Comment: Taking the political momentum forward

It did not receive as much media attention as the one by predecessor Mohamed Nasheed a fortnight earlier in the host nation, yet when President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik came calling at New Delhi he did make his points, loud and clear in corridors and quarters that mattered.

After a lull, the Indian media did wake up though not to the same extent. However, their Maldivian counterparts gave more and instant coverage for his than for President Nasheed’s visit. An indicator for this was the better media management for President Waheed than his team is credited with in comparison.

Coming as they did in quick succession, the two visits reflected the personalities and politics of the respective leaders, their relative strengths and weaknesses.

President Nasheed’s has been people-centric politics. It has often boiled down to cadre-centric protests. In New Delhi, he made one too many media appearances. His face and his charge of a mutiny that he said had forced him out of power were familiar themes in India. But his charge of collusion by Indian High Commissioner Dnyaneshwar Mulay as kind of a co-conspirator in the alleged coup was not. The issue, and not necessarily his accusations, thus caught the imagination.

There were not many takers, however. The more he repeated his allegations on TV cameras, the more he might have ended up losing. Reportedly, his feeble protestations to the contrary did not cut much ice, afterward.

President Waheed’s was not a storm-trooper’s entry into politics. Not many in the Maldives cared about his position as Vice-President under President Nasheed until he succeeded the latter on February 7. That too owed to the circumstances under which he became President. Under President Nasheed earlier, he seemed unsure about his role in the constitutional scheme. None bothered him with a clarification to his satisfaction. The situation only worsened after he had reportedly declined to resign as Vice-President when the rest of the Cabinet resigned en masse in mid-2010, purportedly over the ‘scorched earth policy’ being adopted by Parliament against the Executive.

As a member of the Nasheed Cabinet, Vice-President Waheed would want specific responsibilities assigned to him. President Nasheed’s camp, on the other hand, would argue that as per the American scheme that the Maldives had adopted in this respect, he was only the President-in-waiting, and eternally so. It was this camp however wanted Vice-President Waheed to quit when the rest of the Cabinet quit en masse, at the instance of President Nasheed in mid-2010. In this however, Vice-President Waheed did not see any shared responsibility, to quit.

Which position between the two ? that he should have been assigned specific ministerial/departmental responsibilities, or he was only the President-in-waiting, scored in the end, is still a debatable question for future arrangements of the kind. Thereby hangs a tale.

It would remain an unanswered query of contemporary Maldivian history if Vice-President Waheed’s resignation in 2010 would have upstaged the 2012 political crisis, or advanced it by as many months. On card in 2010 was the possibility of President Nasheed putting in his papers, handing over the reign to Parliament Speaker Abdullah Shahid. The latter would have been in office for only two months, time enough for ordering and supervising fresh presidential polls under the Constitution. The inability of President Nasheed to carry his deputy with him in 2010 meant that Parliament would not clear all his Cabinet nominees, when appointed, and the Supreme Court would endorse the views of Parliament in the matter, thus fuelling fresh crises, and reviving the existing ones too since his coming to power in November 2008. The rest, as they say, is history.

Questions would remain over what if the Cabinet had not resigned with President Nasheed, when he did on February 7, and decided to continue under President Waheed, instead. This generally would have been the case, barring a few possible replacements, in the ordinary scheme of the circumstances in which the Constitution-makers had construed presidential succession. Clearly, the Constitution-makers, most of whom are still active in politics and also parliamentarians to boot, had definitely not thought about the contingency of the kind that the nation witnessed in February. A solution that was aimed at addressing a constitutional impasse under a different set of circumstances applied to an entirely new set of events and developments. However, the succession itself could not be challenged as illegal or unconstitutional for this reason.

Between the two, and compared to any other politician in the country, President Nasheed is considered media-savvy. Yet, on his overseas trips, his team had failed to take his message to home audiences, concentrating mostly on viewers and opinion-makers in host-nations. In contrast, President Waheed’s office seemed to have established a good understanding of the local constituency of the Government coalition. An extension of this was a better understanding of the local media needs, and feeding them, too, from distant Delhi. It may be too early to assess the relative benefits to the respective camps in the Maldives, but having comparatively lesser media coverage in the host-nation seems to be better than more media, as the two leaders may have found out by now.

