Comment: Making the Maldives’ post-poll transition smooth

In a nation where rumours rule the roost ahead of the 7 September presidential polls, President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, seeking re-election, may have set the right tone for post-poll transition. President Waheed has said that he would not leave the country, if defeated. The same approach could be expected from the other three candidates, and the running mates of all four.

Over the past year and more, the international community is concerned only about political stability in the Indian Ocean archipelago. India, the closet neighbour with a regional and global presence to match, has clarified more than once that it is all for an ‘inclusive’ election that is free and fair without violence, followed by a ‘smooth transition’ that belies avoidable speculation of all kind. The rest of the international community seems to concur.

Under the Constitution, the first-round polling is scheduled for 7 September, followed by a second, run-off round involving the top two within 21 days should no candidate manage to cross the half-way mark. For an atolls-nation with thinly spread-out population spread across 950-km north-south, and not used to multi-party and multi-layered elections, Maldivians voted in large numbers in 2008 after the new Constitution came into being.

In 2008, the first round witnessed high 85-plus percent polling. It was followed by an even higher 86-plus percentage vote in the run-off. The figures were lower at 80 percent for the parliamentary polls six months later. It slipped further to 75 percent in the local council polls a year later. With the result, the voter-turnout has become an object of study. It could show the disenchantment or otherwise of the first-time voters, who were still in their early teens in 2008.

Voter turnout this time would also be a measure of the attitude of the rest, particularly the first-time voters from 2008 and those a generation before them. The events of the past five years, particularly since the controversial power-transfer and subsequent nation-wide violence of 7-8 February 2012, are an object lesson for the Maldivian polity to learn from. The population, insulated from the rest of the world until the tools of information technology, like television and mobile phones, made it all possible, would also have to understand and appreciate the ways and waywardness of coalition leadership, which they had consciously mandated in 2008.

Job cut out

Post-poll, a new president has his job cut out. He will have to put together a cabinet, which has to be cleared by an existing parliament close to the end of its term. As under other presidential systems like in the US, the government is answerable to parliament, but elected members do not become ministers. It comes with hopes and possibilities, problems and burden. The existing system commands that parliamentary clearance for the cabinet can cut either way, going by past experience.

In 2008, after the nation elected Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate Mohamed Nasheed as President, parliament approved his first set of 13 cabinet ministers without question. In 2010, alleging that the new parliament, elected year earlier, with an opposition majority, was adopting a ‘scorched earth policy’ viz the executive powers of the government’s 13 cabinet members, barring then Vice-President Mohamed Waheed’s submission of their resignation to President Nasheed, as if to force a political showdown between the two arms of the government.

After the Supreme Court ruled that the resignations stood, President Nasheed re-appointed the old set of Ministers. This time, parliament refused to clear them all, necessitating the nomination of fresh faces in the place of the rejected ones, but with informal consultations between the president and parliament. The trend of parliament rejecting the President’s nominees for cabinet positions has continued under President Waheed. Here again, there were no rejections at inception. It has since become a routine after the coalition partners supporting President Waheed in parliament and participating in his government through ministerial nominations decided to contest the presidential polls on their own. All this has set bad precedents as far as political stability goes, until a future dispensation proves otherwise.

On assuming office, a new President will have to present the annual budget in November, and get it passed by parliament in time for the government to start its New Year spending from 1 January. In between, the nation would be called upon to vote in the local council polls in December, followed by parliamentary elections in May 2014. The new President can think of doing something about implementing the manifesto of his party in full measure only after that. The premise does not rule out the possibility of the President not enjoying a majority in the existing parliament or the new one coming up after the polls.

A tough task even under relatively favourable circumstances, but a new President will be assuming office in a not-so-favourable political environment. In political terms, parliament would not have had enough time to switch from the ‘election mode’ to take up more serious work. The past five years in general and the months after 7 February power-transfer have ensured that parliamentary committees in particular have acted in a politically partisan manner, even though they may still be well within the letter of the law.

The past years in general and one-and-a-half years in particular have witnessed a spate of ‘defections’ from one party to another, at times within the ruling coalition. It is very difficult for a keen observer of Maldivian politics, even from within the country, to say which MP is now with which party – and if anyone intends crossing over (one more time?) in the near future. The months after the presidential polls could witness another spate of defections, possibly to the elected leader’s side. There could be exceptions, but of defections, there could be many. Such a course could contribute further to the existing sense of instability.

The Maldivian economy is in bad shape now (as has often been in the past years and decades). The reasons are many, though the inability of successive governments to make the successful resort tourism to share an equitable size of the revenues as the share that it makes of the nation’s economy has not paid off. Recently, the government has obtained promises of a $29.5-million credit from the Bank of Ceylon, for ‘budgetary support’.

In what is possibly an unprecedented move, MDP nominee for the 7 September polls, former President Nasheed called on Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram to discuss post-poll fiscal support that his country might request from India. Nasheed was in Delhi, followed later by another presidential candidate, Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and called on the Indian leadership starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India has also invited Gasim Ibrahim, presidential nominee of the Jumhoree Party, to New Delhi for a pre-poll exchange of views. The Delhi discussions, according to reports, have centred on political stability, free and fair elections and smooth transition.

Lame-duck presidency or what?

Traditionally, Maldivian Presidents from the days prior to multi-party elections have been sworn in on 11 November. The current constitution has continued with the existing norm of an incumbent President completing five years in office before the elected/re-elected one is sworn in. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled the country as quasi-elected Head of State and government for 30 years ending 2008, with elections every five years. Before him, President Ibrahim Nasir had done so for 10 years, after he was elevated from the post of Prime Minister.

The earlier experience thus had an inherent safety-clause as for continuity. Transition, if at all, affected only individual ministers that the President nominated to his cabinet, post-poll. Such changes were made even between two elections. There was no question of parliamentary clearance for cabinet ministers, some of whom had also been elected to the People’s Majlis. So were many government officials at all levels.

The question of transition thus really came into play only after the 2008 multi-party polls. The euphoria of multi-party polls took care of some of it. The proximity of the second-round poll date in late October and the swearing-in on 11 November took care of most of it. Despite avoidable speculation and motivated rumours to the contrary, outgoing President Gayoom, who lost the polls, and the incoming successor in MDP’s Nasheed were determined to make a ‘smooth transition’. They did the transition work smoothly.

There is nothing to suggest that the post-poll transition this time would be anything but smooth. The question will not arise if Maldivians chose to re-elect the incumbent. That is a different matter. Otherwise, the relatively long gap between the polls and the inauguration could make the incumbent a ‘lame-duck’. This could be more so if adversarial tendencies identified with the entire political and poll process in the country over the past five years and more come to play even more vigorously after the elections.

‘Revolving door’

In the US, from where the executive presidency model for Maldives and the phrase ‘lame-duck’ may have been borrowed, the interregnum is used for ensuring smooth transition. With nearly 4000 political positions in government falling vacant, such a time-gap has helped an incoming President and his team to discuss and decide on successors for each one of them. It also gives the newly-appointed ones enough time to acclimatise themselves to the new jobs. It has been quite beneficial, particularly for academics using the ‘revolving door’ between the government and universities, to make the personal transition smooth.

Whenever the incumbent is re-elected, American Presidents have often used the interregnum to set the agenda for the bow-out term, based on their election manifesto and the party’s expectations four years hence.Should the incumbent not contest re-election or be defeated, only then does he become ‘lame-duck’ for the remaining period of his term, until the inauguration of his successor.

In their first terms, Presidents in the US are often seen to favour personal loyalists, old townsfolk, university friends, erstwhile professional colleagues and fund-raisers’ nominees for advisory roles – if they do not fit in for any cabinet berth. They use the interregnum after re-election to give a new shape to their administration, based on their higher levels of confidence, experience and exposure.

In case of re-election President Waheed could be expected to use the interregnum to work out sustainable policies and program, and also choose his team to deliver on them in his second term. His successor, whoever else is elected, could be expected to do so at his level. It is the interactions between the two teams during the interregnum of lame-duck presidency would matter the most. The US, over the past decades and centuries, has evolved a scheme of the incumbent and the elected naming their ‘succession teams’ to ensure a smooth transition. Maldives could set a precedent for itself this time round.

Creating precedent(s)

It is for the first time the Maldives would be coping with an interregnum of this kind. Experience is non-existent, expectations are high, and apprehensions even more. President Waheed’s elevation at the head of a post-poll coalition, yet without fresh elections, was a hurried affair. There was no interregnum, so to speak, though some of the coalition partners took their time choosing their nominees for his cabinet.

