As two legislators from the US state of Oregon, we are usually focused on the politics of our coastal state of 3.5 million people. But thanks to an initiative sponsored by the Maldivian Democracy Network and the US Embassy, we found ourselves this month half a world from home, meeting with close to 20 members of the Maldivian Parliament, the President and Vice President, NGOs, and members of independent commissions.
The visit was an opportunity for us to learn about the political process in the Maldives and to share some of our own experiences with democracy in the US.
Throughout our visit, we were impressed and heartened by the level of commitment we heard Maldivians express to making their young democracy work. We heard plenty about conflict, sometimes bitter, between the MDP and DRP, between the President and the Parliament, but over and over again we heard politicians and commissioners express a profound commitment to keeping the Maldives on a democratic path.
Three additional points stood out:
First, we were struck by inconsistencies between the system of government the Maldives has adopted and the language used to describe it. The new Maldivian constitution established a Presidential system of government where, like the US, power is divided between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In this context, it strikes us as odd that the President and his cabinet is known as “the Government,” that his party is said to “rule,” and that the majority coalition in Parliament is commonly referred to as the “opposition.” In a system where government’s power is separated and balanced between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each branch governs. Thus, Presidents (including our own) must recognise their responsibility to work with parliamentary majorities, even when that majority is held by a party different than his own. Likewise, parliamentary majorities must step up to their responsibility to work with the President to lead the country, not merely oppose him in an effort to win the next campaign.
Second, we were struck by the universality of many aspects of democratic politics. In multi-party democracies on both sides of the world, politics can be petty. Parties clash. Legislators don’t always act like adults. The process of change is messy and slow. Practically every complaint we heard about Maldivian politics was one that we commonly hear about our own as well. One advantage for us is that 230 years of experience has shown Americans that for all its faults, democracy generally works pretty well – when given enough time. Today’s defeats may be tomorrow’s victories. Politicians come and go. Thanks to an independent judiciary, our Constitution has been preserved. We hope that the Maldivian people will temper their short-term frustrations, however justified, with patience for the long-term peace and prosperity that democracy helps promote.
Finally, we were impressed by the rapid expansion of civil society in the Maldives and we hope that this sector will continue to grow. For democracy to flourish, it is vital that society maintain a robust and independent media, aggressive non-governmental organizations, and an education system that includes instruction in civics. We were particularly impressed by organizations like the Maldivian Democracy Network and Democracy House, whose Youth Parliament program is helping train the next generation of leaders. As civil society develops, we are especially keen for it to help strengthen the independence of the judiciary, demand additional government transparency, and to hold legislators accountable for what they accomplish – and what they don’t.
As a young democracy, there is a great deal at stake in the Maldives. Like so many others around the world, we are anxious to see you succeed. We hope that our visit serves as a springboard for deeper ties between our state and your nation.
Jackie Dingfelder is a State Senator; Ben Cannon is a State Representative. Both are from the state of Oregon in the United States.
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