Senator calls for US to back early elections in the Maldives “as soon as possible”

A US Senator serving as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs Subcommittee has called for fresh elections in the Maldives at the earliest date possible, to ensure democracy is not at risk of being “derailed” in the tiny island nation.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted Senator Robert Casey as requesting the US “continue calls for elections to be held in the Maldives as soon as possible to ensure that the seeds of the democratic process planted in 2008 are able to flourish.”

The comments were reportedly made yesterday during the confirmation hearing in Washington DC of the US Ambassador Designate to Colombo Michele Sison.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, has previously claimed that the earliest date elections can be held on the country will be July 2013, as detailed in the country’s constitution.  The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has continued to request that early elections be held before the end of the present year.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which contends that President Waheed’s government is illegitimate after he came to power on February 7 in a “coup d’etat”, has said early elections could be held within two months without need for constitutional amendment should the president and vice president resign, under provisions for an interim government run by the Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid.

However Waheed and the former opposition parties now in the ruling coalition and occupying senior cabinet positions, initially insisted that “conditions are not right” for early elections, and later contended that the earliest elections could be held under the constitution was July 2013.

Tweeting on June 2, Waheed posted a picture of himself with a group of children and wrote: “These young people advised me not to hold an early election.”

Amid talk of fresh elections, the US government in April pledged US$500,000 (Rf7.7 million) in technical assistance to ensure a free and fair presidential election, assistance it said would “be made available from July 2012”.

“Important” ally

Speaking during yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Ambassador Designate Michele Sison, Senator Casey claimed the Maldives remained an “important” ally to US interests.

Casey therefore raised concerns that the country’s “democratic beginning” was in danger of being “derailed” due to the political unrest leading up to and following the controversial transfer of power in February, according to media reports.

Sison responded that the country continues to push the Maldives to work within “existing democratic institutions” to ensure a resolution to its current political deadlock.

“The US government now has a window of opportunity to step up its engagement in Maldives, and USAID recently committed funding to assist Maldives in ensuring that the next round of presidential elections is free and fair,” Sison was reported to have told senators during the hearing.

The US Embassy in Colombo said it did not have a copy of the transcript of Sison’s confirmation hearing and was unable to clarify the comments attributed to Senator Casey, and would not comment on the political significance of the senator’s comments.

However, the embassy confirmed that like every US ambassador appointed to a foreign position, Sison was required to go before the senate to answer questions about her role.

During yesterday’s hearing, the embassy spokesperson said Sison would have been asked questions on Sri Lanka and the Maldives by senators to ensure she was qualified for the position, ahead of a vote to appoint her.

Responding to the reported comments in the US Senate about early elections, President’s Office spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza referred to the recent comments by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commending agreements between President Waheed and the opposition MDP in seeking a political resolution in the country.

In his statement, Ki-moon urged all political parties “to resume immediately their political dialogue, both within and outside of Parliament, in order to find a mutually agreeable way forward on the basis of the Constitution and without jeopardising the democratic gains achieved thus far in the Maldives.”

Riza told Minivan News today that the government supported the UN’s comments that any solution to the current political upheavals must be made through local stakeholders and also not contravene the constitution.

He claimed that the government was already committed to a process of resolving political differences through a roadmap plan outlined by the president that includes All-Party Talks designed to set a six point agenda concluding with setting a date for early elections.

The last round of All-Party Talks, held at Vice President Waheed Deen’s Bandos Island Resort and Spa last weekend and monitored by UN mediator Pierre Yves Monett, collapsed after parties in the ruling coalition presented the MDP with a list of 30 demands that included “stop practicing black magic and sorcery”, “stop the use of sexual and erotic tools”, and “not walk in groups of more than 10”.

Anti-terrorism Assistance Training

Aside from assigning funds for early elections, present US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis this week signed a Memorandum of Intent with Maldives Police Service Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz to provide Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) training in the country.

The training programmes, which will take place between June 10 – June 21 and July 1 – July 12, will focus respectively on “Police Leaders’ Role in Combating Terrorism” and “Preventing Attacks on Soft Targets”, according to the US Embassy, as well as making police aware of their human rights obligations.