A coup is a coup. Much of what transpired at MNDF headquarters the morning of February 7 remains unclear, but several key facts have come to light, and placed in the context of Maldivian politics, leave no doubt in my mind that President Nasheed was ousted in a cleverly executed coup.
Following Nasheed’s forced resignation, the entire country burned. Key law enforcement institutions became Enemy Number One overnight. In contrast to the relative professional and non-violent reaction to protests against Judge Abdulla’s arbitrary detention, police used brutal force and violently targeted key MDP officials on February 8. Controversial appointments to key posts in Dr Waheed’s government, particularly the Minister of Defence and the Commissioner of Police, who served as the main interlocutors with President Nasheed at MNDF HQ, with no legitimacy whatsoever, further deteriorate MDP supporters’ faith in the police and the MNDF.
In an atmosphere so emotionally charged and tense, it is an elephantine task to remain rational, to stick to facts, and to make decisions that will save our democracy in the long run. It is even harder to do so when media channels, on either side of the political divide, are biased and resorting to propaganda. Nasheed and his supporters have unleashed a deluge of hyperbole to rile up crowds and chip away whatever is left of the public’s trust in the police and the armed forces.
Nasheed showed Waheed’s government and the international community his ammunition when he led his supporters into a direct, violent confrontation with the police and armed forces on Wednesday. He is using the threat of violence to force elections in two months, when it is very clear that an election in two months will not be free and fair. In the meantime, Waheed has come out to say he will not hold elections until 2013. What has been lacking in our democracy since 2008 stands in the way of restoring democracy today. Democracy is about compromise. Nasheed and Waheed need to meet each other half way so that our democracy is not flushed down the drains of history.
Even if Waheed’s government is illegitimate, what is done is done. And protracted civil unrest and violence in small communities, which may take generations to heal, is not the way forward. At a time when people are divided and emotional, we need strong leaders who place the good of the nation above personal gain. Waheed must have the balls to ensure that his government does not go after senior leaders in the MDP in the run up to elections in six months. In return to agreeing for elections in six months, Nasheed and his co must be given guarantees by Waheed’s government that the MDP leadership and supporters will not be made political prisoners. In my mind, there is really no other way forward and if people have suggestions, it is time we start a national debate on how to overcome this impasse in a conciliatory manner.
You say a liberal?
That said, the coup d’etat of February 7 is also a window of opportunity for the people to demand more and better from of our political leadership. One person had written on facebook that we might have been too tolerant of President Nasheed’s runaway administration. True, opposition political parties under Nasheed’s administration did not play by the same lofty rules we set for the government. But with more power comes more responsibility. Nasheed was in power, the opposition parties were not, hence the double standards in expectations. With our civil society so weak from 30 years of authoritarian rule, the political leadership had a massive responsibility. Nasheed had the power to write the story of our democracy differently. He may have lost elections in 2013 if he did, but he would have been a mighty hero in my mind had he focused on strengthening our democratic institutions over forcing and bypassing democratic institutions to ensure the fulfillment of the MDP’s five key pledges.
A 30-year dictatorship left a legacy: an uneven playing field; a weak civil society; a small and toothless middle class; a dearth of self-thinking peoples; and a biased media. The vestiges of dictatorship remain and they matter. History matters. But it only directs, it does not determine. The many constitutional crises, the political posturing, and the name-calling we see today are not inevitable results of a 30-year dictatorship. It is the combined result of a 30-year dictatorship, and a conscious choice by the Nasheed administration to play power politics instead of fostering the slow, painful and perhaps, in the short run, self-defeating, democratic reforms that would have strengthened our democracy.
When Nasheed came to power in 2008, he inherited not only a massive budget deficit, but also a political system that operated on political patronage. Nasheed did not try to change this informal system. He adopted masters of such politicking, including Ibrahim Hussein Zaki and Hassan Afeef into his administration, indicating that political realism would provide Nasheed government’s ideological grounding. To outwit Gayoom et al, Nasheed decided to play the power game instead of democracy. In doing so he acted like an astute politician, not a liberal democrat. Those who expected the latter, mostly liberals, are deeply disappointed with the Nasheed administration. The handful of young and educated who were convinced that an MDP defeat in 2013 would spell out the end of democracy, and those who foresaw an end to their innings with the end of Nasheed’s government, were glad that he played the part of a clever politician. But then the coup happened.
In a very real way, Nasheed himself is to blame for presenting coup planners with ample fodder and opportunity. Arbitrarily detaining Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed for nearly 20 days, in spite of the arrest’s unconstitutionality, in spite of continued street protests that often turned violent, and in spite of escalating police fatigue, Nasheed defended the arrest to the last minutes of his administration and continues to defend it today. But to this day, Nasheed has not explained the precise national security threat that justified the military detention of Abdulla Mohamed. By commanding the MNDF to arbitrarily arrest Abdulla Mohamed and detain him on their training camp, Nasheed unnecessarily plunged one of Maldives’ few professional institutions into disarray and opened it up to politicisation. Presidents who are concerned with consolidating democracy do not issue such orders. They do not think in “either or” terms. Creativity and compromise are fundamental characteristics of a strong democratic leadership.
You say a revolution in 2008?
History matters. Those who were rich and powerful under Gayoom, remain rich and powerful today. In short, our democratic “revolution” in 2008 failed to change the status quo. The aristocrats and merchants who own the tourism, fishing, construction, and shipping industries act like an oligarchy. They have the means to ensure that they maintain their monopolies and deflect any harm that come their way. Take for example what happened with the penalties for tax evasion. And where is the minimum wage bill? What happened to workers’ right to strike? When democratic institutions, such as the parliament, become monopolised by aristocrats and merchants, and when the main rule of law institution, that is the court system, remains dominated by unlearned persons who are easily manipulated by the aristocrats and merchants, the middle class that is the key to democratic consolidation, has no representation and no space to assert itself.
To his credit, Nasheed did attempt to foster a middle class. He implemented a long overdue taxation system that forced tourism tycoons to pay their fair share for state bills. His policies sought to improve access to basic services. And he faced huge challenges. But in playing power politics, he also ensured that the rich and powerful remained so, and nurtured a new group of rich and powerful people who would ostensibly protect his presidency and candidacy in 2013. To that end, a number of development projects continued to fall into the hands of those affiliated with the MDP, and sometimes those hands were not the most capable and able. And the lease of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport is anything but transparent. If justice is fairness, Nasheed government’s corrupt activities fell short of delivering justice, and served to exacerbate the already existing crisis in the judiciary.
The way forward is in compromise and learning from mistakes. It is not in taking sides and refusing to budge. Peace is not a platitude. To characterise peace, conciliation, and negotiation as platitudes and “bullshit” is to reject the essence of democracy. And being “colorless”, and withholding blind support for the MDP or any other political party is not a wholesale rejection of democracy. Restoring Nasheed, whichever way possible, will not restore democracy.
No to street violence, No to political witch hunts, No to destroying the social fabric of our small nation, and No to politicising our armed forces and the police. But Yes to elections in six months. The current government is illegitimate and the nation cannot afford to wait until 2013 for presidential elections. At the same time, MDP supporters will risk the nation by going out on to the streets. The political leadership of this country should go to the negotiation table fast if we are to restore democracy. And people of this country should step back from pledging blind support to leaders. Learn from mistakes. Pledge your support to democratic processes. Pledge your support to negotiations and elections, not in two months when an election would be impossible, but in six months, when it has a better chance of translating your vote freely and fairly.
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