President Waheed’s quick-fire succession, if it could be called so, may have also set a precedent that was not relevant to Maldives under the earlier schemes. Democracy comes with its compelling baggage, and has a way of finding satisfactory solutions to the problems that dissatisfaction – and, not disaffection – throws up from time to time. New situations may thus demand new look at the existing scheme, and throw up new solutions. A new-generation leadership should be prepared to accept it and acknowledge it.

The past five years should have taught Maldives and Maldivians that multi-party democracy is a ‘dynamic process’ and that the nation would have to be prepared for surprises at every turn of its democratic career from now on. In the early days of such initiation, the dynamic surprises may have proved to be dynamite-shocks to some, the larger community included. In a unique situation thus, President Waheed, whether re-elected or not, would be facing interregnum of two kinds – one, between the presidential poll and the inauguration, and the second between now and the parliamentary polls.

It is unclear how the existing parliament would be disposed towards a new President, if the incumbent is not re-elected, until the parliamentary polls in May next. Only then would have some clarity appeared on the political equations between the two institutions under the constitution. It is another matter if the new President would have a parliament of his liking, or if he would be able to work on a broad-based consensus, where a broad-based coalition is not possible.

Over the past one-and-half year, the MDP ‘opposition’ in parliament – otherwise the ‘majority party’ in terms of numbers in the 77-member house – has tried in vain to have President Waheed voted out. It could not muster the two-thirds majority, and did not press the resolutions after a point, on two occasions. The post-poll situation under the constitution has not provided a solution if such attempts were to be made in and by parliament against a ‘lame-duck’ President. Nor does it say, if his Vice-President would still (have to) succeed him, if he were to resign alone or be voted out during the interregnum.

Likewise, the constitution-makers did not think of contingencies like the one in which the outgoing President resigns with his entire cabinet, including the Vice-President, after the election of his successor, but before the traditional day for the swearing-in. The constitution now provides for the Speaker of the Majlis to take over as President for two months, with the sole purpose of conducting fresh elections to the presidency. The constitution is also silent on the Speaker’s role, if any, where the incumbent resigns, and so does his Vice-President, after a successor has been elected and an election, notified!

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Decision on US base may have to wait

Notwithstanding the recent media leaks on a ‘US military base’ in Maldives, a decision on whatever that facility be, may have to wait until after the parliamentary polls of May 2014, not stopping with the presidential elections due in September this year.

In effect, this could mean that a national debate, and more importantly a parliamentary vote, will be required before any government in Male – this one or the next – takes a decision, though none is now in the air even a month after a section of the local web media went to town on the ‘leak’ and subsequent reports in the matter.

For starters, it may be too premature, if not outright improper, to dub the emerging relations as ending in a military base for the US in the Indian Ocean Archipelago.

The two governments have stuck to the position that the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA), with the US claiming it to be a general agreement for extending training facilities by the American armed forces. According to the US, similar agreements already exist with over 100 countries.

Maldives Defence Minister, Col Ahmed Nazim (retd), too has said that they were not contemplating any military facility for the US but only for the latter extending training to his nation’s personnel.

He has since gone to town, declaring that the leaked document was ‘not genuine’ and that they had shared the original one with the President’s Office, the Attorney-General’s office and the Maldivian customs – and would do so only with the Security Services Committee, not Parliament’s Government Oversights Committee, where the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) incidentally is in a majority.

Bringing parliament into the picture

For now, the lid has been placed on the issue after Attorney-General Aishath Bisham clarified that handing over any region in the Maldives for the setting up of a foreign military facility of whatever kind would require parliamentary clearance with a simple majority.

In doing so, the Attorney-General cited the advice given to the incumbent government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, by her predecessor Aishath Azima. According to her, Azima had advised the Defence Ministry as early as March 21 that parliamentary approval would be required for any agreement of the kind with the US. Bisham said she stood by her predecessor’s position in the matter. The media leaks appeared a month later.

As may be recalled, the law providing for prior parliamentary clearance for agreements of the nature came into being when Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohamed Nasheed was President in 2010. That was when the Nasheed government was keen on signing a construction-cum-concession contract for the Male international airport with India-based infrastructure developer, GMR Group.

The deed was done, but not without high drama and controversy both inside and outside parliament.

Between the executive and the legislature in a democracy, both sides blamed each other for ‘colourable exercise’ of respective powers in the ‘GMR deal’ but none questioned the subsequent application of the new law to new agreements of the kind.

The US-SOFA deal cannot be exempted either, unless parliament were to do so. However, given the present political calculus and electoral calculations, no political party or leader may have the will to move forward in the matter, inside parliament or otherwise,.

As may also be recalled, after much drama and bilateral tensions, the succeeding government of President Waheed cancelled the GMR contract. The decision has since been upheld by the mutually agreed-upon arbitration court in Singapore, which is also looking into the compensation claims of GMR. The Maldivian government argues that the contract was ab initio void, and has cited the existence of the law requiring previous clearance for transferring possession of a ‘national asset’ to foreign parties, as among the reasons.

The law came about at a critical juncture at the birth of the GMR contract. A day after the Nasheed government announced the formal decision in the matter the opposition-majority parliament hurriedly passed the law, pending the unanticipated reconstitution of the board of the Male Airport Company Ltd (MACL), after the existing one was unwilling to sign on the dotted line.

President Nasheed returned the bill to parliament promptly, under the existing provision. Left with no option but to assent the bill after parliament had passed it a second time, with equal hurry and vehemence.

As is the wont in many other countries, the Constitution provides for any bill passed by parliament a second time becoming law automatically, if within a stipulated period the President does not give his assent. In the Maldives it is a 15-day window. However, the MDP government got the GMR contract through before the lapse of the 15-day period, and President Nasheed too gave his assent to the said bill within the stipulated time, if only to avoid arguments about the untenable nature of his continuance in office under controversial circumstances of the kind.

From ACSA to SOFA…

Apart from SOFA, the US has signed another 10-year agreement, titled the ‘Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement’ (ACSA), which it claimed had been done similarly with over 100 countries. The ACSA, signed ‘on a bilateral basis with allies or coalition partners that allow US forces to exchange most common types of support, including food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment.

The agreement does not, in any way, commit a country to any military action. Some would argue that SOFA is an extension of ACSA, but some others also point out that not all countries that have signed ACSA are targeted by the US for signing SOFA.

In the case of Maldives, in 2009, when MDP’s Nasheed was the Maldivian President, his Defence Minister of the day, Ameen Faisal was said to have discussed an ACSA with visiting US Ambassador Patricia A Butenis.

According to Wikileaks, sourced to US Embassy message of October 7, 2009, “He also reiterated the Maldives’ interest in establishing a USN (US Navy) facility in the southernmost atoll. He thanked the Ambassador for US security assistance…”

In the present case, Maldivian media reports, claiming access to unauthenticated draft of SOFA, said that the agreement outlined “conditions for the potential establishment of a US military base in the country”. The draft, obtained by Maldivian current affairs blog DhivehiSitee, “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of the US forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of the US contractors in the Republic of Maldives”, the Minivan News web-journal said in the last week of April.

Under the proposed 10-year agreement outlined in the leaked draft, Maldives would “furnish, without charge” to the US unspecified “Agreed Facilities and Areas”, and “such other facilities and areas in the territory and territorial seas? and authorize the US forces to exercise all rights that are necessary for their use, operation, defence or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements”.

The draft also says that the US would be authorised to “control entry” to areas provided for its “exclusive use”, and would be permitted to operate its own telecommunications system and use the radio spectrum “free of cost”.

Furthermore, the US would also be granted access to and use of “aerial ports, sea ports and agreed facilities for transit, support and related activities, bunkering of ships, refuelling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities”.

The contents of the leaked draft has remained uncontested – maybe because it is an American template that has been leaked – and provides for US personnel to wear uniforms while performing official duties “and to carry arms while on duty if authorised to do so by their orders”. US personnel (and civilian staff) would furthermore “be accorded the privileges, exemptions and immunities equivalent to those accorded to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention”, and be subject to the criminal jurisdiction of the US – and not the Maldivian laws, with a preponderance of Islamic Sharia practices.

The draft exempts US vessels from entry fee in ports and airports, and personnel from payment of duties even for their personnel effects brought into Maldives.

