‘US model’ adopted by Maldives, the vice-president was a stand-in for the president should the office fall vacant, and did not otherwise have any constitutional responsibilities. In the Yameen dispensation, Vice-President Jameel discussed the ‘visa issue’ with Indian High Commissioner Rajeev Sahare, indicating that he had a portfolio to call his own, thus sharing and shouldering part-responsibilities of his president.

Consensual economic policy?

Based on the parliamentary poll results of 2009, President Nasheed declared that there were only two major political parties in the country – namely, his MDP and the one led President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his predecessor for 30 long years. On issues and common concerns of the nation, it did not translate into a ‘bi-partisan approach’ to policy-making or programme-identification. The reasons were too many, including less-talked-about ideological differences within the Gayoom-led Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) and the breakaway PPM.

By boldly talking about ‘lean government’ and slashing government expenditure even in his first news conference after election, President Yameen has adopted a policy otherwise close to the MDP’s heart. He straightaway offered to cut his presidential pay by half and ordered the recall of the 2014 Budget from Parliament, with directions to the Finance Ministry to cut down projections by MVR1billion.

Following in the footsteps of President Nasheed, President Yameen has also called for a review of pays and/or perks at all levels of government and ‘Independent Institutions’ under the constitution. In a nation with little job opportunities, the state provides employment to over 10 per cent of the population. The pay bill recorded a two-thirds hike in the last two years of the Gayoom presidency (2006-08).

It remains to be seen if President Yameen will be able to proceed on the same road. Before him President Nasheed found himself balancing the 20-percent cut in pay and staff with ‘freebies’ for select constituencies, and lifting the artificially pegging of the Maldivian ‘ruffiya’ against the US dollar – all proving politically unpopular. The Nasheed dispensation could not also resist the political temptation of creating elected, full-time island councillors, with pay and perks, adding to the Treasury’s woes. President Yameen has called for a review of the scheme, as had been promised when he was in the opposition in parliament.

Visible road-blocks

For all the good intentions and better equations that President Yameen is striving to achieve with the MDP opposition and allies alike, it is inevitable that the political road ahead is strewn with bumps and pot-holes. Even before the ink on the presidential polls dried, the Election Commission had scheduled nation-wide local council polls for 18 March, followed by the all-important parliamentary polls on 22 March.

In ordinary circumstances, the heat generated by the presidential polls does not inspire confidence in the current reconciliation process. For the street-smart MDP, the upcoming polls are a healthy way to re-energise their cadre, demoralised by the results of the presidential election. For President Yameen, he will have to extend the electability of his leadership beyond the immediate self, which ‘coalition calculus’ alone made possible.

For now, President Yameen is unlikely to leave party and coalition politics to the care of President Gayoom, the PPM chief and his half-brother. His government and leadership cannot escape the burden of any reverses, particularly on the coalition front. It will be more so in the upcoming elections to parliament, where already the MDP coalition has a majority.

Incidentally, President Nasheed did not have the parliamentary majority that his government sorely needed when in office. They could manage it only after the 2013 presidential polls were well under way, the Supreme Court having annulled the first-round elections of 7 September. The DRP, which President Gayoom had founded only to leave to form the PPM, has since joined the MDP coalition with seven or eight MPs to call its own. But its electoral contribution, as witnessed during the presidential poll, was next-to-nothing.

The JP can be expected to demand its pound of flesh in seat-sharing talks within the government, for the 23 per cent first-round Gasim vote-share that was ‘transferred’ to Yameen in the second-round of the presidential polls. Otherwise, the party has been reacting cautiously to post-poll initiatives of President Yameen. The JP seems to have adapted itself the role of a ‘political watch-dog’, otherwise the role of the MDP, which has promised to show how a ‘responsible opposition should conduct itself’.

Another ‘second-round partner’ of President Yameen – the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) has since indicated its intention to go it alone in the local council polls and the parliamentary elections. The party is now a partner in the Yameen Government, though its decision to go it alone in crucial polls is akin to its past record. In 2008, the party supported the MDP in the second round presidential polls and partnered with the subsequent Nasheed Government until pulling out and taking to the streets on ‘Islam-related issues’.

Though the AP may not win many parliamentary seats, it can make a dent on the local council front, more so than it did in earlier polls. The party can also make a difference in ‘marginal seats’ in the parliamentary elections. This should be a cause of concern for the ruling coalition. Some of the AP’s ideological positions could yet be cause for political concern within the new government and its leadership.

Early checks on hand

Ahead of the twin polls to the local councils and parliament in the first quarter of the New Year, December promises to be a crucial and critical month for Yameen presidency. The parliament should vote for the revised 2014 budget before the year is out. Speaker Shahid has also scheduled parliamentary approval for Yameen’s cabinet appointees for 29 December.

The Yameen cabinet features nominees that the MDP had frowned upon for their alleged role in 2012 ‘power-transfer’. Adapting the US model to suit the prevailing mood of the Gayoom era, the Maldivian Constitution provides not only for the Majlis to clear individual cabinet ministers – it also empowers the Majlis to recall individual Ministers at will and vote them out.

The democratisation era has already had its quota of controversies surrounding delayed parliamentary approval, denied approval, recall and vote-outs. The MDP’s Nasheed has declared that the party does not believe in a coalition arrangement and will vote only for President Yameen’s government – as the 48 percent voters who cast their lot with him too believed. Translated, it could mean that the MDP may clear the five PPM members of the cabinet, and hold back confirmation for the other 10, who represent the Yameen government’s ‘coalition interests’.

