During his inauguration one year ago President Abdulla Yameen said: “I take over the presidency of the Maldives today with a vision of tomorrow and new dreams, heralding new thoughts, giving new hopes to the people”.
Four years now remain in which to bring a new and improved governance to the Maldives.
The United Nations lists the major characteristics of good governance as being consensus oriented, participatory, following the rule of law, efficient, accountable, transparent, responsive, and equitable.
Arriving in office through an electoral process that failed to meet all but two of the above qualities, the Yameen administration benefitted from a lack of transparency, accountability, and a flexible approach to the rule of law before any oaths were even taken.
Pre-existing problems with the judiciary and the electoral process appear to have worsened, while elected officials have failed to respond to public safety concerns or to adopt a consensus-based approach to policy making.
Development and decentralisation
President Yameen promised to bring development to the country as never seen before, saying his government would be one of results. To this end, he has brought the concept of special economic zones to the Maldives.
The UNDP’s Human Development Report noted this year that regional disparities continue to grow, and the tourism minister has stated that the Special Economic Zones Act will bring the potential to transform the economy with just a single of many proposed ‘mega-projects’.
The subsequent act, while in theory containing the potential to develop the outer atolls and diversify the economy away from the tourism industry, contains a number of serious governance issues – as did the act’s passage.
Consensus for the bill from opposition Jumhooree Party came only after a number of party leader Gasim Ibrahim’s businesses fell victim to a series of well-timed government interventions, with the party soon issuing a three-line whip to support SEZs.
The unelected composition of the SEZ investment board – consisting entirely of cabinet members – with powers to override local authorities in the yet-to-be-determined zones suggests centralised decision making without the consensus of all relevant stakeholders.
“Land, labour, and capital – the central government and the regional governments are fighting for it as we don’t have enough resources even for the existing government to cover the budget deficits.”
“I believe when there’s enough economic activity we can give more powers to the councils”.
– Minister of Tourism and Chair of SEZ investment board – Ahmed Adeeb
Minister of Tourism and Chairman of the SEZ investment board Ahmed Adeeb has said that local councils will be consulted, but has made clear that the final decisions remain with the central government, lending credence to accusations that the country’s decentralisation project has stalled.
‘Safeguarding the rights of all citizens to actively engage in the democratic process’ – under the heading ‘Decentralisation’ – was one of a number of government pledges recently made available on the President’s Office website.
There has been a steady removal of powers, however, from Malé City Council over the past year, with continued contradictions between a number of laws and decentralisation legislation being used to undermine the council’s work rather than being amended.
Decentralisation of political power has been noted as having positive effects on governance via improved participation, accountability, and responsiveness, though the current model falls short in terms of efficiency.
For a small country like the Maldives, with mounting pressures, fiscal crisis and high debt distress, it is time that political parties, institutions, civil society and the public engage in debate; and agree to right-size the governance system, to make it more sustainable and to maximize the democratic dividend and enhance the freedoms and choices for the people.
UNDP: Maldives Human Development Report 2014
The Yameen administration has made noises about improving the efficiency of decentralised government, although a clear strategy on population redistribution has not emerged which would enhance the delivery of regional services.
A failure to make long-term plans has been cited by the UNDP as a victim of the democratic transition, with long-term development priorities becoming closely tied to the government of the day.
“Political parties and political leaders need to start thinking beyond the ballot,” read the recent human development report.
Although plans to target wasteful electricity subsidies have been planned by the finance ministry, the introduction of an unlimited healthcare scheme and increased pension payouts appear to contradict pledges to sustainably manage public finances.
Transparency, accountability, and responsiveness
Though published in the months prior to President Yameen’s election, Transparency Maldives’ finding of a crisis of public confidence in governing institutions maintains relevance one year on.
The unpredictability of electoral law was typified by the decision of the Supreme Court to dismiss half of the Elections Commission in February, with the additional suo moto case against the Human Rights Commission leaving independent institutions unsure of their constitutional roles.
Additionally, the failure of the authorities to take action against Supreme Court Judge Ali Hameed, despite calls for his suspension being recommended by the judicial watchdog, will have done little to enhance accountability within the judiciary. Charges in relation to the judge’s alleged appearance in a series of sex tapes were dropped due to lack of evidence.
“If we don’t want an executive dictatorship from a dictatorship, we don’t want a judicial dictatorship either.”
“[Misinterpreting the Constitution] should be brought to an end. It won’t come to a halt by jailing those who talk about this. Someone has to raise their voices on behalf of the people,”
Former Justice Minister Ahmed ‘Seena’ Zahir
While right to information legislation has been passed, pledges to make all of the government’s information directly available to the public have yet to be realised, with updates of monthly expenditure discontinued in February.
The instant dismissal of corruption allegations made against the tourism minister by the auditor general suggested major issues with transparency as well as contradicting clear campaign pledges to investigate and act in such cases.
A recent report from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has confirmed anecdotal reports of vote-buying during the Majlis elections, adding further weight to the calls of international election observers to enhance the transparency of campaign finance.
Furthermore, the large number of MPs and state officials who justified switches to the Progressive Party of Maldives as the only way to serve their constituents also suggests issues with the fair and impartial distribution of government resources.
Prior to assuming office the party had pledged to amend the law to stipulate that MPs who switch parties before the end of their term would lose their seats. After winning 33 seats in the March polls, the PPM has gained an additional 10 MPs.
“Vote buying is a serious problem in the Maldives, and if not addressed it threatens to undermine the democratic process in the country.
Though vote buying is a common problem in some parts of the world, the proportions that it has assumed in the Maldives are alarming.”
IFES: Money and Elections in the Maldives – Perceptions and Reality
Finally, while the the abduction of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan has raised a number of security issues – to be analysed later this week – it has also highlighted deficiencies in the responsiveness of institutions to the needs of the people.
The police’s reluctance to regularly disclose information on the investigation – even to the family – as well as the Majlis’s failure to react despite a 5000 signature petition calling for answers in the search demonstrated a glaring lack of accountability in these institutions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the current administration has not moved towards improving the governance issues that played such a prominent role in its rise to power, focusing instead on the centralisation of authority and a push for large scale infrastructure projects.
Twelve months into the Yameen administration, it is clear that insufficient attention has been paid towards good governance, with the centralisation of power and a drive towards economic diversification coming at the expense of transparency and accountability.
Related to this story