The draft also stipulates that neither party could approach “any national or international court, tribunal or similar body, or to a third party for settlement, unless otherwise mutually agreed” over matters of bilateral dispute flowing from the agreement. This would obviously cover “damage to, loss of, or destruction of its property or injury or death to personnel of either party’s armed forces or their civilian personnel arising out the performance of their official duties in connection with activities under this agreement”.

Sri Lankan precedent on ACSA

In recent years, ACSA became news in neighbouring Sri Lanka at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaklsa signed one with the US in seeming hurry. President Rajapaksa was away in China when his brother and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa signed the ACSA at Colombo in March 2007, with Robert Blake, who was the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives at the time.

It is believed that the US intelligence-sharing, helping Sri Lanka to vanquish the dreaded LTTE terror-group, particularly the ‘Sea Tigers’ wing, followed the ACSA.

At present, questions are being asked within Sri Lanka if the current US ‘over-drive’ over ‘war crimes and accountability issues’ relating to Colombo at UNHRC may have anything to do with Washington’s possible desire to sign up for SOFA or such other agreements.

However, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that such may have even be the case. It is however to be presumed that the US may not be exactly happy over Sri Lanka getting increasingly involved in China’s sphere of influence, what with President Rajapaksa visiting Beijing almost every other year, and signing bilateral agreements in a wide-range of sectors, as he has done less than a fortnight back.

A section of the Sri Lankan media in the immediate neighbourhood has since claimed that MDP’s Nasheed would take up the issue with Colombo and New Delhi. Otherwise, President Rajapaksa’s ruling front partner, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, head of the National Freedom Front (NFF), a shriller breakaway faction of the one-time Left militant, now ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ Janatha Vimukthi Peramana (JVP), is alone in his condemnation of the US move in Maldives. The Sri Lankan Government and polity otherwise have refrained from any reaction – so have their counterparts in India.

Politics of silence?

If partners in the Maldivian government and also the opposition MDP seem to be maintaining relative but calculated indifference to the leaked document, it may not be without reason. The Wikileaks’ indication of the predecessor Nasheed government’s willingness to sign ACSA with the US and then Minister Faisal’s interest in the ‘US setting up a military facility in the southernmost atoll’ may have silenced the party to some extent.

The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which in its earlier, undivided avatar as the Dhivehi Progressive Party (DRP), put Maldivian sovereignty and national security as among the major causes for its opposition to the Male airport contract with the GMR.

Post-leak, media reports have quoted second-line MDP leaders in the matter. The party’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, said that the MDP had heard of the proposal – supposedly concerning Laamu Atoll and the site of the former British airbase on Seenu Gan in the south of the country.

“We are wondering what our other international partners – India, Australia, etc – think of this idea,” Ghafoor said.

Other party leaders too have reacted cautiously, linking their undeclared future decision in the matter to the views of the Indian neighbour and regional power, whose security interests too are involved.

It is not only the opposition in the Maldives that has maintained silence over the proposed agreement with the US.

Ruling front partners who prop up the Waheed government inside the Cabinet and more so in Parliament have also avoided direct reference to the US proposal, at least in public. The president is not known to have commented on the subject, as yet. When the SOFA leak appeared in April, President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad said that he had texted President Waheed, who had no knowledge of any agreement.

The Defence Ministry also had no information on the matter, he said. At the time, Imad would not comment on whether the government would be open to such a proposal.

Subsequently, Defence Minister Nazim clarified that no decision had been taken in the matter. There thus seemed to be an attempt to show up the SOFA initiative, if there was any on the Maldivian side, as that of the Defence Ministry.

It is not a new process in the Maldivian context, as in most other nations, specific initiatives of such kinds are often moved only through the departments or ministries concerned, and the rest of the government is involved, at times in stages.

The Nasheed government’s certain initiatives in similar matters too had followed this route, in relations to China, it is said. In this background, Defence Minister Nazim’s delayed clarification that the Government had shared the official document with the relevant authorities and that the “leaked agreement was altered and shared on the social media” should set some of the concerns on this score to rest – at least for the present.

However, as the SOFA leak says, “The proposed agreement would supersede an earlier agreement between the US and Maldives regarding “Military and Department of Defense Civilian Personnel”, effected on December 31, 2004.

PPM’s founder, who had also founded the DRP, was Maldivian President in 2004. Hence possibly the reluctance of the PPM to keep the ‘US issue alive’, over which the Gayoom leadership had taken on the Nasheed government, on the ‘Guantanamo prisoner’ issue, for instance.

The issue involved the transfer of a Chinese prisoner of the US from the infamous Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba, to Maldives, but domestic opposition flowing from the nation’s Islamic identity (however moderate) stalled the process.

After Diego Garcia…

A SOFA agreement for the US with Maldives acquires greater significance in the current context of the nation having to possibly the vacate the better-known yet even more controversial Diego Garcia military base in the Chagos Archipelago, less than 750 km from southern Maldives’ Addu Atoll with the Gan air-base.

The 50-year lease agreement for Diego Garcia, which the British partner of the US in the NATO purchased from Mauritius in 1965 for three-million pound-sterling a year earlier, ends in 2016.

The controversy over the forcible eviction of the local population to facilitate the lease has not died down in the UK, and there are strong doubts about the likelihood of its extension, owing to a British High Court verdict, which restored residency rights to the original Chagos inhabitants as far back as 2000.

Though a subsequent 2008 House of Lords ruling has over-turned the court verdict, the Chagos have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, where embarrassment might await both the UK and the US. Whether or not the Chagos can return to their home, a 2010 British decision to declare the Archipelago as the world’s largest marine reserve and protected area could well mean that no military activity could occur thereabouts.

The controversies have not rested there, and continue to rage in court-room battles, and could become a cause for the civil society in the UK and rest of Europe. It is in this context, any SOFA agreement would trigger an interest and/or concerns in neighbouring Sri Lanka and India – not necessarily in that order – as also other international users of the abutting Indian Ocean sea-lines, which Diego Garcia and Maldives, not to leave out Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota port, built in turn by China.

Neighbourhood concerns

Thus, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s assertion after the SOFA draft leaked to the Maldivian media that Washington did “not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives” has not convinced many.

“We have exercise programs very frequently (with Maldives) and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.

However, considering the content of the leaked SOFA draft, and/or the motive behind the leak and its timing, there are apprehensions that before long the US might demand – and possibly obtain – Maldivian real estate for its military purposes, one way or the other, and will also have protection from local court interference.

In this, the interest and concerns of Sri Lanka and India are real. Ever since the US took a keener interest in the ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability’ issues haunting the Sri Lankan state, political establishment and the armed forces almost as a whole, Colombo has been askance about the ‘real motives’ behind Washington’s drive at the UNHRC, Geneva, for two years in a row.

The European allies of the US too are reported to have been perplexed by the American move, which they seem to feel should stop with the attainment of political rights for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka, and not chase a mirage, which could have unwelcome and unpredictable consequences, all-round.

For India, after the Chinese ‘commercial and developmental presence’ at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and Mattale airport, any extra-territorial power’s military presence in the neighbourhood should make it uncomfortable. It would have to be so even it was the US, with which New Delhi signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2005.

Before Washington now, Beijing was said to have eyed real estate in Maldives, and was believed to have submitted grandeur plans to develop a whole atoll into a large-scale resort facility for an anticipated tens of thousands of Chinese tourists.

Around the time, China reportedly submitted its plans, news reports had suggested that Chinese tourists, who had propped up the Maldivian economy at the height of the global economic meltdown of 2008, felt unwelcome in the existing resorts, where they would like to cook their own packed meal brought from home – cutting into the hoteliers’ profit-margin in a big way.

While China now accounts for the highest number of tourists arriving in Maldives, it does not translate into the highest-spending by tourists from any country or region. This owes to the spending styles of the Chinese and other South Asians, including Indians, compared to their European and American counterparts.

India as ‘net provider of security’

Media reports have also quoted US officials that they would take Indian into confidence before proceeding in the matter. If they have done so already, it does not seem to have been in ways and at levels requiring an Indian reaction in public.

Alternatively, the US may not have as yet found the levels of negotiations/agreement with Maldives that may require it to take the Indian partner into such confidence. This could imply that the US is still on a ‘fishing expedition’ on the Maldivian SOFA. It is another matter that at no stage in its recent engagements with India’s South Asian neighbours, Washington seemed to have taken New Delhi into confidence at the comforting levels that the latter had been used to with the erstwhile Soviet Union during the ‘Cold War’ era.

