Commonwealth reiterates call for 2012 elections; government says July 2013

The Commonwealth has reiterated its call for early presidential elections in the Maldives before 2013, but said it will only consider “stronger measures” against the Maldives government should the administration fail to establish a “credible” independent Commission of National Inquiry (CNI).

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan last week responded that “early” elections would be held in July 2013, the earliest possible date allowed under the constitution, and pledged to continue working with the Commonwealth nonetheless.

Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has warned it would take “stronger measures” against the Maldives government – which could potentially include suspension from the body – should the CNI’s composition and mandate not be amended within four weeks. CMAG also stressed that it saw ongoing talks between “senior” political representatives and early elections as the best way forward to maintain the country’s democratic transition.

The CNI was itself formed by Dr Waheed to independently verify the legitimacy of February’s transfer of power and the legality of his tenure as president, both of which are contested by the ousted Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The MDP contends that the CNI is stacked with supporters of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the country’s autocratic leader of 30 years who was displaced by Nasheed.

In a statement yesterday, the President’s Office claimed that the coalition parties making up Dr Waheed’s “national unity government” were all in support of elections being held in July 2013.

“The CMAG’s primary mandate is to defend the Constitutions of the Commonwealth member states, and the Maldivian Constitution is very clear on when Presidential elections can be held.  The government is confident that once the CMAG is fully aware of this, they will come out in support of July 2013 elections,” the statement read, also criticising the now opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for demanding early polls.

“The MDP’s advocacy for elections earlier than July 2013 merely serves to highlight the persistent constitutional violations of the previous administration.”

The now opposition MDP, which maintains that Waheed was brought to power in a “coup d’etat”, has contended that elections could be held within several months should Waheed resign and hand his powers to Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla Shahid.

Under the constitution should Waheed resign, the Speaker would run an interim government for  maximum of 60 days followed by a presidential polls. Earlier, Waheed’s government disputed the “conditions” for an early election, on the basis of high political tensions, economic viability, capacity of the elections commission, and weak state of the judiciary.

The United States has since pledged US$500,000 in technical assistance for elections, to be made available from July 2012.

Several parliamentary by-elections were also held last weekend, in which candidates from pro-government parties came to power in the Thimarafushi and Kaashidhoo constituencies.

“Stronger measures”

The exact nature of the “stronger measures” that could be taken against the Maldives remains vague, but could include suspension from the group. Fiji – another island nation – was expelled by the Commonwealth in 2006 following a military coup. The Maldives has meanwhile been suspended from participation on CMAG.

“Each country situation that CMAG has considered in the past has had its own particular characteristics. It would not be fair to compare one situation against the other,” said Commonwealth Secretariat Spokesperson Richard Uku.

“CMAG has always sought to engage constructively with member states, and the Maldives is no exception. We would not like to speculate about what ‘stronger measures’ might be considered by CMAG if warranted, but a range of options is available to CMAG, including suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth.”

Former High Commissioner Dr Farahanaz Faizal, who attended the CMAG meeting, has previously said that the nature of the “stronger measures” proposed against the government could potentially have serious ramifications for the Maldives ongoing membership in the Commonwealth.

Though she was not present herself at the time, Dr Faizal was led to understand that, when questioned about the possible nature of further action against the government, the meeting’s chair suggested that suspension of the Maldives from the Commonwealth would be pursued if concerns over the CNI were not met.

Despite having previously accused the Commonwealth of showing “bias” towards the MDP in calling for early elections, the government has said it remains committed to being a member of the Commonwealth.

“We wish to continue to be members in the organisation, but we only would do so under the regulations of our constitution,” President’s Office spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said earlier this week.

Asked at the time if he was confident the government could satisfy the calls from CMAG relating to the impartiality of the CNI, Abbas again said that it would first be important to clarify what exactly was expected of President Waheed’s administration.

Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, leader of the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), reportedly criticised CMAG’s investigation this week as being “incomplete” and “failing to address the views of the Maldivian people”.

Commonwealth obligations

Secretariat Spokesperson Uku claimed that the organisation’s “experience” had shown no member state wished to be placed in such a situation as to be suspended from the group.

“Commonwealth membership carries political, economic and social benefits for member states and is valued by our member states. It also carries obligations about adhering to certain fundamental political values,” he said.

“Suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth has practical ramifications in terms of a member state being excluded from official Commonwealth meetings at various levels and being barred from receiving new technical assistance in many areas.”

EU backing

Representing 54 nations, the Commonwealth’s stance on the Maldives is a bellweather for the rest of the international community. The European Union told Minivan News this week that it continued to back CMAG and its Special Envoy Sir Donald Mckinnon in pursuing early elections and an independent inquiry.

An EU spokesperson said that considering the Maldives’ recent political upheaval, it was working with the Commonwealth and UN over issues such as judicial reform. The issue of judicial reform was initially raised by former President Mohamed Nasheed, and ultimately led to his detention of Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed, who Nasheed’s government alleged “held the entire criminal justice system in his fist”.

The EU spokesperson claimed that discussions on judicial matters had already been held with the Maldives minister of State for Foreign Affairs, adding that the country had also reportedly asked for Commonwealth assistance.

Former President Nasheed came under international scrutiny for detaining Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed in the run up to his controversial resignation on Febraury 7 – a resignation he subsequently said was made under “duress”.

The former government detained the judge, who stands accused of several charges of misconduct, on suspicion that he was abusing his position and acting as a threat to national security. Nasheed’s government sought to resolve the impasse by appealing for help from the international community.

In a recent interview Nasheed told Time magazine that he believed the international community had been “very late” in providing meaningful assistance in assisting with the crisis.

Responding to the claims, the EU spokesperson said that the organisation had been approached “only a few days” before Feb 7 to provide assistance.

“Events then overtook Nasheed’s request,” the spokesperson said.

Government supporters are now pushing for Nasheed to face criminal charges for the arrest of the judge, which would potentially scuttle his election campaign.