Comment: Balancing political myth and poll realities

Barring the symbolic pay-cuts for junior ministers at its inception, an 80-plus team for a 77-member parliament appears to fly in the face of President Abdulla Yameen’s promise of a lean and efficient government.

It also adds fuel to the off-again/on-again debate on the existing presidential form of government as, under the Westminster parliamentary scheme, there cannot be more ministers than MPs, which there are now. The situation is not going to change, even with the addition of eight more MPs at the end of the 22 March parliamentary polls.

Yet, the numbers also speak for the reality of ‘coalition politics’ that the Maldivian psyche has come to acknowledge – and, in a way, accept. Whether or not it will find continued acceptance will be influenced by the conduct of the coalescing partners. Independent of the players involved, for the concept to succeed, the present-day players have the arduous task of ensuring that theirs is ‘collective governance’ and not ‘collective non-governance’ under mutual threat and political blackmail.

The concept of ‘coalition politics’ was overlooked at the inception of multi-party democracy in 2008. Whatever the defence, former President Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) paid a heavy price for wantonly overlooking this reality. Five years later, ‘coalition politics’ is becoming institutionalised, going beyond the half-hearted ministry-making of 2008, now extending to seat-sharing for the local council polls (17 January) before the upcoming parliamentary elections.

This is how coalitions begin, but it is not how they should work. It is inevitable under the circumstances, however, considering that the monolith MDP opposition is threatening to ‘impeach’ President Yameen if they get closer to a two-thirds majority in the post-election parliament. The price that the incumbent may have to pay has the potential to make a mockery of the ‘coalition’ concept as a whole. Yet, such threats could irritate voters.

It is here that the Maldives and Maldivians will have to search for answers to some of the questions on the ‘coalition compulsions’ of Third World democracy. At the other end of the spectrum was the possibility of ‘anarchy’ as one such answer. The Maldives has already had a taste of it while under the scheme of multi-party democracy.

Thankfully, the nation rejected it even as it was cooking. Circumstances leading up to religious NGOs’ hijacking of what was essentially a political process at the height of the post-SAARC social turmoil was where it started – but more and new could follow at intermittent intervals if the polity and society are not vigilant.

In a democracy, it is not the job of the opposition to keep the government together and/or efficient. The shoe, for all concerned, is on the other foot. Either they can all learn the lessons that the nation’s short stint with democracy has taught them. Or, they can continue with their waywardness and the accompanying blame game. They will end up blaming the nation in the end, for what they would then say was the ‘wrong choice’. Given the consolidation of democracy in the country over the past five years, it would not be among the casualties. Or, that is the hope.

Either way, the Maldives and Maldivian polity have enough to learn from Third World democracies like India, not because it is the largest neighbour but more because it is also the world’s largest democracy – and a ‘coalition democracy’ at that. Going beyond national politics, which too is in its infancy, India has enough lessons for itself and the rest on how governmental coalitions should be run, as in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There are also examples of either in other South Asian nations like Sri Lanka and Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Maldives and Maldivians need not insist on re-inventing the wheel.

‘Two-party system’ that was not

After having shown the door to coalition partners from the presidential polls of 2008, the ruling MDP said at the end of parliamentary polls only months later that Maldivians had settled for a two-party system of sorts. It flowed from the relatively high number of seats that the pre-split Opposition Dhivehi Raayathunge Party of predecessor President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had won, followed by the MDP.

Subsequent events and developments, including the controversial power-transfer of February 7 2012 proved otherwise. In a way, the 2013 election consolidated political ‘gains’ in favour of ‘coalition politics’ – with distinctive political and non-political ‘social’ groups coming together on a single-point, anti-Nasheed agenda.

Prior to the evolution of the ‘December 23 Movement’ in 2012, the Gayoom leadership had taken pride in having promoted the Maldives as a ‘moderate Islamic State’, and having opened up island-resorts to improve the nation’s economy during his decades-long presidency. Under the new banner of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), they found strange bedfellows in religion-centric parties and NGOs that campaigned on the platform of ‘Islam’ platform to have President Nasheed ousted.

What is interesting in the reverse just now is that the 2013 presidential polls were not fought exactly on religious lines. The MDP may well complain about the presence of the Islam-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) in the fold of the opposing coalition. The party had sought and obtained the AP’s support in the second-round of presidential polls in 2008. It had accommodated the AP in the Nasheed government at all levels even when the party did not win a single seat in the subsequent parliamentary polls of 2009.