Whatever the truth and level of such ‘confidence’ on the American side, an existing bilateral agreement provides for Maldives tasking India into confidence over ay third-nation security and defence cooperation agreements that it may enter into.

As may be recalled, India rushed its military forces to Maldives in double-quick time under ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988, after Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries targeted the country, and then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom sought New Delhi’s military intervention.

Bilateral security relations have been strengthened since, with the Coast Guards of the two countries exercising every two years together, with Sri Lanka being included in ‘Dhosti 11’ for the first time in March 2012.

However, considering the purported American vehemence on the Sri Lanka front, and Washington making successive forays into India’s immediate neighbouring nations, one after the other, questions are beginning to be asked in New Delhi’s strategic circles if they had seen it all, or was there more to follow. As is now beginning to be acknowledged, in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, where the Indian concerns had neutralised Chinese presence to some extent, the US is being seen as a new player on its own.

In the bygone ‘Cold War’ era, the erstwhile Soviet Union was not known to have made forays – political or otherwise -into South Asia without expressly discussing it with India, and deciding on it together.

Afghanistan might have been an exception. The country at the time was not seen as a part of South Asia, yet the embarrassment for India was palpable. But Maldives and the rest in the present-day context of purported American military interest seeks to side-step, if not belittle India.

Otherwise, if the choice for India is between the US and China, for an extra-territorial power in the immediate neighbourhood, it would be a clear one. But if that choice were to lead to an ‘arms race’ between extra-territorial powers that India and the rest of the region cannot match for a long time to come, it would be a different case altogether.

It could also lead to greater estrangement of India and some of its neighbours, who would find relative comfort in China, compared to the US, whatever the reason. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent assertion that India was in a position to be a ‘net provider of security’ in the South Asian region needs to be contextualised thus.

In this context, Maldivian Attorney-General Bisham’s assertion that any agreement of the SOFA kind with the US would have to clear Parliament assumes significance.

However, considering the general American tactic that involves economic carrot and politico-diplomatic stick at the same time, it is not unlikely that the current phase on the SOFA front may have been only a testing of the Maldivian political waters, when the nation is otherwise caught in the run-up to the presidential polls, to be followed by parliamentary elections. By then, it is likely the issues would have also sunk in on the domestic front in Maldives, for the US to take up the issue with a future government in Male.

All this will make sense in the interim if, and only if, the US is keen on proceeding with the Maldivian SOFA.

To the extent that Defence Minister Nazim has said that Maldives was only considering what possibly may be a unilateral US proposal, he may be saying the truth – and his government may not have moved forward on this score.

With most political parties in the country, then in the opposition, flagged ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national pride’ while challenging the GMR contract, inside parliament and outside, it is likely that any precipitate initiative at the time of twin-elections now could trigger the kind of ‘religion-centric reaction’ that cost President Nasheed his office in February 2012.

For now, Islamic Minister Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed, representing the religion-centric Adhaalath Party, which spearheaded the anti-Nasheed protests leading to the latter’s exit, has served notice. The party will not allow the Government to sign SOFA with the US, he has said.

Considering that President Waheed has bent heavily on the Adhaalath Party for support and campaign cadres in his election-bid of September this year, it is likely that SOFA discussions with the US may not proceed for now – just as it may not form part of the electoral discourse, either for the presidency this year, or for Parliament next year.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Political scene hots up again

After a week of relative lull on the political front, Maldivian politics revved up on Tuesday, March 5, after the police detained former President Mohamed Nasheed to produce him before the suburban Hulhumale’ court in connection with the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’.

The arrest, possibly delayed pending the President’s customary annual address to Parliament a day earlier, came less than 10 days after Nasheed ended his 11-day sit-in at the Indian High Commission in Male, claiming that New Delhi had brokered a ‘deal’ for his contesting the presidential polls in September – denied by both governments.

If tried, convicted and sentenced to a prison term exceeding one-year imprisonment (it can go up to three years, or a fine of MVR 12,000), and he also runs out his appeals ahead of the poll notification, Nasheed will be disqualified from contesting the polls. It is in this context, his claim that India has brokered a ‘deal’ assumes significance. So has his subsequent appeal/declaration of sorts, implying that New Delhi should ensure that he contests the polls.

Defining moment

In a way the presidential polls, scheduled for September, are turning out to be as much a defining moment as the one that institutionalised multi-party democracy in Maldives. Yet, as the chips are down, President Waheed managed to address the People’s Majlis amid interruptions and in four installments. Out after the sit-in in the Indian High Commission and anticipating detention and disqualification, his predecessor would not acknowledge the legitimacy and continuance of President Waheed. A couple of days before the customary/mandatory presidential address to Parliament in its first session in the calendar year, Nasheed had an uninterrupted interview with NDTV.

The Indian television channel is accessible in Maldives and much of South Asia, and in many other parts of the world. The uninterrupted nature of Nasheed’s interview also made it cohesive and comprehensive, to viewers afar and nearer home, too – what with the local newspapers also picking it up for their readers. Against this, President Waheed’s address, disrupted constantly by parliamentarians belonging to Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was limited in its appeal to the Maldives, at best, and political Male, positively.

As much as the content of the speech – whose text would have been anyway made readily available – the punter, if any, would have wagered on the possibility of President Waheed completing his address in the first place – and, if allowed to do, with how many interruptions. The final count was three breaks and in four innings. The score was better this time than in the previous year – Waheed’s first address to Parliament as President – when fresh for the controversial power-transfer, MDP parliamentarians did not allow him to do so on March 1, the first day in the calendar year when the House met after the long recess. Waheed had to go to the Majlis on another day, March 19, to be precise, when alone he could manage to do the honours – of course, with MDP interruptions.

This time round, the President could deliver his address, even if amidst interruptions, only after Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid ‘named’ a few MDP members for disturbing the proceedings, and the security people moved i  to bundle them out. Incidentally, as MDP parliamentary group leader Ibrahim Solih said later, the party, as the largest (non-government) segment in the House, has stuck to its previous year’s decision not respond to President Waheed’s address within 14 days under Article 25 (b) and 25 (e) of the Constitution, holding it an ‘illegitimate regime’.

At the same time, the presidential address on both occasions would have gone into the records of Parliament for all time to come. It is thus unclear, what benefit the MDP could have derived by disturbing Parliament, that too during presidential address, when it is felt that the party would need to win over the ranks of ‘non-party’ or ‘undecided voters’. Invariably, these are moderate segments of the electorate, and take their time, evaluating not just the motives of the contending parties but also their methods. Their numbers supposedly add up to 50 per cent of the electorate.

Certainly, it does not do any good to the kind of democracy that the MDP wants to usher in all over again in the country – going by unforgettable memories of the turn that the protest by the party MPs took this time last year. In electoral terms, it might have kept the party cadre-mood upbeat, but their votes are already for the MDP. The party needed votes from outside this constituency, and that needed greater, different and differentiated initiatives and efforts – not just the beaten path of the past year alone.

‘Aggressive’ India, defence deal with China

In his television interview, Nasheed was clearly addressing an Indian audience. He claimed that there was kind of a deal between India and the Maldivian Government for him to end his 11-day sit-in in the Indian High Commission in Male, protesting the imminence of his arrest, possibly leading to his disqualification from contesting the presidential polls, scheduled in September. He wanted India to take an ‘aggressive’ posture if the Maldivian government tried to arrest him again. He did not explain what he meant by New Delhi’s ‘aggressive’ posturing.

That Nasheed was addressing the Indian TV viewers, possibly with the hope of pressuring New Delhi into ensuring that the Maldivian government did not pursue with its current moves to have him tried and punished in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’ before the presidential polls became clearer when he referred to China, which could not be contextualised either to his own predicament, or bilateral relations between India and Maldives, otherwise.

“Well, there is instability in the Maldives. So, there will always be a room for other actors to come in. Therefore that is all the more a reason why we should be able to have free and fair elections as quickly as possible,” Nasheed told the interviewer. “We did not have a military-defence agreement with the Chinese government but this government has now come up and signed an agreement,” he said.

Nasheed’s reference to an ‘aggressive’ India thus did not relate to China, but to the internal political dynamics of Maldives – and that was saying something in terms of his current perceptions about bilateral relations between India and Maldives on the one hand, and India and China, on the other.

