Comment: Making the Maldives’ post-poll transition smooth

In a nation where rumours rule the roost ahead of the 7 September presidential polls, President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, seeking re-election, may have set the right tone for post-poll transition. President Waheed has said that he would not leave the country, if defeated. The same approach could be expected from the other three candidates, and the running mates of all four.

Over the past year and more, the international community is concerned only about political stability in the Indian Ocean archipelago. India, the closet neighbour with a regional and global presence to match, has clarified more than once that it is all for an ‘inclusive’ election that is free and fair without violence, followed by a ‘smooth transition’ that belies avoidable speculation of all kind. The rest of the international community seems to concur.

Under the Constitution, the first-round polling is scheduled for 7 September, followed by a second, run-off round involving the top two within 21 days should no candidate manage to cross the half-way mark. For an atolls-nation with thinly spread-out population spread across 950-km north-south, and not used to multi-party and multi-layered elections, Maldivians voted in large numbers in 2008 after the new Constitution came into being.

In 2008, the first round witnessed high 85-plus percent polling. It was followed by an even higher 86-plus percentage vote in the run-off. The figures were lower at 80 percent for the parliamentary polls six months later. It slipped further to 75 percent in the local council polls a year later. With the result, the voter-turnout has become an object of study. It could show the disenchantment or otherwise of the first-time voters, who were still in their early teens in 2008.

Voter turnout this time would also be a measure of the attitude of the rest, particularly the first-time voters from 2008 and those a generation before them. The events of the past five years, particularly since the controversial power-transfer and subsequent nation-wide violence of 7-8 February 2012, are an object lesson for the Maldivian polity to learn from. The population, insulated from the rest of the world until the tools of information technology, like television and mobile phones, made it all possible, would also have to understand and appreciate the ways and waywardness of coalition leadership, which they had consciously mandated in 2008.

Job cut out

Post-poll, a new president has his job cut out. He will have to put together a cabinet, which has to be cleared by an existing parliament close to the end of its term. As under other presidential systems like in the US, the government is answerable to parliament, but elected members do not become ministers. It comes with hopes and possibilities, problems and burden. The existing system commands that parliamentary clearance for the cabinet can cut either way, going by past experience.

In 2008, after the nation elected Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate Mohamed Nasheed as President, parliament approved his first set of 13 cabinet ministers without question. In 2010, alleging that the new parliament, elected year earlier, with an opposition majority, was adopting a ‘scorched earth policy’ viz the executive powers of the government’s 13 cabinet members, barring then Vice-President Mohamed Waheed’s submission of their resignation to President Nasheed, as if to force a political showdown between the two arms of the government.

After the Supreme Court ruled that the resignations stood, President Nasheed re-appointed the old set of Ministers. This time, parliament refused to clear them all, necessitating the nomination of fresh faces in the place of the rejected ones, but with informal consultations between the president and parliament. The trend of parliament rejecting the President’s nominees for cabinet positions has continued under President Waheed. Here again, there were no rejections at inception. It has since become a routine after the coalition partners supporting President Waheed in parliament and participating in his government through ministerial nominations decided to contest the presidential polls on their own. All this has set bad precedents as far as political stability goes, until a future dispensation proves otherwise.

On assuming office, a new President will have to present the annual budget in November, and get it passed by parliament in time for the government to start its New Year spending from 1 January. In between, the nation would be called upon to vote in the local council polls in December, followed by parliamentary elections in May 2014. The new President can think of doing something about implementing the manifesto of his party in full measure only after that. The premise does not rule out the possibility of the President not enjoying a majority in the existing parliament or the new one coming up after the polls.

A tough task even under relatively favourable circumstances, but a new President will be assuming office in a not-so-favourable political environment. In political terms, parliament would not have had enough time to switch from the ‘election mode’ to take up more serious work. The past five years in general and the months after 7 February power-transfer have ensured that parliamentary committees in particular have acted in a politically partisan manner, even though they may still be well within the letter of the law.

The past years in general and one-and-a-half years in particular have witnessed a spate of ‘defections’ from one party to another, at times within the ruling coalition. It is very difficult for a keen observer of Maldivian politics, even from within the country, to say which MP is now with which party – and if anyone intends crossing over (one more time?) in the near future. The months after the presidential polls could witness another spate of defections, possibly to the elected leader’s side. There could be exceptions, but of defections, there could be many. Such a course could contribute further to the existing sense of instability.

The Maldivian economy is in bad shape now (as has often been in the past years and decades). The reasons are many, though the inability of successive governments to make the successful resort tourism to share an equitable size of the revenues as the share that it makes of the nation’s economy has not paid off. Recently, the government has obtained promises of a $29.5-million credit from the Bank of Ceylon, for ‘budgetary support’.

In what is possibly an unprecedented move, MDP nominee for the 7 September polls, former President Nasheed called on Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram to discuss post-poll fiscal support that his country might request from India. Nasheed was in Delhi, followed later by another presidential candidate, Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and called on the Indian leadership starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India has also invited Gasim Ibrahim, presidential nominee of the Jumhoree Party, to New Delhi for a pre-poll exchange of views. The Delhi discussions, according to reports, have centred on political stability, free and fair elections and smooth transition.

Lame-duck presidency or what?

Traditionally, Maldivian Presidents from the days prior to multi-party elections have been sworn in on 11 November. The current constitution has continued with the existing norm of an incumbent President completing five years in office before the elected/re-elected one is sworn in. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled the country as quasi-elected Head of State and government for 30 years ending 2008, with elections every five years. Before him, President Ibrahim Nasir had done so for 10 years, after he was elevated from the post of Prime Minister.

