With two years having passed since his controversial removal from power, Mohamed Nasheed – Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) figurehead, and runner-up in November’s presidential election – speaks with Minivan News about past controversies, the present government, and the future of Maldivian democracy.
Daniel Bosley: Looking back, what do you feel are the long-term effects of February 7 – on yourself personally, as a politician, and on the MDP?
Mohamed Nasheed: It’s not so much on what I have personally experienced but I think if you look at what has happened to the country after the forceful transfer. We had in 2008 amended the constitution after a very very long period of single party dictatorial rule. One of the main difficulties in Maldives politics has been transfer of power – the peaceful transfer of power. In the past, transfer of powers have been mostly violent. It’s always surrounded by an aura of illegitimacy, irregular or all kinds of conflict. In some instances, former presidents are murdered, and in others they are banished or send into exile, so the transfer of power has always been an issue for us, and one of the main reasons for the 2008 constitution was to provide for a transfer of power.
If you have a look at the first constitution of the Maldives in 1932, even then the main reason for that constitution was to see who would assume power after the sultan at that time – Shamsuddeen – would it be his son or someone else. So, while transfer of power has been so fundamental – so important – for our stability and for our development, and while the constitution aims at providing a mechanism for that transfer, in 2012 we saw the state being very violently challenged and the transfer being very forcefully done.
What therefore that leads to – especially when the international community legitimised that transfer – it looks like it is normal. Now, come mid-term, any other group of politicians or any other group of people can again attempt to transfer power because apparently this is legal. I think that because that transfer was legitimised, that this is going to crop up in our political life on and on and on again.
DB: As a historian yourself, how do you feel the last two years will be viewed by future generations in terms of the country’s history?
The two years of [Dr Mohamed] Waheed’s coup government and then the interference of the Supreme Court in the election process, and therefore the ability for them to consolidate power through the facade of the ballot box, has of course installed them in power. But I would still argue that this is fairly temporary. I wouldn’t see this as having achieved long-term stability. This is very early in the day and we can now already see the cracks. [President Abdulla] Yameen with 25 percent of consent would find it very difficult to rule – it’s not going to be possible. And the idea that an alliance of Yameen and Gasim and Adhaalath can be maintained is I think a myth, and you’re seeing this now.
We’ve always argued that this doesn’t work. Coalitions work in parliamentary systems where you can actually have ministers coming out from the parliament and therefore it’s possible to come to an arrangement. But when the cabinet is not in the parliament, an alliance doesn’t necessarily work. The shuffling or the portions given to different parties are given from the cabinet, and the cabinet is a very superficial layer on the government. The actual essence is the parliament where you make the laws.
As long as you don’t have a coalition or an understanding in the parliament then this doesn’t work. So when Yameen and Gasim and Adhaalath cannot decide on sharing all the seats they would share, I think they finds themselves in a lot of difficulties
DB: There have been reports that you ordered the withdrawal of police from the artificial beach area on February 6, as well as the removal of the MNDF cordon from Republic Square the next morning. Looking back, would you have handled things differently in the run up to the transfer?
I was getting reports of a coup from General Nilam, who was intelligence chief of the military, and he’d been reporting the coup since the end of the SAARC summit [November 2011]. Soon after the summit he wrote his first dispatch, his first intelligence reports, and he has sent a number of intelligence reports saying that this was brewing.
Now, the perpetrators of the coup, or those who were scheming it – the opposition and the judiciary were with them. We were not able to investigate General Nilam’s findings – or his intelligence reports – because the courts wouldn’t allow us to do that and therefore, although we knew that this was coming up, we found it very difficult to attend to it or suppress it without forceful means, which in the legislative framework it was almost impossible because the judiciary were hijacked by Gayoom-era judges.
Now, did I ask the police to withdraw the cordon at the artificial beach? First, in our government I don’t give detailed orders to the rank and file of the police. Neither do I do that to the military. Withdrawal of the police at that instance from there, if it was the proper thing or not? If the police hadn’t withdrawn at that instant I think – given the intransigence of the police, given that the police were scheming – the chief of police and a fair amount of us knew at the time that there were elements within the police who were in the coup scheme. So, I think that the police or anyone who was instructing the police there would know the risks of having a hostile police force trying to maintain peace between the MDP supporters and the present government supporters.
General Nilam was sending intelligence reports that were fed to the police and everyone else. The police themselves had a number of reports saying that trouble was brewing up and that this had spread into the police and the military. The extent that it had gone into military I didn’t know at that time – I didn’t think it was to that extent – but to the police, we knew it very well. Those who were in charge knew it very well and, while the police were in the scheme, to assume that they would maintain peace between MDP and the opposition – that was difficult to understand and I think they wanted the MNDF there.
DB: So, essentially, it’s diffcult to think of any way you could have handled things differently?
MN: Oh yeah, we could have shot everyone. It’s essentially very simple to suppress a public uprising, it’s fairly simple, but the question is always ‘would you want to do that’. We didn’t think this was a proper thing to do, We didn’t think there should have been a confrontation between the MDP and our opposition and it was very unfortunate that the police behaved so badly. I still believe that these people must be prosecuted, I still believe that [Mohamed] Nazim, the minister of defense, must be prosecuted.
DB: What lessons did you take from the presidential election loss – about yourself, about your party, about your country?
MN: We’d come from a very small idea – to become the leading political party in this country. When you ask me that question – let’s say this country had a very long history of democratic politics, and let’s say that those who had done the work to democratise the country had passed away and those who were facing the election at this instant didn’t have a knowledge of what happened before. Now because our changes were so recent, and it has been so substantial, it’s simply amazing how 105,000 people of this country decided that they want to change.
