Comment: Consolidating democracy

“A truth that many political parties active in the Maldives accept is that the MDP is unmatched when it comes to election campaigns,” declared a Haveeru report or op-ed published on April 21, 2013. The high praise was surprising coming from a publication that is not known to favour the Maldivian Democratic Party.

It was a sign of shifting political tides. The report appeared a day after the MDP held the largest rally by a political party in the country’s history to celebrate the signing of Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid. Grudging acknowledgment of the MDP’s grassroots support, innovation and enterprise was a common sentiment in the aftermath of the mass rally.

The most significant observation in the Haveeru report, to my mind, was this: “MDP is the party that introduced many democratic concepts [to the Maldives].” The author observed that it was the MDP that introduced “door to door campaigning,” “manifesto,” “haruge and campaign jagaha (meeting halls)” into the local vocabulary. Other political parties have since followed in the footsteps of the pioneering party by adopting these phrases.

The MDP was born out of a pro-democracy movement in the wake of unprecedented civil unrest in September 2003, which was precipitated by a custodial death exposed to the public and fatal shooting of inmates. The movement culminated in the election of Mohamed Nasheed as president in October 2008, ending a 30-year autocracy and heralding a new dawn for the Maldives with unheard-of levels of freedom of expression and civil liberties.

As a voter in tomorrow’s historic election, the considerations for choosing a candidate sadly remain much the same as in 2008. Five years ago, a majority reached the conclusion that Nasheed was the only choice. Apart from Ibrahim Ismail ‘Ibra,’ he was the only candidate with genuine democratic credentials. The others could not be trusted to dismantle the autocratic status quo.

The dictatorship of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was characterised by repression, torture, nepotism, wanton corruption, income inequality and self-serving Islamo-nationalist propaganda on state media. If Gayoom was re-elected and emboldened with a mandate, the fear was that he would crush the opposition and jail its leaders or force them into exile. An independent auditor general would not dare reveal illegal expenditure, the judiciary would remain under his thumb, and the nefarious security forces would once again be used to stifle dissent.

As for the rest, including current presidential candidate Gasim Ibrahim and his running mate Dr Hassan Saeed, they lost credibility to speak of democracy by perpetrating the televised coup d’etat on February 7, 2012 and because of their disgraceful behaviour while in opposition: relentless efforts to topple the government, blocking the Nasheed administration at every turn, obstructing essential tax reforms, deliberately sabotaging the economy and whipping up religious hatred. Their commitment to stability and democratic processes was on display at the Republic Square on the day we lost our hard-won democracy.

I believe the overriding issue of this election is saying no to the coup and police brutality. What is at stake here is a second chance at consolidating democracy. According to the “two-turnover test” of political scientist Samuel Huntington, an emergent democracy must undergo two peaceful transfers of power to become stable. The February 7 coup threatened a complete authoritarian reversal and imperilled the fraught transition. If the coup had not happened, tomorrow’s election would take the Maldives closer to a functioning democracy regardless of the winner. As it stands, the only hope is a victory for the democratic party.

It is for this reason that voters cannot afford to be apathetic. In established democracies such as the UK or US, a liberal could arguably rationalise non-participation in the political process if the choice is “voting for the lesser evil.”

The same cannot be said of the Maldives. It is harder to justify withholding support to the most liberal president we are likely to see in our lifetime when the other candidates represent a cabal of authoritarian loyalists, oligarchs and Islamists that employed mutinous security forces to overthrow the first democratically-elected government.

In other words, the possibility of coup perpetrators winning the election should be part of the equation for voters unconvinced by Nasheed. This election is bigger than one person. Idealists who cannot bring themselves to vote for Nasheed should consider the consequences of the alternative and take a long view: living in a police state ten years from now where the Islamist party has revamped the education curriculum. Whatever issue you have with Nasheed will seem petty then.

The track record of the coup government speaks for itself as a sign of things to come under “Baaghee” rule. Consider the following before you cast your ballot tomorrow,

* In the first 24 hours, the same Specialist Operations (SO) police officers who instigated the coup d’etat with a violent mutiny baton charged an MDP march, leaving dozens of unarmed civilians in the ICU with head injuries.

* Al Jazeera reported that “the police and military charged, beating demonstrators as they ran – women, the elderly, dozens left nursing their wounds.”

* In the wake of the brutal crackdown, the SO officers bore down on the capital’s two main hospitals and arrested dozens of people visiting their injured friends and relatives. The BBC reported “a baton charge by police on crowds gathered outside one of the main hospitals.”