Media reports in Maldives, citing Nasheed’s interview, also quoted Waheed government’s reiteration of the denial about the existence of any such agreement. As some reports have been recalling from time to time, Nasheed as President inaugurated the Chinese Embassy in Male in November 2011 – which was understandable – but on the very day Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was landing in the country for the SAARC Summit, followed by a bilateral.

‘Small state, small justice’

Against this, President Waheed seemed to have taken off from where Nasheed had left – not the ‘China factor’ as in the latter’s interview, but the Indian angle, instead. Without naming India or any other nation, the President told parliament that the foreign policy of the Maldives will always aim at defending the country’s independence, sovereignty and Islamic values. He claimed that several groups were interested in influencing and interfering with the political independence of the country, and said that the government would (nonetheless) address the issues and concerns of the international community.

The President, as local media quoted him, said that foreign countries’ concerns will be acknowledged but their interference in internal politics of the country and calls to hold elections before a certain date, will not be accepted.

“The government will not accept ‘small justice’ because we are a small state,” he said. In context, Waheed referred to ‘certain groups’ in the country welcoming the pressure by the international community, and said that such pressure are not aimed at the government, but would affect the country’s independence.

In the same vein, President Waheed, again without any pointed reference to President Nasheed’s tenure, when he himself was Vice-President, and said that the nation’s economy had ‘fallen into a pit’ when he took over in February last year. The external debt stood at $725 million (MVR 11,179.5 million) owing to high expenditure, and his government, he claimed prioritised on early economic recovery. “Several steps have been taken to reduce Government costs, and several Bills have been submitted to Parliament related to increasing Government income and revising laws,” he said, without acknowledging the early initiatives taken in this regard by the Nasheed government.

In this context, President Waheed claimed that regaining cogtrol of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport from the GMR Group, the Indian infrastructure major, had increased foreign currency-flow into the country, and facilitated solutions to the problem of dollar-shortage. “The Government’s aim is to ensure that foreign currency that enters the country is retained,” he said. In contrast, Nasheed had said that if returned to power, he would restore the GMR contract.

‘Free and fair polls’

Alluding obviously to the international community’s call for ‘free, fair and inclusive’ presidential polls, Waheed promised as much in his parliamentary address. By referring to his government in this regard, he distanced the judiciary from the process, after his camp had repeatedly asserted that the administration did not have anything to do with the case against Nasheed at this stage. It was for the court to decide on the next course, seemed to be the government’s refrain.

“I would like to assure members that the government will put every effort to see that the Maldives presidential election this year is a free, fair, and open to all political party participation, and is held according to the Constitution and laws of the State,” local media reported Waheed as telling the Majlis. Clearly, he was countering the MDP declaration that the party would boycott the polls if Nasheed was disqualified, and was possibly indicating that it could/should nominate another candidate, instead. He also said that the government will cooperate with the Elections Commission to clear any obstacles that might oppose free and fair elections – possibly referring to anticipated street-protests by the MDP if Nasheed was disqualified.

“I also give assurance that the government will not influence an election, and will not do anything that might hinder electoral rights,” Waheed said, in an obvious reference to the exclusively role of the nation’s Judiciary in the matter from the current stage on. “The Government continues cooperate with the Elections Commission and provide any assistance they might require. If there are any obstacles to holding the election, the Government will provide whatever cooperation necessary to the Elections Commission to remove such an obstacle,” said the President.

‘Reforming judiciary’

For his part, Abdulla Yameen, parliamentary group leader of the second-largest, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), a presidential hopeful himself, said that President Waheed should lead the process of strengthening criminal justice system in the country. By timing and implication, his observations could be interpreted, or mis-interpreted, as the case may be, to be projected as a left-handed backing for the MDP’s charge that Nasheed would not get justice from the existing judicial system in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’.

“The entire criminal justice system has problems. Regardless of the reasons behind the problems, the Head of State should take the responsibility of finding solutions if the delivery of justice is being delayed. The purpose of this isn’t to ensure that the case is concluded in a particular way. It is a responsibility of the President, under Article 115 of the Constitution,” Yameen reportedly told a local television channel.

Yameen, according to media reports, said his was only ‘constructive criticism’ of the existing system and should not be construed as a personal criticism against President Waheed. Incidentally, while suggesting that not all charges taken to the police have to be converted into court proceedings, Yameen referred to avoidable delays in the dispensation of justice, which is what the MDP seeks to imply through its demands, through Nasheed’s offer to face trial in the abduction case after the conclusion of the presidential polls. If elected President, Nasheed could not be tried while in office, followed by certain immunities, post-retirement, but unavailable to him now in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’, it would seem.

Line-up unclear, yet

For all this however, the presidential poll line-up is unclear, as yet. Nasheed’s candidacy depends upon the pending court case, which has however not made much headway in recent weeks. Despite his arrest – the third since October, if only to ensure that he presented himself before the court – there is still a chance of the case not running its due course, including possible interlocutory and appeals stages, at this pace before the Election Commission issues the required notification in due course. The Waheed camp used to assert his own candidacy until the top-rung PPM partner in his Government declared its intention to contest the presidency itself, and set its primary for the purpose for March 30.

Yameen, who is one of the two candidates in the primary – the other being former PPM vice-president Umar Naseer – and he could consider full-throttled campaign, if at all, only after the primary. The same applies to Umar Naseer, who contesting alone in 2008 presidential polls, obtained less than one per cent vote-share, before joining the Dhivehi Rayyatunge Party (DRP), founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Inside the DRP, Umar Naseer used to be seen as the voice of Gayoom, and used to remain so even after the latter walked out with his group, to found the PPM. Gayoom, after being unanimously elected PPM president in December, has vowed to work for whichever nominee the party’s General Council chooses.

That leaves out DRP leader Thasmeen Ali and Jumhooree Party (JP) founder Gasim Ibrahim. As elected party leader succeeding Gayoom, Thasmeen automatically became DRP’s presidential nominee as early as 2009. Gasim also announced his candidacy very long ago. Between them, however, Gasim has been seen actively campaigning for the party while the DRP leader is still busy competing with the breakaway PPM, enrolling new members for the party, to become the second largest one after the MDP – outside Parliament after it had lost the game inside the Majlis.

Otherwise, the course of the elections depends on the decision of the MDP should Nasheed be disqualified. The party’s National Council has announced that the MDP would boycott the presidential polls if Nasheed is not allowed to contest. Independent of other arguments and consequences, such a course would flag the theoretical question if the MDP if the party would continue with this position even for the parliamentary polls, which is due in May next year.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Maldives battle-lines getting redrawn?

With the Jumhoree Party (JP) voting in Parliament unlike the rest of the partners in the government, and President Mohammed Waheed Hassan sacking one more of its Ministers, battle-lines seem to be getting redrawn in the Maldives all over again.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) lost the vote for secret-ballot on no-confidence motions – one is now pending against President Waheed – by 34-39 with two absentees in the 77-member house, including the Speaker, but the JP decision has exposed the chinks in the government’s armour that had remained underneath until now.

In a way, the early JP decision to vote for secret-ballot may have triggered the current political crisis, independent also of the anti-GMR protests that are centered on the Indian developer-concessionaire for the Male international airport. The sacking of JP Transport Minister Ahamed Shamheed the previous week has been followed by that of State Minister for Gender, Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed.

Minister Saeed had appeared with her husband and JP parliamentarian Abdulla Jabir at a weekend news conference, condemning his arrest on charges of alcohol-consumption, and alleged roughing-up, consequent hurt and humiliation at the hands of the police. Jabir was not alone in all this.

Simultaneously, President Waheed seems to have put on hold the JP’s new nominee for Transport Minister. Ameen Ibrahim is a vice-president of the party and chairman of the VTV of the Villa Group, owned in turn by JP founder, Gasim Ibrahim. He was named to succeed Shamheed after President Waheed stood his ground on not restoring the latter. Simultaneously, however, President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza, one of the recent entrants, quit the JP, protesting against the party’s vote on the secret-ballot.

What make the current developments interesting is the presidential aspirations of JP’s Gasim Ibrahim. He was among the first serious contenders for the presidency to announce his candidature in the elections that are due in 2013. Having bagged over 15 per cent of the popular-vote in the first-ever multi-party, direct elections to the presidency in 2008, Ibrahim is believed to command a ‘committed vote-bank’, which he transferred to MDP’s Nasheed in the second run-off round, thus contributing to the latter’s victory. With the nation purportedly poised for an equally keen contest the next time too, the current political developments have the potential to advance the presidential poll date, as desired and demanded by the MDP, ever since President Nasheed quit office on February 7.

