Comment: Commonwealth ultimatum sparks call for pull-out

With the People’s Majlis, or Parliament, confirming the nomination of Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Deen, an element of political continuity and consequent stability has been injected into the Maldivian polity for now.

Yet, the visiting Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG)’s ultimatum to the Government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik to recast the National Inquiry Commission (NIC), probing MDP predecessor Mohammed Nasheed’s charges relating to power-transfer, has thrown up a counter-call from Government leaders for Maldives to pull out of the Commonwealth – thus taking the focus away somewhat from domestic politics.

In Parliament, over the confirmation vote, all but one member belonging to the 32-strong majority MDP group, boycotted the 77-member House. The House also cleared all 14 Cabinet members individually, after the Supreme Court had upheld the procedure followed by the Majlis when President Nasheed sent the list of ministerial team for confirmation after their en masse resignation in 2010. The MDP is considering action against errant member Shifag Mufeed, who violated the party’s three-line whip and also spoke against its known line on the ‘coup charge’ in Parliament.

Confirmation for Vice-President Deen takes the punch out of the MDP argument against the need for a constitutional amendment for facilitating early elections. In India recently, and elsewhere too, President Nasheed and his MDP aides had said that President Waheed’s resignation could lead to Speaker Abdulla Shahid taking over the reins for a mandatory two-month period, when fresh presidential polls had to be held under his care. Vice-President Deen’s confirmation now means that even if President Waheed were to quit, the Vice-President would take over his place, as he himself had done when President Nasheed quit on February 7.

For advancing presidential polls without amending the Constitution, both President Waheed and Vice-President Deen will have to quit simultaneously. President Nasheed was believed to have attempted a constitutional coup of the sort when his Cabinet quit en masse, but Vice-President Waheed, it was said, would not play the ball. However, Government coalition partners like the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) have said that they were not against early polls, but favoured a full five-year term for the new President, and were against the nation spending money and time only to fill in the residual part of the current presidency, ending in November 2013. This would require a constitutional amendment.

Yet, the numbers don’t add up for a constitutional amendment of the kind. With two by-election losses after the February 7 power-transfer and now the walk-out from the party by a single member has reduced MDP’s Majlis’ strength to 31. Yet, it remains the ‘majority group’ against the DRP parliamentary group’s 32 after the latter split formally following the two by-elections. Rules mandate that for parliamentary recognition, a political party should have won at least one seat on its symbol. The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Gayoom after splitting away from the DRP, his original political-find, opened the account by winning the Thimarafushi seat in the April 14 by-election.

The PPM now has 17 members in the House, and Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yammen has become the ‘minority group’ leader in the House, a position held by DRP’s Thasmeen Ali. The latter has 15 members. Even if the MDP and the DRP were to vote together, it would add up to only 46 votes in Parliament, and would fall woefully short of a two-thirds majority. Indications are that in the absence of a national consensus over a constitutional amendment, the DRP can be seen as siding with the MDP only at the cost of further erosion in its parliamentary strength.

The leadership of Thasmeen Ali, once President Gayoom’s running-mate in 2008 and later anointed by him as DRP president and presidential nominee for 2013, is said to be acutely aware of the possibilities of a further split, particularly of the cadres drifting towards the PPM than in favour of the MDP, where again internal trouble seemed brewing all over again.

Consternation of and with Commonwealth

Two greater issues however have since captured the nation’s imagination and attention. On return to the country after its first visit soon after the power-transfer, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) served a four-week ultimatum on the Waheed Government to recast the team probing President Nasheed’s coup-charge linked to the power-transfer, to make it more credible, or face more severe action. This only helped open up a national debate, with some Government party members, as if by cue, telling Parliament that Maldives should reconsider its membership of the Commonwealth.

Outside Parliament, President Waheed and some probe team members took different positions on recasting or expanding the commission’s membership, to meet stringent quality-control. President Waheed said that the team’s terms gave it powers to recast itself. Team members however said that they had a limited mandate, and had a May 31 deadline to meet. However, probe team’s leader has since clarified that it had inherent powers to seek external experts to assist it in the probe. Until the CMAG served the ultimatum, President Waheed and his Government had reiterated their request for Commonwealth to suggest experts for assisting the probe without compromising on the nation’s sovereignty. The CMAG has been silent on the request, since.

President Waheed sought to put a lid on the demand for Maldives quitting the Commonwealth, by declaring that it was not in the Government’s mind. However, former President Gayoom, whom the MDP says was the brain behind the ‘power-transfer conspiracy’ and the real power behind the Waheed Governent, has kept the pot boiling since. He said that the Commonwealth’s character has changed, from being supportive of smaller member-nations to become the power-base of the bigger ones. He has also pointed out that the Commonwealth was essentially a club of once-colonised nations whereas Maldives was not a colony, only a protectorate.

Despite President Waheed’s denial two ruling combine MPs have since presented a Bill to Parliament calling upon the Government to pull out of the Commonwealth. The members belong respectively to former President Gayoom’s PPM and Presidential Advisor Hassan Saeed’s DQP. Maldives’ Permanent Representative to the European Union, Ali Hussein Didi, was reported to have said that the situation in the country did not give the CMAG a clear mandate to place the Maldives on its agenda, as per the 2011 Perth summit. Yet, Maldives “will continue to extend “maximum level of cooperation”, Maldivian media reports quoted him as telling a monthly meeting of the EU on South Asia.