I would argue that the ancien regime – the Gayoom regime – lost it. With all the institutions, with everything, the vast majority of the people of this country wanted an MDP government, which would have been a more open government, which would have been more international, which would have been more tolerant, which would have departed from our normal things – far away from what any other presidential candidate would have done.
To have got that mandate – to depart from so feudal a system, I think is just very very amazing and I’m very happy about it. I think we’ve installed the MDP as a political force, as a political party that is here to stay. Gayoom’s PPM [Progressive Party of Maldives] changes – from DRP [Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party] to PPM – but here I think we have been able to maintain.
DB: The religious lobby has been another constant over the past two years’ events, and the slogans used by the now-ruling coalition played a prominent role in the election. How do you see these groups affecting Maldivian politics in the long term?
MN: Again, after all that rhetoric, 105,000 Maldivians simply decided it was rhetoric and there was nothing to it. They were loud but the fact is that they keep losing – Adhaalath party as an idea keeps losing. I think people understand their fabrications.
DB: Looking at the recent MDP primary elections, the leadership has been accused of manipulating certain primary elections to secure seats for more established members. How effect do you feel this affects the reputation of the party and the enthusiasm of its members?
MN: Elections have losers and winners, and very often losers find that they must get time to digest the defeat and therefore there’s always a tendency to blame the process. I think, given the circumstances and the facilities available to political parties such as the MDP, we did very well. We have an elections committee, which functions independently. We have a disciplinary committee and we also have an appeals committee within the party. I’ve seen these three organs functioning very well, and I think the elections were very transparent and there is nothing wrong with that – I’m very very sure of that.
We can’t do that – it’s just not possible. I can’t even tell [close associates] to do it, and then these elections are conducted by hundreds of volunteers. How in God’s name can I ring some fellow down in Maakurath and ask him to fix the ballot? It’s just not possible. It’s too decentralised and it’s too widespread for anyone to fix.
There was an issue for some candidates, with PPM members and Jumhooree Party members and Adhaalath members – previous members – being on our voter lists. Now, the party decided that anyone who joined the party before December 19 would be eligible to vote. Then, if candidates decide to bring in former members from PPM and so on, we increased our party by 16,000 people. Even if they are from other parties – we’ve found that 5000 of them are from other parties. Our experience is that more than 70 percent of them remain even if their candidate loses.
DB: Regarding relations with the new government, you have talked about the MDP acting as a responsible opposition, but also of working to impeach President Yameen. Do you consider this to be a legitimate government with which the MDP intends to cooperate?
MN: The MDP shouldn’t co-operate with any government, the MDP should only co-operate with an MDP government because we are a political party and our position is to contest the opposition – make it accountable. Making it accountable basically really means using the legal processes available to deal with the government. I think President Yameen would very much expect us to make the full use of whatever facilities and mediums are legally available for us. I am sure President Yameen wouldn’t have any other idea – it would be strange if he had any other ideas. [That] we would for instance support their cabinet, we would for instance support their policies – no, we wouldn’t do that. What we would do is we would not do anything illegal.
DB: What are your initial thoughts on the first 100 days of the Yameen presidency and his proposed policies?
MN: One [issue] was slicing the government – distributing government positions among Gayoom families and political parties. Not necesarilly so much political parties, but among their families. [Another is] the number of government positions they have come up with – how huge the government is. I think we are probably now bigger than the Kremlin. It is in fact looking more like a Mughal kingdom. A better comparison would be with Zafar – the last Mughal emperor. Zafar’s government and the number of ministers, the number of courtiers, the number of assistants, the number of everything that they had, and the number of everything that President Yameen is having to have. It’s comical. It’s not really a contentious political issue. It’s sad though because the drain is on the treasury.
We are also looking at how they have honoured sovereign contracts after the transfer of power. They said with the GMR issue, that contract was void ab initio and so on and so forth so we’ll be looking at that. We think that this government is very secretive. We were publishing government income and expenditure every week, they’ve stopped that. We were having a cabinet meeting every week, they’ve stopped that. We were having a press conference every week, they’ve stopped that. We were communicating with the public all the time, and they haven’t done that. We feel that this is a very secretive government.
How they are managing finances: it all looks like how much should we make available for businessman A, for businessmen B. Nothing for social security, nothing for the fishermen, nothing for any of the other people. Taxes keep on coming up but we think that their tax system is again taking the country back to the financial system prior to 2008. They are taking it back to Gayoom’s financial system.
They are not fulfilling any of their pledges. The projects that were ongoing through multinational finance and so on, they’ve all stopped. So we don’t think they are doing a very good job and the people have every right to get rid of them.
DB: What are your initial thoughts on the stabbing of Alhan Fahmy and the safety of politicians?
MN: It’s very dangerous and it’s very worrying. Dr Afrasheem’s murder and the police not being able to do a better job with that, and now Alhan – it’s so sad. So young and so vibrant, and with a bright political future in front of him and cut down in his prime – it’s not good.
DB: Is the MDP’s loss in the presidential election a set back for fight against climate change?
MN: We were doing a lot of international work on climate change and we don’t see that kind of commitment from the present government, and it’s unfortunate. We would like another vulnerable country to pick up the work – someone who is more concerned about these things. I’m speaking to like-minded leaders about this. I’ve just been to Abu-Dhabi for Sheikh Zayed’s future energy prize, which I have been on the jury for the last three years. I did meet a number of heads of state – like-minded people who wanted to do something about it.
DB: What does the future look like for Maldivian democracy? Will you be standing again in 2018?
I’ll be seeking election in 2018, and I think we have a bright future. But the immediate future is bleak, I would argue – it’s difficult.