First, it was the symbolic cut in salaries for junior ministers. Then it was the move to replace monthly salaries for local council members across the country with sitting-fees – pending parliamentary approval. The more recent one is the shutting down of the Maldivian Embassy in Dhaka as part of the substantial 40 percent slash in the Foreign Ministry’s budget.
President Abdulla Yameen has proved that he means business when it comes to economising on government expenditure. As a former Finance Minister, he made no bones about pledging to cut down on government-spending in a big way during the closely-fought presidential elections last year. None can thus complain that they were not forewarned.
Whether the nation is on the right economic path will take time to evaluate. For now, for a variety of reasons, including government initiatives of every kind, the US dollar – the nation’s fiscal life-line – has become relatively cheaper. This could encourage the Yameen leadership to attempt more important and equally genuine reform measures on the economic front.
Before the Yameen leadership, the short-lived Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government had taken bold moves to initiate across-the-board ‘economic reforms’, as had never before been attempted. Going by successive voter-behaviour since, the huge slash in government employee strength and salaries was not as unpopular as had been thought.
Despite programme-based differences, the MDP and President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) have shared an overall common approach to economic reforms. When conceding the election last year, Nasheed promised his cooperation to President Yameen for all policies and programmes that are in the greater interest of the nation.
The MDP has not since criticised, nor even commented upon, the fiscal measures of the new government. It is thus for President Yameen to take the MDP on Nasheed’s word and to initiate a ‘policy consensus’ to the nation’s problems – starting with those on the economic front. He too has begun well by reiterating that his government’s programmes would be meant for all Maldivians without party-bias.
If the economy is one area where there seems to be an overall consensus of some kind, political populism still seems to be having an occasional say. The fragile economy is unable to withstand the pressures that are alien to larger and stronger economies for which the IMF model had been built, for Third World nations to follow without adapting to local demands.
Worse still may be the case of the democratisation process in the country, which was a straight import of a template, text-book model. None at the time considered the wisdom of such mindless aping of the West because that was what was better known. That was also the only scheme acceptable to those demanding multi-party democracy of the western model, wholesale.
Maldives and Maldivians had the option of choosing between two broad western models, namely the presidential scheme and the Westminster parliamentary form of government. The nation chose the former, but with institutions and priorities that were originally adapted with the parliamentary model in mind. This has produced a jinxed system, which has to be exorcised of some misunderstood and at times misinterpreted elements from the immediate democratic past if democracy has to take roots.
While the current Maldivian system provides for dynamism, it’s only a part, a tool. Democracy is more than the sum of its parts. For them to juxtapose well, they need to be crafted in ways they were intended to serve the greater cause of democracy and nation – and not necessarily in that order. Rather, that order, the nation itself has to prioritise, and in ways that they all dovetail well into one single piece called ‘democratic experience’, as different from democratic-importation.
Having lived an isolated life owing to geography and topography, not only Maldives as a nation but also Maldivians as islands, that too under a one-man system, either as a Sultanate or as a relative democracy in the twentieth century, the nation and the people need to give themselves time to assimilate democratic values from elsewhere and tone them ways that becomes acceptable and adaptable under Maldivian circumstances.
That way, the upcoming five years are crucial to Maldives as a nation in terms of democratic experience than maybe even the first five – which was full of experiences, mostly of the wrong and/or misunderstood kind. The nation needs to re-open itself to democratic discourse and debate without such dissertations and dissections getting in the way of normal life and livelihood of the people, and politics and public administration by the Government, political parties and leaderships.
The Maldives has to open a new page in democracy, and the initiative for the same rests mainly – though not solely – with President Yameen and his ruling coalition. He cannot keep the rest out of it for reasons already explained. They cannot escape ‘accountability’ either, as the less-emotional parliamentary polls and their results have shown, since.