These past weeks’ demonstrations, protests, and proclamations continually evoke the principle that constitutional powers must be separated, but conveniently ignore the checks and balances which are meant to be inherent to any functional democracy.
We have had one constitutional crisis after another precisely because our system is broken. The checks don’t work and our system is anything but balanced. The opposition claims the executive is all powerful, while the ruling party claims that both the legislature and the judiciary are trying to hijack the government. The only way forward is through leveling the playing field. I propose we do this in two ways; implementing a real power of veto and meeting our constitutional obligations regarding the judiciary.
At Democracy’s Doorstep
It is self-evident that the democracy we fought for against 30 years of tyranny has not come to pass. In November of 2008, we merely started the next leg of a voyage that pioneers like the President and Vice President started two decades earlier.
In that moment, it was fitting that they embarked on this next leg together. And though much hailed as the fruition of hopes and dreams for democracy, what we failed to grasp is that the journey was not yet complete. The legislature, when controlled by a hostile opposition can bring the state to a standstill, while the judiciary remains with strong political bias and an ethos that should have ended when the middle ages did.
Democracy is meant to function with representation from the people. The people choose a president and a plan for five years, and while the implementation of that plan should be vetted through the legislature and the rule of law safeguarded by the judicature, neither of the two subsidiary bodies are supposed to take the helm of the country. A ship is supposed to have one captain, who is advised and guided, but whose direction and vision guides the course that the ship takes.
The reason why we have a presidential system is because we have the right to choose the vision to guide our nation. We choose our President and Vice President as they are directly elected by us. We choose our path for five years.
But say they both, God forbid, die tomorrow. Our Speaker becomes interim President till elections are held. In parliamentary systems, those who control parliament head government as well, and they do fine – right?
Wrong. If the Speaker led government, we would have a man who represents only 0.2 percent of the voting population (having won his seat with a total of 305 votes). A delightfully clearheaded and capable man though he is, he would not represent the people. We would not have a say in how our country should progress.
In 2008, when we voted, we had our say. Fine, a bunch of people voted against the former President, rather than for this one – but that is one of the growing pains of overcoming dictatorship. We chose this path, so it is time we stopped institutional mechanisms from hindering it.
We stand here at democracy’s doorstep, afraid to cross the threshold because of our authoritarian past. But the point of government is not to constantly bicker and make governing impossible, but rather to provide for those who elected you to power – not through handouts but rather through policy that changes things rather than causes stagnation.
The Point of Majlis
All the Majlis has done for the last three years is to find ways to cause stagnation rather than governance. The opposition believes that every government policy is wrong and that instead of dialogue, the only avenue available is to block policy. It is not about helping the people – it is about making sure the government fails.
That is not the way a government is supposed to function. Apart from the fact that our newly elected Majlis members have no resources, guidance, or staff to assist them – we are also encumbered by a significant institutional failing: the President has no veto.
When the President sends a bill back to Parliament because it is either inconsistent with his vision, or because it may be damaging to the people, it is but a symbolic gesture in our country. In other nations, such an action can only be overturned by a stronger majority (such as two-thirds).
Yet in the Maldives, a simple majority can force a bill through. A simple majority can hijack government and change the course of our ship. This is not the way it was meant to be. Because of the electoral system by which our parliamentarians are chosen, and because of the other factors that influence parliamentary functions, that simple majority can never equal the weight of the office of the President. To change our course and to change the direction which our country follows, we must empower our president with the authority to stand against the tyranny of a minority, and only ever let the will of the majority override the vision we chose.
An Independent Judiciary
Yet a nation cannot function, unless the rule of law is safeguarded. We worked long and hard to ensure that the judiciary would be one that was independent and free from political and social bias. There is but one mechanism to keep the judiciary accountable; the Judicial Services Commission. Alas, this mechanism has failed. It was tasked with thinning the herd, with vetting our judges, and with maintaining some level of dignity on the Maldivian bench. As described by Dr Azra Naseem, we had our moment to hold the judiciary to some standard, and we collectively dropped the ball.
The constitution clearly empowers this commission to take disciplinary action, including dismissal proceedings, against judges for incompetence or gross misconduct. And yet, when they finally get around to finding that Abdulla Mohamed failed to comply with the required standard of conduct, on the 26th of November 2011, the same judge managed to have a court order issued preventing further proceedings. The one body charged with keeping our courts in check has proven itself powerless to fulfill its constitutional mandate.
Here, we have a judge whom most agree is corrupt – or at the very least unfit to sit in so high an office; we have a judge who is blatantly politically biased and admits as much on national television; we have a judge who has released criminals including rapists and drug dealers and who has been seen cavorting with defendants after his rulings; and yet we as a nation and a people are powerless to remove him from the office which he so flagrantly disgraces. Can there be a constitutional failing that is more evident than the one embodied in this man?
A Constitutional Amendment
Our path and our national progression are being hindered by mechanisms that do not function. We have a President determined to follow through on the promises he made when elected; to provide housing, healthcare, transportation, less drug abuse and a better standard of living. Yet even basic policies are refuted, not by the merit of the program, but rather by the party which proposed it. And now there are few avenues that are open to move forward. We need to move beyond stagnation as a policy for politics. We need to change the game. There is but one captain of this ship. For five years, we choose one captain, one direction and one path. In 2013 the path might change, but before that happens – let fix these mechanisms. Let’s become the democracy we were always meant to be.
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