Going by media reports, while in India President Waheed told his hosts, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, about his Government’s willingness to modify the terms of reference and expand the composition of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) into the ‘mutiny charge’ held out by President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

With Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai having visited Male twice in three weeks in February-March for the purpose, any progress in the ‘Roadmap Talks’ that President Waheed had put in place would have to await the findings of the CNI, the Indian interlocutors were reportedly told further. Translated, it would mean that the MDP and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) cannot complain about inevitable delays in the CNI coming out with its report, originally scheduled for end-May.

From the beginning, the Waheed Government had linked the MDP’s demand for early presidential polls at the end of the year to the findings of the CNI, which again was on President Nasheed’s agenda since quitting office. His camp had also argued that under the Constitution, presidential polls can happen not prior to July 2013. They are otherwise due by November 2013, when alone President Nasheed’s five-year elected term would have ended. Any advancement of elections prior to July 2013 would require a constitutional amendment, which was not possible under the current political climate.

The Government team is also said to have impressed upon the Indian leadership the inadvisability of President Waheed Manik and his Vice-President Waheed Deen quitting simultaneously, to hand over power to Speaker Shahid. Rather than facilitating early polls, as the MDP would want, it could trigger more problems than solving any. Political instability and consequent troubles for and during early presidential polls could only be one of them,  but the most critical one, too. Or, so was it argued, as the Waheed camp has been telling visiting international interlocutors of whatever hue and purpose.

With the Waheed Government offering to amend the NIC mandate in ways that would satisfy the MDP and the CMAG, and also offering to include mutually-acceptable nominees of President Nasheed on the probe team, a clearer situation could emerge only after the report becames available, hopefully around end-July. Whether the CNI would require more time would be known only after reconstituted probe revisits the work already done. On that would also hinge the Government’s position on the MDP’s demand for presidential polls before year-end. How the MDP would balance its two demands remains to be known. So would be the choice of the party’s nominees on the CNI, the Government not being comfortable with the aggressive politics of some already named but rejected with equal speed.

The CMAG has however clarified that the ‘qualifications’ like past political linkages and other credentials that the Government expects in the MDP nominees should be applicable to all members of the CNI. As is known some members of the CNI, all named by the Government, have been identified with some of the ruling parties, particularly the PPM. Simultaneously, however, there seems to have been some agreement on accepting the All-Party Talks convenor Ahmed Mujthaba as the new chair of the CNI as the incumbent would be away on Haj pilgrimage. The Government has also conceded the CMAG demand for expanding the CNI to give it a non-partisan appeal, by including in it an expert from Singapore.

Doubts however remain in Government circles as to the political outcome of the exercise. On the one hand, the CMAG is seen as reflecting the sentiments andemands of the Nasheed camp. Yet, there is no guarantee that whatever was acceptable to the CMAG as the findings of the CNI would be readily acceptable to the other camp, too. More importantly and immediately, there are doubts about the possibility of the CNI process being derailed owing to internal differences that could be expected at every turn, given the politicised composition of the probe team. How this would reflect in the working of the Roadmap Talks also remain to be seen. However, there are no short-cuts to give the CNI a non-partisan outlook. Whatever charges that the Government parties could level against the MDP, the latter could and would return in a greater measure ? given in particular that the Nasheed leadership is seen as the aggrieved party in the whole episode.

In between, major partners in the Waheed Government are also saddled with internal problems of their own. Among them is former President MaummonGayoom’s second-find in the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), floated after he had split the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) that he had founded under the new Constitution. That came with the introduction of multi-party, multi-candidate presidential polls of 2008. As incumbent, President Gayoom lost it in the second, run-off round, after leading substantially in the first. Today, with his walking away from the DRP to found the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the latter is yet to hold organisational elections, to satisfy the rules under the Election Commission.