Avoidable embarrassment

Despite winning the vote against secret-ballot on anticipated lines, the government faced avoidable embarrassment in Parliament when a member charged President Waheed and his aides with influencing him to “vote in a particular way” on the issue of secret-ballot. Ali Azim is one of the two MPs against whom the civil court had cancelled summons earlier in the day on Monday, for non-payment of dues to the state-run Bank of Maldives (BoM). Under the Maldivian law, proclaimed debtors cannot continue as MPs until they had cleared their dues – and at times have to get re-elected after their seats are declared vacant.

The government has promptly and predictably denied Azim’s charge. It is unclear if the MP intends moving a breach of privilege motion against all those whom he had named inside the house as influencing him to vote in a ‘particular way’ on the secret-ballot.

Media reports on his parliamentary expose, if one, did not mention any substantial evidence to prove his point. For now, the charge lends credence to the opposition MDP’s charge that the government was using all means to influence and/or intimidate MPs. If there are more on the treasury benches, as claimed, they are yet to speak up – or, act otherwise on issues of concern to the government.

‘Anti-GMR, not anti-India’

On a parallel track, which may have been side-lined to an extent by the more immediate political developments inside and outside Parliament, a junior Minister claimed that the on-going anti-GMR protests should not be construed as anti-India protests. In a pointed reference to the Indian concerns expressed by the Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi recently, State Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Ahmed Shameem, claimed that the issue related to a company owned by ‘some Indians’ but was registered in another country and did not pay taxes to India.

The issue thus did not relate to India or the Indian Government, the Minister said.

“No demonstrations have been held in Maldives against India. No anti-India sentiments were expressed in any of the demonstrations held… India should not, therefore, be worried over a non-existent matter.”

Elaborating, Minister Shameem said, “We have no issues with India. We have no issues with any Indian citizens in Maldives, and likewise we have no issues with any of the employees of GMR. The issue is with the agreement made by the former Government (of President Nasheed) with GMR. All we want is to annul that agreement.”

Miadhu quoted Minister Shameem as also saying that they had clarified the position even in the Friday night’s rally of the National Alliance. He recalled that religion-centric Adhalathth Party leader “Sheikh Imran and others stated this very clearly. They clarified that there is no threat to any Indian citizen in Maldives”. As may be recalled, the protestors have resorted to a combination of religion and patriotism to target GMR, continuing from where they had left the ‘December 23 Movement’ after the February 7 resignation of President Nasheed.

Tirade against envoy continues

Minister Shameem went on to claim that the Indian government had been misinformed of the reality of the situation by people in the Maldives. He urged the Indian government to seek authentic information about the situation in the Maldives directly without contacting any third party.

Minister Shameem belongs to President Waheed’s Gaumee Itthihaad Party (GIP), and it is unclear why the response to the Indian MEA’s statement should come from someone not attached to the Maldivian Foreign Ministry.

Almost simultaneously, Minvian News confirmed that President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza stood by his controversial statement that Indian High Commissioner Dyaneshwar Mulay was a “traitor to Maldives, and corrupt”.

The opposition MDP had earlier taken the issue to parliament, with members claiming that the comments were against diplomatic protocol and could affect bilateral relations with India. MDP parliamentarian Eva Abdulla alleged that the remarks made by Riza were not those of his own but were rather made under “direct orders” of President Waheed, as Minivan News reported.

Riza got not-so-unexpected support from Abdul Azeez Jamaal Aboobakr, MP belonging to the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Abdul the the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The PPM is the single largest political group supporting the Waheed government in parliament, and Aboobakr said that a person’s freedom cannot be limited because of his employment. He told parliament that Riza too had his freedom of speech – and recalled that the latter had prefaced his public utterances on High Commissioner Mulay as his personal views.

According to Minivan News, the majority of PPM members in parliament attempted to defend Riza, and tried to switch the focus onto the Indian envoy. However, in an apparent contradiction to its comments in parliament, the PPM on November 12 issued a statement dissociating the party from the ‘slanderous’ allegations made against High Commissioner Mulay, Minivan News said further. Earlier, the President’s Office too had distanced himself from Riza’s statement.

In the past, PPM leaders had spoken about the need for re-negotiating the GMR agreement, not ousting them from the airport construction-cum-concession contract. The party’s position on the issue is unclear. So is the current position of the Dhivehi Raayathunge Party (DRP), another of the Government parties originally founded by President Gayoom, and from which he is estranged now.

Over the previous weeks, DRP leader Thasmeen Ali and other leaders have spoken against the moves to oust GMR, but have not been heard of since. On the crucial secret-ballot issue the DRP, like the PPM, voted with the government and against the MDP amendment.

‘India need not be concerned…’

At the same time, in what read like a loaded statement, Minivan News quoted President Waheed’s interview to the news agency, Press Trust of India (PTI), that New Delhi “need not be concerned with affairs in the Maldives”. He claimed further that “this is not a problem that we have with GMR, but with a bad agreement… We have to pay GMR US$1.5 million per month under the current arrangement of the agreement in operation, and that is beyond our capacity”.

The reference was to the erstwhile MDP-led government of President Nasheed offering to compensate GMR for the loss of revenue, after a local court struck off the original provision for levying $25 entry fee for Maldivians using the Male airport. Ironically most government parties today, barring President Waheed’s GIP, were in the opposition at the time the GMR contract was signed – and had opposed it through political, legislative and legal means.

Otherwise too, President Waheed may have a point, when he says the government is strapped for cash to pay GMR every month. Tourism had sustained economic development up to a point, but for growing with the growth, the nation needs large investments in the infrastructure sector in particular. The skewed governmental revenue-model from the resort-centric tourism industry is incapable of sustaining the economy. This is also the crux of the fiscal problem that the Nasheed government inherited and left behind – after attempting to address wide-ranging economic reforms, which came with the IMF-driven austerity measures, affecting the common man as much as the large pool of public servants.

Against this background, the Waheed government may not have any answers to the question of much larger repayments that may become necessary if the GMR agreement were to be annulled, as being sought by street-protestors in Maldives, and the international arbitrators in Singapore, whom GMR has approached under the agreement for redress, rule in its favour. Of equal concern should be the unwillingness of other overseas investors to put their money in Maldives, a nation until now known for easy repatriation procedures that had attracted funding for the resort industry in the first place.

The alternative could be that Maldives has already identified an external underwriter, now lurking in the side-lines, to either pay-off or buy-out GMR, or have other weapons in its arsenal to avoid/minimise those payments.

The Adhaalath Party, which had set a November 15 deadline for the government to take-over the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) from GMR has extended the same till the month-end.

For its part, GMR has reiterated its willingness to re-negotiate the position under the existing agreement. Yet, it is unclear if the Maldivian government is willing to re-negotiate the deal as ruling combine leaders used to say from time to time, or would have the time, energy and inclination to do so, and that domestic political developments of the kind flagged by the JP vote on the secret-ballot and allied issues would not overtake the same.

To the extent, the GMR issue and the political crisis could overlap in more ways than one, and more often than anticipated, with consequences for the nation and its near-exclusive import-driven economy.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Legislature versus judiciary in the Maldives?

After three years of continuous confrontation between the executive and the judiciary, Maldivian democracy is now getting exposed to the inevitability of an issue-based confrontation between the legislature and the judiciary.

The clash may have flowed from the on-going criminal case against former President Mohammed Nasheed, but central to the emerging row could be the question of comparable supremacy of the judiciary and the legislature, an issue that has been basic to other democracies too.

In an infant multi-party democracy such as the Maldives, it will be interesting to note how the constitutional institutions take forward the cumulative concerns of nation-building in areas where other emerging democracies had handled near-similar situations with abundant caution and accompanying maturity.

The current controversy flows from President Nasheed purportedly ordering the arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohammed on January 16, and holding him ‘captive’ in an island away from the national capital of Male, the latter’s place of ordinary residence. With the change ofgGovernment on February 7 now has come the criminal case against President Nasheed and a host of others serving his government at the time. However, the involvement of a judge in this case should not distract from the issue on hand.

What is material to the present situation is the summoning of the three judges of the suburban Hulhumale Court by the Parliament Subcommittee on Government Accountability, dominated by members of President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The judges, first asked to appear before the committee, almost around the same time as President Nasheed was summoned to appear before the three-judge bench, stayed away once.

They have stayed away a second time, since. Media reports quoting committee sources claimed that on neither occasion did the judges assign any reason for not appearing before the committee.