The earlier experience thus had an inherent safety-clause as for continuity. Transition, if at all, affected only individual ministers that the President nominated to his cabinet, post-poll. Such changes were made even between two elections. There was no question of parliamentary clearance for cabinet ministers, some of whom had also been elected to the People’s Majlis. So were many government officials at all levels.

The question of transition thus really came into play only after the 2008 multi-party polls. The euphoria of multi-party polls took care of some of it. The proximity of the second-round poll date in late October and the swearing-in on 11 November took care of most of it. Despite avoidable speculation and motivated rumours to the contrary, outgoing President Gayoom, who lost the polls, and the incoming successor in MDP’s Nasheed were determined to make a ‘smooth transition’. They did the transition work smoothly.

There is nothing to suggest that the post-poll transition this time would be anything but smooth. The question will not arise if Maldivians chose to re-elect the incumbent. That is a different matter. Otherwise, the relatively long gap between the polls and the inauguration could make the incumbent a ‘lame-duck’. This could be more so if adversarial tendencies identified with the entire political and poll process in the country over the past five years and more come to play even more vigorously after the elections.

‘Revolving door’

In the US, from where the executive presidency model for Maldives and the phrase ‘lame-duck’ may have been borrowed, the interregnum is used for ensuring smooth transition. With nearly 4000 political positions in government falling vacant, such a time-gap has helped an incoming President and his team to discuss and decide on successors for each one of them. It also gives the newly-appointed ones enough time to acclimatise themselves to the new jobs. It has been quite beneficial, particularly for academics using the ‘revolving door’ between the government and universities, to make the personal transition smooth.

Whenever the incumbent is re-elected, American Presidents have often used the interregnum to set the agenda for the bow-out term, based on their election manifesto and the party’s expectations four years hence.Should the incumbent not contest re-election or be defeated, only then does he become ‘lame-duck’ for the remaining period of his term, until the inauguration of his successor.

In their first terms, Presidents in the US are often seen to favour personal loyalists, old townsfolk, university friends, erstwhile professional colleagues and fund-raisers’ nominees for advisory roles – if they do not fit in for any cabinet berth. They use the interregnum after re-election to give a new shape to their administration, based on their higher levels of confidence, experience and exposure.

In case of re-election President Waheed could be expected to use the interregnum to work out sustainable policies and program, and also choose his team to deliver on them in his second term. His successor, whoever else is elected, could be expected to do so at his level. It is the interactions between the two teams during the interregnum of lame-duck presidency would matter the most. The US, over the past decades and centuries, has evolved a scheme of the incumbent and the elected naming their ‘succession teams’ to ensure a smooth transition. Maldives could set a precedent for itself this time round.

Creating precedent(s)

It is for the first time the Maldives would be coping with an interregnum of this kind. Experience is non-existent, expectations are high, and apprehensions even more. President Waheed’s elevation at the head of a post-poll coalition, yet without fresh elections, was a hurried affair. There was no interregnum, so to speak, though some of the coalition partners took their time choosing their nominees for his cabinet.

President Waheed’s quick-fire succession, if it could be called so, may have also set a precedent that was not relevant to Maldives under the earlier schemes. Democracy comes with its compelling baggage, and has a way of finding satisfactory solutions to the problems that dissatisfaction – and, not disaffection – throws up from time to time. New situations may thus demand new look at the existing scheme, and throw up new solutions. A new-generation leadership should be prepared to accept it and acknowledge it.

The past five years should have taught Maldives and Maldivians that multi-party democracy is a ‘dynamic process’ and that the nation would have to be prepared for surprises at every turn of its democratic career from now on. In the early days of such initiation, the dynamic surprises may have proved to be dynamite-shocks to some, the larger community included. In a unique situation thus, President Waheed, whether re-elected or not, would be facing interregnum of two kinds – one, between the presidential poll and the inauguration, and the second between now and the parliamentary polls.

It is unclear how the existing parliament would be disposed towards a new President, if the incumbent is not re-elected, until the parliamentary polls in May next. Only then would have some clarity appeared on the political equations between the two institutions under the constitution. It is another matter if the new President would have a parliament of his liking, or if he would be able to work on a broad-based consensus, where a broad-based coalition is not possible.

Over the past one-and-half year, the MDP ‘opposition’ in parliament – otherwise the ‘majority party’ in terms of numbers in the 77-member house – has tried in vain to have President Waheed voted out. It could not muster the two-thirds majority, and did not press the resolutions after a point, on two occasions. The post-poll situation under the constitution has not provided a solution if such attempts were to be made in and by parliament against a ‘lame-duck’ President. Nor does it say, if his Vice-President would still (have to) succeed him, if he were to resign alone or be voted out during the interregnum.

Likewise, the constitution-makers did not think of contingencies like the one in which the outgoing President resigns with his entire cabinet, including the Vice-President, after the election of his successor, but before the traditional day for the swearing-in. The constitution now provides for the Speaker of the Majlis to take over as President for two months, with the sole purpose of conducting fresh elections to the presidency. The constitution is also silent on the Speaker’s role, if any, where the incumbent resigns, and so does his Vice-President, after a successor has been elected and an election, notified!

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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3 thoughts on “Comment: Making the Maldives’ post-poll transition smooth”

  1. The military, police, political wing of the PPM, the JP and Adhaalath Party have corroborated the fact that they are ready to exact violence to prevent the election.

    Don't fool yourself, peacenik. There will be no smooth transition. Whatever PPM's viceroy Waheed chooses to do (hold elections or declare martial law), hundreds, perhaps thousands will die.

    That is the cruel nature of war.


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