* The toothless and politically-compromised Human Rights Commission of the Maldives was forced to acknowledge that the crackdown was “brutal” and “without warning.”

* Amnesty International observed in May 2012 that failure to prosecute police officers accused of human rights violations and “serious failings in the justice system entrenched impunity.”

* In a report titled “The Other Side of Paradise: A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives,” Amnesty International warned that “the country is slipping back into the old pattern of repression and injustice.”

* In June this year, the police disciplinary board decided not to take any administrative action, such as suspension, against five officers facing criminal prosecution over police brutality on February 8, 2012. In the most egregious case of impunity, a staff sergeant who was caught on tape kicking a fallen protester was promoted despite the Police Integrity Commission forwarding a case against the officer for prosecution in May 2012.

* Pressed on police brutality, the California liberal Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan dismissed it as “a matter of opinion.”

* The Maldives was dropped from Freedom House’s list of electoral democracies “due to the forcible removal of democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed, violence perpetrated against him and his party, the suspension of the parliament’s summer session, and the role of the military in facilitating these events.”

* The Maldives plummeted to 103rd in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, a return to pre-2008 levels after climbing to 51st in 2009. I can personally testify to the state of press freedom in the aftermath of the coup. On August 30, 2012, I was arrested for the crime of pointing a camera at SO officers.

* Weeks after coming to power, the new government rewarded resort tycoons by allowing extended resort leases to be paid in instalments rather than upfront or in a lump sum at the end of the lease. The Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) revealed in April 2012 that revenue collected in March was 37.9 percent lower than the projected revenue “mainly due to the unrealised revenue from the Lease Extension Period.” The lost revenue amounted to MVR352 million (US$23 million).

* Despite an ongoing budget crisis, the government had the funds to promote more than 1000 officers, hire 110 new officers, seek recruits for a “special constabulary” reserve force, introduce a loan scheme for police officers, make arrangements for officers and their families to receive cheap accommodations and medical treatment in Sri Lanka and award 600 flats to police and military officers.

* In January 2013, former chief of police intelligence, Chief Superintendent Mohamed ‘MC’ Hameed revealed to a parliamentary committee that 1,112 officers were promoted the previous year despite only 600 forms being submitted under the normal promotion procedure. “What we saw was that officers with a disciplinary record from the floor to the ceiling were given promotion by the executive board,” Hameed told MPs.

* In late November 2012, the Finance Ministry revealed that GDP growth of the tourism industry had flatlined in 2012 to 0.7 percent, falling from 15.8 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent in 2011. Economic growth meanwhile slowed to an anaemic 3.5 percent, significantly down from 7.1 percent growth in 2010 and 7 percent in 2011.

* In February 2012, the new administration abolished the Maldives Volunteer Corps.

* The public sector wage bill skyrocketed 37 percent in 2013 with MVR1.3 billion in additional recurrent expenditure, including a 14 percent hike in military spending and plans to hire 864 new staff for the security services.

* “[The coup perpetrators] have destroyed US$2-3 billion worth of investment and condemned the country to an unstable economic future based upon diesel”: Mike Mason in June 2012.

* In June this year, the government accused UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers of undermining “national jurisdiction and the court system.”

* In November 2012, the President’s Office Spokesperson publicly insulted the Indian High Commissioner, sparking a diplomatic incident and souring relations with India.

* In the next month, the government arbitrarily terminated a concession agreement with the GMR-MAHB consortium to manage and develop the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, a move that arguably shattered investor confidence and could force the country to pay the GMR US$1.4 billion as compensation.

* In December 2012, the pro-government majority in parliament passed a draconian law that restricts freedom of assembly.

* Also in December 2012, it emerged that the Maldives would be omitted from Transparency International’s global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) due to “insufficient data.”

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10 thoughts on “Comment: Consolidating democracy”

  1. Democracy doesn’t favour the individual above all else, nor does it promise to. One of it’s greatest failings is that single voices of reason are too easily drowned out by the cacophony of the masses.
    The concept of "The Will of the People" is dangerously arbitrary. Certainly not worthy of being the foundation of a rational and practical political system.

    Last but not the least, "Gang rape is democracy in action."

  2. Support for an ideal/individual/association/concept is very much based on personal experiences, circumstances and beliefs. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that our support is entirely objective and based on facts, a counterargument pointing out errors in the facts or other facts that challenge the basis of our support always fails to change our minds.

    The personal and the political are hard to separate. The work of the media is to produce facts to support a certain conclusion rather than the other way around. So by its very nature media reports are highly subjective and more so when they are op-ed columns.