Though too early to say, the Yameen administration has successfully marginalised religious NGOs from any active-say in the day-to-day affairs of the government. They did not have any big role in Elections-2013. Whatever the end-game, the Jumhooree Party partner in the PPM coalition has thus far displayed calculated reluctance in accommodating the AP in seat-sharing for the parliamentary polls. The AP has since announced its decision to go it alone for the parliamentary polls.

‘Malé dynasties’ and beyond

Whatever the results of the parliamentary polls in March, and whatever the political consequences, the nation’s polity should be prepared for the day when emerging social changes are reflected in electoral politics. Independent of political and economic differences (purportedly based on ideology but personality-driven, mostly), Maldivian politics is driven by the ‘Malé dynasties’. The tendency for the nation to move away from Malé-centric, urban middle class politics was visible during the presidential election, and in more ways than one.

On the one hand, former President Nasheed’s MDP vote-share in the 2013 polls was no more urban-centric than in 2008. He did establish considerable leads in the islands as well. At the same time, Nasheed also lost some percentage points against expectations in the urban centres in what turned out to be a three-phase poll.

What cannot be similarly overlooked was Gasim Ibrahim improving upon his 2008 first-round tally of a 15-plus percent vote-share to 23 percent five years hence. In the final analysis, it was seen that Gasim, an ‘outsider’ to the ‘Male dynasty’ politics in ways, could transfer his vote-share in favour of PPM’s Yameen in the decisive second-round, almost in its entirety. It is doubtful if President Nasheed, who is acknowledged as the most charismatic leader in the country and the MDP, the single most popular party, could similalry transfer his votes to any other candidate of his choice.

Yet Yameen and the JP have other things to prove to themselves and the rest. In the 2009 parliamentary polls, for instance, Gasim could not ‘transfer’ his vote-share to party colleagues. He was the lone JP candidate to bag a seat in the People’s Majlis. His ‘transferability’ is again under test in the approaching March polls, where the JP has nine seats to contest in the PPM coalition.

It is acknowledged that the Nasheed votes this time owed also to the ‘Gayoom factor’ that the MDP could successfully propagate, just as the divided opposition of the time could do in 2008. Then, as now, the election in a way was won in the second round, on a ‘coalition plank’ against a single candidate – former President Gayoom then, and former President Nasheed now. Crudely argued, it could mean that both faced the same predicament of not being acceptable to the majority of Maldivian voters, however contrived it be, through coalition means.

Urban voters in the country comprise a substantial number of islanders. Shorn of their current identification with the ‘urban elite’, the ‘islanders’ are the deciding factor in national elections. The ‘Gasim factor’, of a rags-to-riches ‘outsider’ making it big in business and politics, has the potential to provide the trigger for the medium-term change-over. For historic reasons, it is then bound to find further electoral expression between the ‘South’ and the ‘North’, with urban Male holding the middle and decisive ground in its time.

Between now and five years ago, the new-generation voter will have moved further away from the ‘Gayoom era’, which alone continues to be the mainstay of the MDP’s political agenda and election propaganda. It was visible in the presidential polls last year, when fewer of the first-time urban voters than expected were believed to have voted for the MDP, upset as they were by the street-violence and months-long demonstration that followed the 7 February power-transfer.

With parliamentary elections now due in March, political parties and their leadership will wait until then for stock-taking about their past behavior and plans for the future. They would face different and differentiated issues and problems – from the PPM’s problem of changing with continuity, to the MDP’s need for continuity with change, and the JP’s compulsion for not changing yet continuing.

The answer for each one of them, and others outside of the list, lies as much with the rest as with themselves. Coalitions come in all forms, it is for the polity to decipher the intent and content of the society and act accordingly. At the advent of multi-party democracy in the Maldives, it took the natural, political course of coalition politics. It has been thus across the world in post-colonial democracies. But over the past decades of post-colonial survival as democracies, most if not all those nations have adapted western democracy to their ways and waywardness.

The Maldives is still in the process of discovering/re-discovering the local idiom for democratic change. It will take time, but it is inevitable under the circumstances. Modern education, moderate Islam, et al, are only one phase of the process – it is not the complete face, either. It is the preparedness of the nation and its evolving polity to identify those changes and acknowledge them in their framework that will make the difference, both to their own political future and to the future of democracy in the country.