The next five years of rule, President Yameen may be faced with the possibility of ministers’ recall, and not only during immediate ‘confirmation proceedings. Unless the MDP leadership intervenes, it is not unlikely that the proceedings of the party-controlled ‘Government Oversight Committee’ of Parliament – which would initiate the ‘confirmation proceedings’ – could witness fireworks. How it translates into floor-level operation/cooperation in the house as a whole will remain to be seen during the long run-up to the parliamentary polls in March.

All this would render it imperative for Yameen’s government and the ruling coalition to go all-out to ensure a parliamentary majority in the president’s favour. The MDP for now has promised parliamentary support for policies similar to its own, but how far the promise holds remains to be seen in the context of ground-level political realities. Throughout, the MDP leadership would have to carry the ‘politically sensitive’ cadres with it, should they not risk further demoralisation of the rank and file.

MP jailed for ‘contempt’ – and freed

An early sign of post-poll reconciliation involved the Yameen leadership encouraging MDP parliamentarian Hamid Abdul Ghafoor to end his month-long ‘refuge’ in parliament and move home, to escape six-month imprisonment for ‘contempt of court’. Home Minister Umar Naser had said at the time that the government will do what is possible within the existing law. He even justified ‘house-stay’ for Ghafoor, explaining that the Government did not have resources to produce him in Parliament from a nearby island prison, three or four times a day to participate in the proceedings.

The Supreme Court has since ruled that parliamentary privileges amounting to violation of court orders would not hold in law. The government has since been left with little option but to send Ghafoor to prison for contempt. It is unclear, however, if and how the government would proceed against Ghafoor and other MDP leaders, arrested and charged with consumption of alcohol and drugs when President Waheed was in office.

The MDP promptly condemned the Hamid’s imprisonment. “This does not bode well for co-operation or compromise between the opposition and the ruling administration,” the party said, referring to Yameen’s post-poll commitment to be ‘President of all Maldivians’. The MDP claimed that the ‘courts are in control of the Executive’, and Nasheed himself claimed that the government could now arrest opposition MPs on the eve of crucial votes in parliament.

It may be recalled that almost throughout the shortened presidency of Nasheed, the MDP had claimed that the judiciary was opposed to the executive. The government was locked with parliament and the judiciary over the make-up of the Supreme Court bench under the constitution, leading and contributing to the MNDF lock-down of the court’s premises for a day, under presidential orders. It may be pertinent that any wholesale revisit of the post-democratisation government processes, if undertaken, will have to address issues such as the one flagged by the Hamid case, to see how other nations handle such issues.

For now, however, in a turn of events that has the potential to cement post-poll reconciliation efforts, the High Court overturned the lower court sentencing of Hamid, MP. In doing so, the High Court judge cited his written apology to the trial court for not honouring the summons the first time. The High Court also pointed out that the trial court order was not covered by the post-facto subsequent Supreme Court judgment.

MP Hamid was promptly freed from prison after the High Court verdict was known. It now remains to be seen if the State will go on to appeal against the High Court order. Technicalities and legal possibilities not with-standing, the next course of the Hamid contempt cas will be a marker of Yameen’s commitment to political reconciliation.

‘Judge Abdulla case’

Sooner rather than later, the Yameen government will also have to make a call on the criminal case pending against President Nasheed in the Judge Abdulla abduction case. This was again a case initiated by the Waheed presidency but with the PPM, JP and others lending political support. If resurrected, the case has the potential to become a ‘live issue’ for the twin elections ahead. It has a greater potential to derail the step-by-step process of national reconciliation, on which the Yameen presidency and the MDP are participating enthusiastically.

Faced with the theoretical possibility of disqualification from contesting the presidential polls, Nasheed had promised to stand trial after the elections. It is both a critical and sensitive issue for the MDP in particular, but it also has the potential to blow up into a political controversy within the ruling coalition and the nation as a whole, particularly in the midst of high-spirited election campaigns.

President Yameen will require all his political ingenuity and persuasive powers to carry the coalition and/or the nation in whichever decision he takes on the matter. To do so without distracting from his current efforts at national reconciliation and reviving the fallen economy are tasks that will no doubt be time and energy-consuming.

President Nasheed has promptly denied social media rumours that he would be contesting the parliamentary polls. Even as the MDP is busy preparing to face the new polls, it should be working to re-position Nasheed in the internal scheme of things. The party and the leader are inseparable. The party now seems to need the leader more than the other way round – or, so it seems. The party will need to keep Nasheed relevant to its internal and external political schemes for the foreseeable future.

The Judge Abdulla case and the like are thus as much political opportunities as they are personal inconveniences to President Nasheed. Needless to recall that it may have been the decision of the Nasheed presidency to summon predecessor Gayoom to a police station for questioning on issues purportedly pertaining to the latter’s days in office that changed the course of Maldivian history. President Yameen declared on his election that there would be ‘no witch-hunting’ of the MDP regime. But whether he meant to include personal cases against individuals then in office was/is unclear.

Nor is it clear how much the government can do in the matter of cases that are already pending before various courts. Yet such a line will not convince anyone, home or abroad, with a potential to re-launch an avoidable cycle all over again. However, the MDP would also be under the strain of having to win most seats in the two rounds of upcoming polls – and at the same time reassuring Maldivians that they are not there to try and torpedo the Yameen presidency at the first available opportunity.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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]