President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan was interviewed last week by Steven Sackur for the BBC’s flagship news programme ‘HARDtalk’. Former President Mohamed Nasheed spoke with the uncompromising Sackur one month ago and the current president’s appearance on the show was no less hard-hitting.
When introducing the president, Mr Sackur contrasted the idyllic “heaven” of the Maldives’ image in the tourism industry, with the “political hell” of “street protests, sporadic violence and parliamentary chaos.”
In Sackur’s first question to Waheed, he referred to a recent press release during Waheed’s tour of Shaviyani Atoll. Waheed was asked how he could describe the country as having changed for the better?
Waheed explained that the last three years had seen an erosion of the constitution’s values and the rule of law in the country and that he felt he had an opportunity to put democracy “back on track.”
Sackur went on to contrast this response with a statement Waheed had, as the former vice-president, given to the United Nations General Assembly last September. In the statement, Waheed said “Maldivians enjoy more freedoms today than at any other point in their history”, describing the Maldives as a “harbinger of the Arab awakening”.
At this point, Waheed drew upon the example of the military detention of Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed, positing this as a breach of the people’s basic rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom from fear.
This answer prompted Sackur to ask whether this incident was sufficient to justify a coup. Waheed denied that there had been a coup.
After asking Mr Waheed to comment on the opinions of his brother, former Deputy High Commissioner to the UK, Naushad Waheed, that the current government was illegitimate, he responded that his brother’s loyalty to Nasheed was understandable, having been appointed to a senior diplomatic post by the former President.
The intensity of the interview climaxed as Sackur pressed Waheed to commit to the early elections that have been called for by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Commonwealth.
Waheed steadfastly maintained that as the President, he was constitutionally able to move elections forward only 120 days. Whilst theoretically in support of early poll, his continued deferral to the People’s Majlis appeared to wear thin with Sackur.
Waheed: “[Nasheed] can have elections this year if the parliament approves an amendment to the constitution…I am all for it and I have already said that I will encourage and work with all political parties…”
Sackur interrupted, “So when? When would you like to see the election?”
“As early as the Parliament wants” responded Waheed hesitantly before again being cut off by his interviewer.
“Yes but when? Show some leadership here. You have taken the job, you are the President, tell me when these elections could take place – the earliest moment,” prodded Sackur.
“We have several political parties here. This is not a dictatorship” responded Waheed.
After this exchange, Sackur was able to gain Waheed’s assurance that the arrangement for early elections ought to be the first order of business for resolving political deadlock in the country.
This commitment itself was significant as a major stumbling block in the all-party talks has been the failure to agree on an order of precedence for the seven-point agenda, of which early presidential elections is just one point.
This impasse resulted in the opening of Parliament on March 1 being blocked by the MDP who are poised to do the same with tomorrow’s rescheduled opening.
The next line of questioning concerned the controversial make-up of Waheed’s government, which has come under scrutiny due to a number of representatives who also worked under the authoritarian President Maumoon Gayoom.
After Waheed had highlighted the MDP’s refusal to trust his administration, Sackur commented: “Maybe by throwing your lot in with Gayoom’s people he doesn’t feel you’re deserving of his trust. Let’s remember, Gayoom is the man who made him a prisoner of conscience, who in effect forced you into exile for years.”
“Gayoom and his people are not committed to democracy,” continued Sackur, “Why are you working with them?”
Waheed defended his appointments, arguing that there are seven political parties involved in his cabinet and that only three of the fourteen are from Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM). He also added that some of Nasheed’s closest allies had worked in Gayoom’s cabinet.
“This country is a small country” said Waheed, “Gayoom was ruling this country for thirty years. Most of the people who have got education here went through higher education during his time. Government was the biggest employer so almost everybody had some role in this government.”
After being asked about the brutal suppression of demonstrators the day after Nasheed’s resignation, Waheed argued that those protesting Nasheed’s government at the start of the year were dispersed similarly and “nobody made a big deal of it”.
He did concede that the police force was in need of better training in order to build people’s confidence in its capability.
At this point, Sackur summarised his argument by asking the President if he had ever wondered in his “darker moments” if he had “engaged in a Faustian pact?”
The journalist continued to suggest that this ‘deal with the devil’ may mean things in the Maldives will get worse before they get better.
Waheed responded, “We have a situation here where it’s Nasheed’s way or no way. All the political parties are working with me, they represent a majority of the people in this country…The only disturbances that are caused here are caused by Mr Nasheed’s supporters.”
To conclude, Sackur asked how long this “Very difficult phase in the Maldives current politics was going to last?”
“I hope not too long” replied Waheed, “Even today I met with the parliamentary leader of Nasheed’s party and I have assured him that I would support any decision of the parliament to hold early elections”
“I have assured him that we will have elections, even if the parliament can’t agree, we will have elections as early as possible under the current constitution.”
The leader of the MDP’s Parliamentary group, Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ibu’ Solih, emerged from the aforementioned meeting reporting his disappointment that no progress had been made.
Waheed was allowed the final word: “We have come to this point because we have not respected the constitution and we have not respected the rule of law. The last thing I want to do is circumvent the constitution.”