In ordinary circumstances, this has the potential to trigger an all-out confrontation between parliament and the judiciary. In this case, however, circumstances may have conspired already to make it even more complex. The fact that these are possibly the only judges to have been summoned by the said parliamentary committee under the new constitutional scheme of 2008 has not gone unnoticed. Nor has the fact that they were trying President Nasheed when they were summoned by the committee. A government party member on the committee also went to town soon after it decided on the summoning of the judges that many of the non-MDP members were held up in a Parliament voting when the decision was taken. The implication was still that the government party members may not subscribe to the decision taken by their MDP counterparts, who have a majority representation on the committee.

Not much is known about the immediate causes surrounding the summoning of the judges. Prima facie, it is said that they were required to depose before the committee on matters flowing from the Report of the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), submitted to President Waheed Hassan Manik in August-end.

While upholding the constitutional validity of the power-transfer after President Nahseed resigned on February 7, the multi-member body with international representation had recommended the further strengthening of the ‘independent institutions’ under the constitutions. However, it is argued that any furtherance of the goal could not be achieved by parliament or any of its committee, by summoning members of the subordinate judiciary. It has to be at higher-levels, be it in terms of policy-review, execution or supervision.

Ruling Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM) member of the Committee, Ahmed Nihan Hassan Manik, said, without much loss of the time when the judges were first summoned, that the panel had exceeded its mandate. Pointedly, he referred to the pending criminal case against President Nasheed, and said that neither any parliamentary committee nor the full House could discuss any case pending before any court in the country. “The MDP says that they do not accept Hulhumale court’s jurisdiction. Parliament committees do not have the mandate to summon judges in relation to this accusation. I think MDP members did this because they are emotionally charged,” Nihan said on that occasion.

Cat-and-mouse or hide-and-seek game?

The Supreme Court, whose directions the three judges were believed to have sought, reportedly advised them against appearing before the parliamentary committee. The Judicial Services Commission (JSC), another ‘independent institution’ under the 2008 Constitution, was even more forceful in its defence of the judges’ decision not to appear before the committee. Citing specific provisions, the JSC said that the Majlis should stop interfering in the judiciary and should respect the separation of powers as guaranteed under the constitution.

The JSC cited Article 141 (c) of the constitution, which reads thus: “No officials performing public functions, or any other persons, shall interfere with and influence the functions of the courts.” It further referred to Article 21 (b) of the Law on the Judicial Services Commission and said that it was the sole authority for holding judges accountable to their actions. Further, the JSC has also Article 9 of the Bill on Judges as legal foundation for its arguments against judicial interference by the Majlis. The JSC may have a point, considering that ‘Institution Commissions’ such as this one were given constitutional protection only to free subordinate organs of the government from perceived interference and influence by the Executive and the rest.

MDP members on the parliamentary committee have denied any linkage between the case against President Nasheed and the summoning of the trial judges. MDP’s Parliamentary Group Deputy Leader Ali Waheed, chairing the committee, has also described the actions of the judges and the JSC as well as the Supreme Court’s encouragement of their behaviour as a “cat-and-mouse” game played by the Judiciary. “What we are witnessing is a ‘cat-and-mouse’ or a ‘hide-and-seek’ game being played between Parliament and the judiciary. If that is the case, we are going to play the cat-and-mouse chase, because we are not going to step back from our responsibilities,” Minivan News quoted him as telling a news conference after the judges failed to appear before the committee.

Ali Waheed denied that they were summoning the three judges “to settle scores or for a personal vendetta or to destroy their reputations”, but within the course of executing their legal duties.

“As the chair of Parliament’s Government Oversight Committee, I shall continue to execute my duties and we believe the constitution allows us to summon anyone with regard to our concerns and we will do so. So I sincerely urge them not to hide behind a constitutional clause dictating the responsibilities of the judges,” Waheed said, maintaining that the committee’s intentions were sincere and that it was being very “respectful” and “patient”.

According to Minivan News, Ali Waheed went on to add: “These people are those who must lead by example (in upholding the law) but what we see is that neither the Anti-Corruption Commission, nor the Auditor-General, not even Parliament is being allowed to hold these people accountable. They can’t be above the law and should not even think they are,” he continued. “What we are repeatedly reassuring them is that we will not allow committee members to question them on matters not in their mandate.”

Waheed’s fellow MDP parliamentarian Ahmed Hamza argued that the judges’ decision was in contrast to principles of rule of law, which were fundamental to a democratic State. “In every democracy it is the people from whom the powers of the State are derived. Parliament represents the people, and their actions reflect the wish of the people, so all authorities must respect the decisions,” he said. Hamza, according to Minivan News, reiterated that the current system of separation of powers holds the three arms of the State accountable to one another through a system of checks-and-balances.

Hamza dismissed the claims made by pro-government parties that the committee was attempting to influence the on-going trial of President Nasheed. “We are not trying to defend Nasheed, all we are trying to do is to carry out our duties and responsibilities vested in the constitution. We will not question them about any ongoing trial, nor will we comment on their verdicts and decisions,” Minivan News quoted Hamza as saying further.

Democratic precedents

The committee’s summons for the three Judges was formally routed through Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid, thus conferring the authority of the Majlis. For an infant democracy, the current controversy has the potential to create a constitutional deadlock of a new kind, after President Nasheed in mid-2010 ordered the closure of the Supreme Court by the nation’s armed forces for a day. The period also witnessed a deadlock of sorts between the Executive and the Legislature, where the present-day ruling parties were in the Opposition and held a collective majority. However, the current deadlock has greater potential for inflicting deeper constitutional wounds than the rest. At the centre of the issue however would be the Executive, which prima facie has no role to play but may be called upon to resolve the issue, nonetheless, particularly if the situation were to go out of hand in the coming days and weeks.

It is not as if other democracies have not faced similar or near-similar problems. What is, however, unique to the Maldivian situation is that in the absence of political, legal and constitutional precedents of its own, the temptation for each arm of the State to assert its relative supremacy and consequent paramountcy against one another could be too tempting to test and also resist.

Elsewhere there have been many instances of the kind, though even there does not seem to be any parallel of the Maldivian kind where judges have been summoned before a parliamentary committee to comment on issues after they had assumed judicial offices.

In the US and many other western democracies, parliament and parliamentary committees have both the right and responsibility to vet prospective judges to superior courts nominated by the executive, and also vote on such nominations, where required. It is so in those countries when it comes to other senior governmental appointments, including envoys to foreign countries. The Maldives follows such a scheme, yet in the case of judges, as the 2010 controversy showed, the differences were over nominations to the JSC, not of individual judges, particularly at the subordinate levels. Incidentally, in none of the western democracy is there a known precedent of a serving member of the subordinate judiciary being summoned by a parliamentary committee. They are often left to the administrative control of the higher judiciary, which only is subject to the option of impeachment of its individual members by the legislature.

In neighbouring India, which is the world’s largest and possibly a more complex democracy at work than its western counterparts, issues involving the judiciary and the legislature are confined to two broad-spectrum spheres, other than in matters of ‘impeachment’ (which was effectively used twice since Independence, with 50 per cent success rate). In India, the judiciary and the legislature have often come into conflict over the former staying the operation of any legislative ruling in terms of actions initiated against individuals called to bar. Where a final verdict is available, the legislature concerned has often abided by the judicial verdict even in such matters.

Judicial intervention in legislative action in India otherwise has been confined mostly to the Speaker’s rulings or initiatives in matters pending before him under the anti-defection law. The law came into force in the mid-eighties, close to 40 years after independence, and opened up a new chapter on legislative jurisprudence of the kind. While holding the law, empowering the Speaker of the legislature concerned, as the final arbiter of what constituted ‘defection’ by an individual member or a group in a parent party, the higher judiciary applied a kind of checks-and-balances in the application of the rule to individual cases, based on facts and circumstances. The Supreme Court’s judgment in the ‘Manipur Assembly Speaker case’ defined and restricted the role of the Speaker under the anti-defection law. This was however followed by the Apex Court’s verdict in the ‘S R Bommai case’ (1994) which in fact sought to expand the scope and role of the legislature in deciding a government’s floor majority.

As coincidence would have it, almost every Third World, South Asian democracy seems to have witnessed issues involving the judiciary and the legislature, with the executive coming to be willy-nilly involved, by extension. In Pakistan, the supremacy of the Judiciary ultimately dictated that the Legislature’s pro-confidence resolution did not have the required legal and constitutional binding, with the result, Prime Minister Yousaf RazaGilani quit on court orders. His successor, Raja Pervez Ashraf, after indicating to go Gilani’s way has obliged the Supreme Court’s directive in writing to the Swiss Government on the bank accounts of the nation’s President, Asif Ali Zardari.