Ambassador Didi also criticised the CMAG for not responding to requests for assistance to the ‘coup inquiry’, and reiterated the Government’s current position that presidential polls would be conducted by July 2013, at the earliest, as per the constitutional provision. This, even as Ibrahim Didi, the MDP president, reportedly contested the former’s claims about his purported interpretation of the events of February 6-7, media reports said, while the party also contested the presentation before the EU that President Nasheed’s resignation owed to a ‘popular uprising’. On other issues, flowing from power-transfer, MDP’s Didi seemed to be at logger-heads with the Nasheed camp, nonetheless.

Roadmap talks, or internationalisation further?

In the normal course, the confirmation of the Vice-President should have introduced a greater element of continuity and consequent political stability. Yet, the Commonwealth ultimatum, which runs out in another two weeks, has re-written and re-focused the script, indicating that at least a section of the international community does not want a status quo mind-set in Male to forget past commitments on a credible probe and early presidential polls. The nation’s polity since seems to have become aware of the drift and the impending consequences, which none of them may be in a position to control, after a point.

Pressured from different sides, the government parties and the MDP have since met across the table, to revive the all-party roadmap talks. Participants said they had authorised convenor Ahmed Mujthaba alone to talk to the media, but also indicated that the talks were productive in seeking to prioritise the agreed agenda, worked out at the instance of visiting Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai. They are meeting again on May 5, and progress on the poll-date is also expected in time.

An international civil servant under the UN before returning home to enter pro-democracy politics, President Waheed seems aware of the limitations of domestic protests and protestations, and the compulsions caused by the international community. Committing to inject credibility into the power-transfer probe, the Government reportedly sought international expertise from both the Commonwealth and the UN, expecting possibly the former to respond favourably earlier than the latter. At the time, the government also said that it had asked nations like Malaysia and India to suggest a team of experts for the purpose.

At present, Belgian mediation expert Pierre-Yves Monette is in Maldives, at the instance of the UNDP and on the request of All-Party convenor Mujthaba. Local media reports indicated that he had worked with the Maldivian stake-holders and brought them back to the Roadmap talks. The MDP in particular reportedly had reservations to Monette’s presence at the earlier round of talks, but not anymore. Yet, his engagement is confined to the Roadmap talks, and not the ‘coup probe’. The CMAG’s purported conditions now for sending in a list of experts for the Maldivian government/probe commission to choose from, seem to have thrown up a situation where the request for the UN to help out in the matter, if honoured, could have deeper consequences than Maldives can stomach, some sections in the country seem to feel.

In this regard, recent examples involving neighbouring Sri Lanka and other member-nations are cited as example of excessive and extraneous UN intervention. For India, it means that any reference of the Maldivian case to the UN Security Council could imply that the incumbent government in Male would have more immediate use for China. New Delhi could not complain. Conversely, as the Sri Lankan and Syrian precedents have shown in recent months, by taking the Maldivian case away from the Security Council and to other UN portals such as UNHRC, where veto-power does not apply, the ‘pro-democracy’ West can have a decisive say, but the stake-holders in Maldives, independent of their present predicament, may have none.

The Maldivian stake-holders seem to understand it, too – for, any UN engagement of any kind in recent times has signalled not an early end to what essentially is a domestic problem, often of egos and perceptions, at times in the garb of principles and policies, if at all. For the Government, the internationalisation of the question of early elections (and, not the ‘power-transfer’ issue, where alone UN expertise has been sought) could lead to a global discourse, where extraneous global concerns like religious radicalism and strategic location of Maldives could dictate the mind-set and dominate the proceedings. Issues such as parliamentary confirmation for the Vice-President and the Cabinet, the arguments favouring the power-transfer probe team and elections only when they are scheduled would then be of little consequence.

For the MDP, not only could early elections become worse than a distant possibility but also the party’s nationalist credentials and its democratic sheet-anchor could come under question. If nothing else, sympathy that the party and President Nasheed claims to have retaken following the power-transfer after it was believed to have lost it to the Nasheed Government’s economic policies and political approach to the Opposition of the day may become suspect all over again. Not just MDP, but even the very concept of ‘democracy’ may then be in question in the country, which ushered in the processes and also peaceful power-transfer through multi-party elections as far back as 2008, and long before the ‘Arab Spring’, among others.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

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4 thoughts on “Comment: Commonwealth ultimatum sparks call for pull-out”

  1. Ambassador Didi can say what he wants, but who is listening? This is the age of social media; we are well informed and well aware of every single comment made by our politicians.
    We know and the international community knows that CMAG DID offer technical assistance to the government but stipulated that it will do so WHEN the terms of reference of the CNI is revised and receives cross party approval. What is so unreasonable about that?
    The Waheed administration wants the technical assistance on THEIR terms and so the stalemate. The government has shown no interest in addressing the issues CMAG has raised, of establishing the credibility of the CNI with the consultation of the political stakeholders.
    Read the CMAG statement, SathiyaMoorthy and see if you can help Ambassador to read it too. He seems not to comprehend plain English.

  2. Neither President Waheed nor Vice President Deen are such brilliant people as the author of this article seems to suggest.

    I, however, agree with the author's suggestions that the future of MDP and the future for democracy in the Maldives should be viewed with deep scepticism.

  3. CMAG were irrelevant yesterday, and they will also be tomorrow. They can not touch us and interfere with our tourism and new government. They are light weights!


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