It is easier said than done, as there are at least three identifiable groups vying for the top slot. In the present-day context, he who is elected party chief could also aspire to become the PPM’s nominee for presidential polls ? for which separate primaries would however have to be held, under the party’s rules. Indications are that at least one or the other of the groups would stay away from presidential poll campaign if their leader is not named the PPM candidate. This inherent and initial weakening of the PPM’s electoral position can become a problem if the presidential polls move on to the second, run-off round, as is being anticipated.

The alternative could be to find a fourth candidate acceptable to the existing three, including President Gayoom, to varying degrees. President Waheed could fit the bill. If the hunt is for an ‘outside candidate’ acceptable to the PPM factions and supported by other partners in the Waheed Government, the net could widen in good time. If allowed to fester, this by itself could contribute to avoidable speculation, and consequent political instability. Given the inevitable circumstances of coalition politics in the country since the inception of the Third Republican Constitution of 2008, speculation of the nature could cause more problems not only for the present Government but also for a post-poll political leadership in the country.

Today, the MDP too is riven with dissensions. The Nasheed camp, dominating the national council, voted out elected party president Ibrahim Didi and his deputy Alhan Fahmy last fortnight. Didi contested his ouster in the Election Commission, which in its order indicated that it would not intervene in the matter, thus favouring the status quo on the ground. He has since declared his intention to move the Supreme Court. This could have consequences, both for and by the party. Anyway, the party split is complete. Given its long drawn-out open battles with the higher judiciary in the country, the Nasheed camp in particular cannot be expected to accept any court order not favouring its position. Otherwise, it could jeopardise the Nasheed camp’s political progression in the interim if the order were to go against it, and if they are called upon to create a new identity and popularise a new symbol, flag, etc.

A conclusive split in the MDP could mean that either of the factions would have to float a new party and conduct organisational elections in time for contesting the presidential polls. It could be a tall order for a new party. For the Nasheed camp, if it were at the receiving end, it could mean that organisational elections would have to take precedence over the current phase of party primaries, where President Nasheed is still the sole candidate. He is expected to win much more than the mandatory 10 per cent vote in a single-candidate primary, but the process will still have to be gone through.

For now, however, the Election Commission’s ruling may have helped revive the All-Party Roadmap talks, initiated at the instance of the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary RanjanMathai in March. Apart from other hiccups in its working, mostly based on reservations expressed by the MDP at the time, the last meeting on May 5 had to be abandoned after some non-MDP parties cited the party-split as reason enough for delaying the political negotiations until after a clearer picture emerged on that front. The talks are now scheduled for Monday, May 21, but how any order of the Supreme Court, or an interim order, could impact on the course will be known as and when the Didi camp moves the higher judiciary in this respect.

How, or how not to balance the internal exigencies of Government parties like the PPM and the forceful demands of the MDP, where Nasheed’s non-officious leadership has come under a cloud, are other factors that need to be counted in while debating any advancing of the presidential polls. On the one hand, parties would have to push through their organisational commitments under the law in time for the presidential polls, even if held only when it is otherwise due. On the other, they too would have to provide for exigencies, should the CNI finding cause a situation where the advancement of the poll became as much mandatory as politically inevitable.

The current political imbroglio has also triggered a national discourse of sorts on the role of multi-lateral agencies and organisations. The CMAG has been a hate-object for most parties in Government. In New Delhi, President Waheed clarified that he did not share the opinion of some of the Government parties that Maldives should quit the Commonwealth after the CMAG had repeatedly come down heavily on the Waheed Government on CNI-related issues, and the earlier pronouncements relating to the resignation of President Nasheed. However, Government party members who had moved a resolution for Maldives to quit the Commonwealth, remain unmoved. By keeping their resolution alive, whether they have linked it to future pronouncements of the CMAG too remains to be seen.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


3 thoughts on “Comment: Taking the political momentum forward”

  1. The current Elections Commission backed DRP leader Thasmeen's position when his leadership was endorsed despite DRP constitution being submitted several months late. Now Elections Commission has endorsed Nasheed's position over Dr Didi.
    Elections Commission appears to be consistent..

  2. What is the point of this piece? A waste of words. Minivan should not reproduce such poorly written opinion pieces.

  3. How much is this guy being paid b Ambassador Muaaly to write this rubbish?


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