Minivan News brings you the first in a three-part interview with Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed. A founding member of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) and later, the New Maldives, a faction within the party which aimed to make the Maldives a liberal democracy, Shaheed has served under two successive administrations. In the 2008 presidential elections, he was independent candidate Dr Hassan Saeedâ€™s running mate. In January, the pair formed the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), which is part of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) led coalition government.
Can you tell me a bit about your party, the DQP?
Our main goal was to usher in democracy to the Maldives and that still remains our main goal; to support the government, to support President Nasheed in ensuring that his government succeeds and to build and sustain democracy here.
But we were formed after the election period and we were born almost on the threshold of the next election so we donâ€™t get caught in the cross-fire between the DRP and the MDP. We are a bit concerned about the resurgence of the DRP.
What kind of resurgence?
Four months back, we thought that there would be a parliamentary majority for the MDP in the elections but now it looks like that might not be the case and DRP is poised to take a fairly big chunk.
Do you think they will get a majority?
I hope not.
What would be the danger if they did?
Well DRPâ€™s undemocratic. DRP doesnâ€™t believe in democracy.
But you worked in the former government?
I was a founder member of DRP. I wrote the initial manifesto, which was torn up by some of my political rivals. So yes we were trying to build within DRP a pro-democratic coalition or force, the New Maldives, but the New Maldives had to leave the DRP and rump DRP doesnâ€™t believe in democracy.
They must be held to account for their legacy of 30 years of misrule, they must be held to account for failing to democratise in time.
But you were in the government so doesnâ€™t that include you?
Yes accountability doesnâ€™t exclude anybody. I mean it. But Iâ€™m not saying everyone should be dragged to the courts and into prison. Iâ€™m talking about the rule of law here. We have to know what happened. The danger here is democracy is still a very new idea in this country.
For 30 years we have been brainwashed into Salafist thinking. And people donâ€™t necessarily understand what various democratic doctrines mean. The separation of powers and rule of law are things not necessarily understood, even appreciated. Iâ€™m still not convinced by and large people will prefer democracy over autocracy if economic failure becomes part of democracy.
People still want a better life, but not necessarily a better way of getting to a better life. You choose democracy regardless of the government it produces but I donâ€™t think weâ€™ve got there yet. Weâ€™ve chosen democracy as a means to better governance. Not necessarily as an end in itself. So in that situation, the danger is, if an old guard comes back, they come back with the message that democracy has failed.
The J-Curve by Ian Bremmer speaks of countries which are autocratic and undemocratic and when they democratise, they go through a J-Curve and you go through a little dip. That dip is when things are unstable and things are a bit chaotic but then you eventually improve to become more stable.
So we are in an unstable period. The danger is in some countries, they move back towards the left and go straight back to autocracy. So if DRP comes back in weâ€™ll go back towards the left of the curve. And we can forget about democracy for the next 30 years because they will tell us that democracy produced a government that didnâ€™t work.
So my concern is regardless of who wins seats in parliament we must ensure that the people who get there respect democracy, respect the constitution, respect the rule of law, respect the people. Weâ€™ve heard signals, echoes, voices from the DRP rubbishing democracy.
They donâ€™t dare make a big noise about it, but occasionally you hear these voices. When I was working with them, human rights were an expediency for them. It wasnâ€™t an end in itself. It was a means to win accolades.
And left to their own devices, given a majority, they will want to retrench some of the democratic agenda, some of the human rights agenda as well. Itâ€™s like putting the Bolsheviks back into the Kremlin. No matter how bad it was post-Gorbachev, you wouldnâ€™t put the Bolsheviks back in.
What are your thoughts on the current president?
First of all, I wish the president hadnâ€™t said that [nulafaa â€“ ruthless]. It wasnâ€™t the most responsible thing to have said. But be that as it may, one reason everybody is so upset about that remark is not so much to do with Anni [President Mohamed Nasheed], itâ€™s to do with the past president.
For 30 years we had government impunity, for 30 years, we had MPs locked up and opposition MPs have seen how nasty the government gets to the opponents so the problem for many of us is that President Nasheedâ€™s comments echo those bad experiences. So the reason why it hit such a raw nerve is that for 30 years people have been locked up and had a very very torrid and tough time.
So that statement is insensitive to those experiences. I donâ€™t think anybody today believes that with the separation of powers, with a hawkish press, that any president can act with impunity. Well the comments did seem rather Machiavellian to me but I find Nasheedâ€™s bark is worse than his bite.
The first term of Gayoom when he wanted to be re-elected as president, he had to lock up several MPs and judges. And thatâ€™s how he won his re-election. And throughout his tenure, regularly MPs were locked up for dissent.
The thing about these comments the president made, his office could have responded better on this one. His office could have come up with a much clearer explanation of what he was saying and what he meant by that. I mean thereâ€™s a world of difference between a tyrant saying youâ€™ll see how bad I can get to a democrat saying youâ€™ll see how tough I could get.
It was the president talking tough trying to get people to vote for his party. Iâ€™m not defending him, Iâ€™m saying his office could have done a better job defending his remarks because he was speaking very candidly but not necessarily in a menacing manner. The audience reaction was a laugh. So it was a joke gone bad.
How much of what Gayoom was doing was known to the public at the time? Were people ignorant about what was going on or were they just too scared to speak out?
I think they were too scared to speak out. People didnâ€™t have the means of expressing dissent.
Did people on the islands outside of Maleâ€™ know? How much information reached them?
With Gayoom, there was good and there was bad. There was Islamic and there was un-Islamic. And he painted things in a very black and white manner, so if you were in prison, you were a drug addict, an alcoholic and all that. It was never political. They were criminals, not political opponents.
In that sense, the picture people were told was that they had committed crimes. There was no alternative view and information wasnâ€™t there. It still isnâ€™t there. Weâ€™re still in a very fragile situation. Iâ€™m not happy with where we are. Weâ€™re in danger of sliding back either into a Gayoom-style autocracy by Gayoom himself or perhaps by some other person. Weâ€™re not out of the woods yet. That will happen when parliament is more accountable.