International Pressure on Gayoom: Is it working?

With two weeks to go, the international community seems to be waking up to a fact that Maldivians have known right along – under Gayoom there can never be a free and fair election in the Maldives. Under pressure from the international community, Gayoom crooned sweetly about “substantial reform’ and about free and fair elections. The international community pounced on Gayoom’s sweet inanities and encouraged him and subtly (and often not so subtlety) pressurized him into keeping his promises and commitments.

The pressure did work to some extent. The best proof of this perhaps lies in the fact that no pro-democracy reformists – including even those who called for Gayoom’s and brother Hameed’s resignation – have as yet been tortured to death or permanently physically incapacitated. When one considers how cruelly past political prisoners and detainees have been brutalized for far lesser “offences” this is immense progress. Challenging Gayoom’s authority has always been the biggest political offence.

After the initial orgy of torture, beating and sexual abuse, following the August 12 – 13 demonstration, the security personnel (who according to Colonel Moosa Jaleel cracked down on the crowd on Commander-in-Chief Gayoom’s direct order) are now less violent. Agreements with the ICRC, visits by diplomats and the courageous stand taken by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives have meant that – at least for the time being – prisoners and detainees need not live in constant fear of torture, sexual abuse and cruel and inhuman punishment. Strongly articulated concerns of the international community alone with the belief that Gayoom is under scrutiny (and hence cannot operate with total impunity) have given hope and courage to pro-democracy activists – even while they know they face harassment and possible imprisonment. There is new hope that the human rights situation would inevitably change for the better and that the rest of the world would not simply wait and watch while Gayoom bludgeons the people of Maldives into submission.

The international community’s impact on the 31st December parliamentary election is, however, minimal. To start with Gayoom has simply ignored the call to grant the people the right to freedom of association despite his clear, unequivocal assertion “our laws do not bar anybody from forming a political party if they want to”. More ominously Gayoom has intimidated and pressurized at least ten people (who would otherwise have won) from seeking nomination. Most of the reformist leaders who would have spearheaded the reformist election campaign are being systematically intimidated and continue to remain in detention. In the meantime pro-government candidates continue to openly enjoy state patronage and public resources for their election campaign. Minister of Atolls Administration, Hameed has given specific instructions to atoll chiefs that they must ensure victory for pro-government candidates.

Given this reality, it is naïve for the international community to expect Gayoom to relent merely because of declarations or statements – even if they are strongly worded.

Gayoom is now immune to declarations and statements. In fact he uses such statements as “proof” that the international community endorses his despotic rules. To get Gayroom’s attention, words need to be replaced by firm action.

As far as the elections are concerned, the international community needs to come to terms with the reality that, as stated above, most of the rigging has already taken place. Even in the unlikely event that the rest of the election process would be “free and fair” the damage already done would mean that the election would be both unfair and unrepresentative of the wishes of the people. Under the circumstances sending observers just for the Election Day would be not only meaningless, but would give Gayoom the opportunity to legitimize a grossly unfair electoral process.

To ensure a free and fair election the entire process needs to be restructured. According to MDP the minimum requirements for a free and fair election are:

(a) The immediate registration of political parties.
(b) Release of all pro-democracy detainees.
(c) A level playing field free from fear and intimidation whereby reformists and pro-government candidates can compete on an equal footing.
(d) An opportunity for detainees and others, who earlier did not seek nomination out of fear and intimidation, to seek nomination afresh.
(e) About thirty days of campaigning and
(f) A transparent system for monitoring and counting of votes.

Most people would find the above requests reasonable. Gayoom would not. Gayoom fully understands that, without rigging, he would lose his traditional control over the parliament which in turn would lead to loosening of his stranglehold on power. More ominously, (from Gayoom’s point of view) the coming parliament would decide if he would be re-elected as President for the 2008 – 2013 presidential term. By asking Gayoom to hold free and fair elections, the international community, in effect, is asking Gayoom to commit political suicide. Gayoom has yet to prove any suicidal tendencies.