    Young Naish has done an admirable job in summoning facts to support his choice and the choice he wishes others to make. I have often been the subject of ridicule and anger on this forum because of my lack of support for Nasheed. No doubt I am bound to suffer from the same personal beliefs/experiences/circumstances that predispose me to oppose Nasheed and the prospect of his rule. Let me explain why and please do remember that this is highly subjective and anyone is free to disagree.

    1. Nasheed's abrasive style of politics - since my youngest days I have believed in pragmatism, patience and compromise rather than confrontation, vocal dissent and open brinkmanship.

    2. Nasheed's soft spot for dreamers and idealists - once again I cannot blame him and he must have his reasons but I personally have always had little patience for persons of that ilk and believe there place is in activism and artistry rather than government.

    I am sure there is a lot that is admirable about Nasheed such as his persistence and ability to grab attention. However for the reasons stated above I sincerely and honestly feel that Nasheed is not the lesser of two evils in the ensuing contest. However we have accepted that the people will decide and so we all should. Given the current state of the electorate Nasheed would have easily secured the presidency if this was a first-past-the-post electoral system. Yet the absolute majority required cannot be secured by any one political organization in this country.

  3. Tsk tsk: generally speaking, you are correct. Idealists provide the artistic inspiration behind political movements but pragmatists negotiate and implement that which is possible of those ideals. However, when a nation aspires to go through a transition from an autocracy to a democracy, an entire cultural transition needs to occur. I think some radical things need to happen to make the break. I don't think such change can ever occur in the diplomatic manner, in the non confrontational manner you envisage. Democracy in Europe required some radical confrontation.

  4. tsk tsk,

    You patronizingly praise "young" Naish for stating his view points. But unlike yours, he says exactly why he wouldn't vote for any other candidate.

    Your case against Nasheed not being a "lesser evil" is based on minor peccadillos which humans commit just by being alive compared to the major crimes and possible high treason committed by his opponents. And yea you can go on about the burden of proof and pragmatizm and blah blah about due process etc etc. But the fact of the matter is Nasheed competes against a cabal of bandits with vested interests.

  5. Tsk tsk: Idealists and pragmatists often can't stand each other, but a political movement/ party needs BOTH to succeed.

    On the media and the question of the legitimacy of political bias, that's a massive topic. Same issue here - Murdoch owns most papers, papers accused of being biased towards Abbot because Murdoch is.

    One argument presents the conflict as free speech (Murdoch) vs. objectivity and ethics, but I think that is an extremely simplistic way to frame the argument when money and power (Murdoch) dominates what is said - where is the freedom in that?

  6. @peasant! : That's Don Seedhi Tsk Tsk to you! How dare you, the insolence of the islanders these days.

    No, not really, tsk is not a supporter of the autocratic patronage system, that was just a cheap wise crack. Yet his confidence in the ability of technocracy to make great social change seems as futile for the cause of real change. Humans are not computers.

  7. I have watched, from a safe and long distance, the presidential election in the Maldives. Finland's major daily, the Helsingin Sanomat, had an article on it based on the information provided by Reuter.

    The performance by Mohamed Waheed illustrates everything I have said about him. He is a disaster.

    Both Yameen and Gasim are, in different ways and different degrees, both representatives of the Old Order. Please use a magnifying glass to look at the story and legacy of Maumoon.

    Maumoon-like leaders can only produce weak and dishonourable man who are unsuitable for the modern world.

    I like Maldives to embrace and be part of the modern world. Who better to lead Maldives into the 21st century? Mohamed Nasheed is the only presidential candidate in the present contest for power in the Madives with a vision, drive and energy.

    In my humble opinion, he is of the stuff of which heroes are made. To me, he is a Maldivian hero. He has actually risen from the dead. He was taken for dead and buried. He was assailed by a formidable array of Maldivian men.

    He has survived, and actually risen from the dead. Long live Mohamed Nasheed.

  8. @Michael Fahmy: To you he is but you must respect the choices of other Maldivians. Clearly the majority is not with your hero who raised from the dead and he will never be, because only Jesus did that. Also, if you're telling that only young people can bring positive change to a country, you're absolutely wrong my friend. There are so many great leaders who died serving their countries leaving a legacy. Lastly, sorry you cannot vote for your so-called 'hero'.

  9. What 'vote wisely' can never understand is that the Maumoon gang has never served the country during their long regime. They only served themselves.

    How can Maumoon's gang ever be compared to great leaders who died serving their countries? That's right - NO WAY.


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