Comment: EC crisis ends, polls as scheduled

The crisis that sought to engulf the March 22 parliamentary polls has ended as quickly as it appeared, with parliament unanimously filling an existing vacancy in the Election Commission (EC), ensuring the constitutionally-mandated quorum of three after the Supreme Court had disqualified two members – including EC President Fuwad Thowfeek and his deputy Ahamed Fayaz.

Of the three individuals nominated by President Abdulla Yameen to fill three vacancies – including the two ordered vacant by the Supreme Court – parliament cleared Ismail Habeeb to replace Ibrahim Waheed ‘Ogaru’, who resigned last October, citing health reasons.

That parliament was in no mood for any confrontation, either with the judiciary or the executive, became clear early on during the emergency sitting called by Speaker Abdulla Shahid when only 60 of the 77 sitting members turned up. No political party, starting with the the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was known to have issued a whip on any vote that was considered imminent.

With opinion divided within the MDP on the future course of action deriving from the court verdict, as expected, the People’s Majlis took the relatively honourable  rpute of filling the earlier vacancy and leaving the court-ordered vacancies and the attended issues to be taken up possibly by the post-poll parliament. For now, Speaker Shahid announced – based on a decision by all floor leaders – that parliament would convene only after the scheduled polls of 22 March. This would help end speculation and rumours of every kind during the crucial residue of the run-up to the polls.

Second time in a row

Whatever the cause and justification, President Abdulla Yameen’s leadership – despite heading a diverse ‘ruling’ progressive coalition – has proved to be a better floor manager, twice in four months. Earlier, despite the MDP issuing a whip, the government ensured that the house cleared his 13-member cabinet as required under the constitution, without any confrontation – but cross-voting, nonetheless.

Now for a second time, MDP leader and vote-getter, former President Mohammed Nasheed, repeatedly asserted that any judicial intervention in the functioning of the EC could lead to a total boycott of the polls, the post-verdict national council meeting of the party demonstrated that many, if not most, members did not have the stomach for a showdown. It may be reflective of the national mood after the conclusion of the highly-polarised presidential polls, which also divided families in what is otherwise a closely-knit community.

The MDP’s predicament was summed up when party chairperson ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik declared himself against boycotting the polls. Talking to Haveeru after an inclusive session of the national council, he openly indicated that the national council was divided over the question. Having spent their time, energy, and more importantly their money for the upcoming polls, MDP candidates were obviously in no mood to extend their personal agonies any more than absolutely required. That was also possibly the mood within the governing parties.

Post-poll, however, the MDP leadership may be called upon to address the emerging/evolving internal crisis, which could take some form or the other in the weeks and months to come. Possibly taking a cue from the leadership, Speaker Abdulla Shahid – a relatively recent entrant into the MDP-fold – suo moto wrote to the president, the Supreme Court and others, contesting the content of the sack order against the two EC members.

MDP-controlled parliamentary committees also reacted likewise and even declared that the court-ordered sacking of the EC president and deputy was not on. However, when the matter came up before parliament, the mood was different.

Miscalculated, mistimed?

The crisis may have exposed foreign governments and international organisations for their continued lack of understanding of Maldivian politics and political manoeuvres. While sounding altruistic in the cause of Maldivian democracy – for which some of them tend to claim authorship – they refused to understand that the Maldivian polity and society had enough resilience to address internal issues, without blowing it out of proportions, or taking it to the international arena.

Even before the Supreme Court had pronounced its verdict on its suo moto contempt case against the EC, and coinciding with President Nasheed’s threat of poll-boycott, some western governments and institutions had cautioned the judiciary against such a course. They had followed it up with a more direct and more severe criticism of the judiciary and in defence of an ‘independent EC’ as it existed.

In doing so, some of them also called for ‘inclusive polls’, a term that the international community had used ahead of last year’s presidential polls, when President Nasheed faced possible disqualification flowing from a pending criminal case dating back to his presidency. The peaceful conclusion of the crisis may have now shown that they may have miscued, miscalculated, and definitely mistimed it all.

Indian non-interference

At the height of the global reaction to the judicial verdict – including from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon – President Yameen and Supreme Court Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz (he had dissented against the majority judgment) criticised the international community for interfering with the internal affairs of Maldives. Faiz, addressing critics both near to home and further afield, also cautioned that challenging verdicts ‘threatens Supreme Court’s existence’.

Yet, both simultaneously acknowledged the need for judicial reform. President Yameen, in a public rally, declaring his government’s decision to abide by the court verdict in this matter as in others also expressed the hope that the MDP would not have a problem working with his leadership on such reforms. Clearly, all this would have to wait until after the parliamentary polls, whose results, could impact on the future course. Whatever that be, the initiative would still lie with President Yameen and his ‘Progressive Coalition’ leadership.

Compared to the West, the post-verdict reaction from the immediate Indian neighbour was not hurried in coming. When it came, it was balanced. Noting “with concerns the removal of the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Elections Commission of Maldives”, a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs, welcomed the post-verdict “commitment expressed by the Government of Maldives to holding the parliamentary elections” as scheduled on 22 March.

The Indian statement was noticeable for absence of any reference to the Maldivian judiciary, this time as throughout the presidential poll crisis last year. Traditionally, too, the Indian political class and public administrators have been extremely respectful of the judicial processes back in the country, and have been even more wary of commenting on them.

Independent of their private opinion, if any, on judicial behaviour, processes, and pronouncements, successive governments in India – and more importantly, all legislatures across the country – have been known to honour court verdicts. Where a confrontation had looked imminent, particularly between the judiciary and legislature, the habit has been for the latter to honour the final pronouncement of the former, after what initially might have looked like deadlock.

The discourse and debates on such matters have mostly stopped within the court premises, or within the precincts of the legislatures. Court verdicts have rarely been made subject of public debate or discourse in India.

Even where political, journalistic, or academic criticism has been made, the authors have been circumspect to the point of erring on the right side of the public regard for judiciary as the final arbiter of constitutional issues and public morals. A situation like the one that could have evolved in Maldives just now has had the potential to create a constitutional deadlock, which the Indian leaderships at all levels have consistently avoided in the country – and would not wish on any other country, particularly a ‘friendly neighbour’, where such a course could have threatened political stability for a long time to come.

Era of the unknown

Post-poll, Maldivian polity could be expected to slowly but surely re-position itself for the future, targeting the series of presidential, local council and parliamentary polls that are now due in 2018-19. Among the ever-increasing numbers of young voters, including first-time voters, democracy is here to stay, and purported threats to the democratisation process that commenced at the turn of the century, are in their parents’ memory, possibly still fresh.

Developments, such as the one now confronted, could flag concerns in their minds, but such concerns would come to pass as the crises too pass as fast as they emerge. This could set off a sense of democratic complacency that is commonplace in most, if not all, democracies. They could see motives where altruism may still be the only cause. In turn, this could contribute to, and necessitate in political parties and leaderships a realignment of their policy priorities and programmes over the next five years, in preparation for an ‘era of the unknown’.

Immediately, however, after the conclusion of the last of the series of polls this season, individual parties would be tempted to look internally and take stock, to reposition themselves for the future. Figure-head leaders of every party and group and the parties that they are associated with will (have to) take stock.

In helping the transition to the future, where the adversity of the past decade, requires to be tempered by reason and a collective will to make Maldives peace-loving and prosperous all over again, the government will have to initiate legal and political measures that are aimed at institutionalising facilitating mechanisms for the purpose. Again, the initiative would lie with the government and President Yameen – no matter the parliamentary poll results.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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