In ‘revolutionary’ Nepal, the incumbent government promptly followed the Supreme Court directive on holding fresh elections to the Constituent Assembly without seeking to extend its term further. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, over the past couple of years, the respective Supreme Court have held preceding constitutional amendments passed under the military regime unconstitutional, and no section of the incumbent Legislature has contested the same. More recently in Sri Lanka, the legislature was said to be in a seeming conflict with the judiciary, but on record, senior Ministers were deployed to annul all such apprehensions.

It is in the larger context that Maldives has to view the emerging controversy involving the legislature and judiciary, which if left unaddressed, has the potential to rock the constitutional boat further.

Considering however the telescoping of the democratic process that Maldives has adopted unintentionally, as the events and consequent constitutional issues have shown, the possibility of further clarity on the overall spectrum appearing at the end of the tunnel on this core issue too cannot be ruled out. Either way, the stake-holders need to handle the issues and the attendant controversies with the knowledge, accommodation and sensitivity that they demand.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Will early polls end this drift?

At one-level, it is business as usual in Maldives – at another, it is calm before possible storm.

While an element of political stability attaching to the government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik in recent weeks after the destabilising events of February 7, has ensured that day-to-day business of the Government does not suffer, it has also flagged new issues that could challenge the internals of the uneasy coalition that he has been heading.

Together, they have the potential to create a façade of self-belief, which otherwise boils down to self-illusion and self-destruction of the kind that the MDP predecessor in office had practised while in power.

It took the MDP and President Mohammed Nasheed greater and persistent efforts to arrive at where they did in less than three years in office. Given the composition and contextualisation of the Government coalition after he resigned on that fateful February 7, they would instead have to put in greater efforts and display equal sincerity to make their present scheme work – and well into the future.

In the absence of a commitment about the future, particularly over the presidential polls, whenever held, the ruling coalition is already drifting towards unsure approach not necessarily to administration, but to their politics. At the centre of it all, however, is their individual approach to the presidential polls and individualistic perceptions about their comparative electoral strength, as much within the combine as outside.

In a way, the drift also owes to a creeping underlying yet unmistakable belief of individual Government parties that the ‘common political threat’ from the MDP has receded, and at the same time the presidential polls, due in November 2013, cannot be delayed eternally – even if President Nasheed’s demand for early elections could be scuttled.

They had worked it in the past, when President Maumoon Gayoom was in power. Ushering in multi-party democracy, many now in the Government had joined hands with the MDP to oust the incumbent through the power of the ballot. In contrast, the February 7 exit of President Nasheed might have been controversial but the ‘ganging up’ political adversaries against him within three years of his emerging as the Maldivian mascot for democracy was also owed to the ‘democratic distrust’ that had crept into the political scheme. Today, the talk of presidential polls, whenever held, is the distinguishing and delineating factor, so to say.

For his part, President Nasheed has been travelling overseas increasingly, carrying his message about the ‘coup’ that forced his resignation. The inherent differences within the Government parties, often based on individualist approaches and claims, is coming out in the open – and inevitably so. Ironically, it could be construed as a measure of lessened threat from President Nasheed and the MDP. It is thus that the PPM and PA, owing allegiance respectively to President Gayoom and his half-brother Abdulla Yameen, have formed a parliamentary coalition, excluding the DRP parent of the former and also the Jumbooree Party (JP), identified with billionaire-businessman Gasim Ibrahim.

The PPM has also begun openly accusing DRP leader Thasmeen Ali of colluding with the MDP Opposition, which charge the latter had denied vehemently. Yet, the DRP has been put on the defensive within the ruling combine, and embarrassingly so.

What can a ‘running-mate’ do?

With a substantial showing in the presidential polls of 2008 and recent by-elections to the People’s Majlis or Parliament and local councils, the JP has been ‘poaching’ MPs and other leaders from other parties – including one MP from the DRP partner in Government. The MDP in particular cannot complain, as under the Nasheed presidency in the democracy era, they had started off the game.

The Constitution provides for a run-off, second round polling between the top two scorers, if none of the candidates crossed the mid-way mark in the first phase of presidential polls. The strategy and effort of individual political parties in the Government thus is to be able to get into the second round, and negotiate with the rest from a position of strength. This would precisely be a repeat of the 2008 polls, in their perception, when Gasim Ibrahim, and another runner-up, Dr Hassan Saeed, at present Special Advisor to President Waheed, transferred their first-round votes to Candidate Nasheed, who was the Opposition topper with 25 per cent vote-share against incumbent President Gayoom’s 40 per cent.

Today, the roles have reversed, what with President Nasheed being seen as the potential candidate to top the list. Having nominated him as their presidential nominee already, through a democratic process prescribed under the law, the MDP believes that he would win hands down in the first round. He would have to, given the present alignment of political parties, as there is nothing to suggest that he would be able to fill the gap if pushed into the run-off phase. It is in this context, the PPM charges against DRP colluding with the MDP needs to be viewed. However, the DRP seems to believe that the party’s cadre-base and vote-base are as much anti-Nasheed in their political preferences as they are anti-Gayoom, leaving the leadership with little manoeuvrability in alliance-formation. It is a real threat facing the DRP, particularly after ‘rebel MDPs’, comprising elected but ousted party president Ibrahim Didi and his deputy AlhanFahmy, with whom the party might have shared a common dilemma, chose to join the JP, instead. Didi now heads the JP and party founder Gasim Ibrahim is a sure candidate for the presidency.

The problem with coalition politics of the nature, which has suited experienced and matured presidential democracies as in the US, is that the running-mate to the presidential candidate is expected to bring in additional votes to fill the winning-gap. President Nasheed does not have anyone before him who could be described as such, if the MDP’s calculations about a first-round victory for him need testing on the ground. Individual Government parties are keener on demonstrating their individual vote-share with a second round in mind than forming an alliance for the first round, where political partners could choose their presidential candidate and vice-presidential running-mate through electoral negotiations. It was so in 2008, when Candidate Nasheed chose Waheed, founder of the GaumeeItthihaad Party (GIP) as his running-mate, but his experience since assuming office, flowing from his inability to share power with his Vice-President, might dissuade others of the ilk from attempting some such measure at present.

‘Transitional justice’ and vindictiveness

It does not stop there. In recent days, the Majlis, where the Government parties are in a majority, has passed a resolution for a parliamentary committee to probe certain decisions of President Nasheed while in office. It is unclear if the immunity available to former Presidents, which President Nasheed had underlined after demitting office, would extend to cover parliamentary resolutions of the kind. More importantly, in an impromptu yet immediate effort at national reconciliation after electoral results were known in 2008, President-elect Nasheed announced legal immunity for his predecessor.

He also called on President Gayoom soon after his election, and the latter too facilitated smooth and seamless transfer of power, putting at rest all speculation that he would try to thwart the democratic expression of his people. Though once subsequently, President Gayoom was summoned to a police station for an enquiry regarding a criminal case dating back to his days in office, nothing was allowed to come off such efforts, which were as half-hearted as they were off-handed.

The Government and the parties forming a majority for it in the Majlis have been talking about filing criminal and constitutional cases against President Nasheed and his erstwhile Cabinet members and MDP leaders. Some of it has proceeded on expected lines while no major case has been filed against any top leaders thus far. Indications are that the Government might take its time deciding on whom to target, how, why and when – more in terms of political expediency rather than legal/constitutional accountability.

As and when it happened, the MDP is sure to cry foul, and charge the Government with political vindictiveness. Its political argument might stand vindicated if the higher judiciary, as has been happening since the February 7 change-over, stands in the way. The Waheed leadership, however, has thus far kept its promise of not interfering with the judicial freedom, a charge levelled against the predecessor leadership – and, not without some justification, as the locking up of the Supreme Court by the nation’s armed forces in mid-2010 showed.

Charges and counter-charges of vindictiveness of the nature have their political fallout. The MDP, while in power, had revived such talk by constantly referring to ‘transitional justice’ when President Gayoom failed the party’s expectations by returning to active politics. A catchy phrase nonetheless, ‘transitional justice’ boiled down to legal action against the Gayoom leadership for alleged wrong-doings during its tenure. During the ‘December 23 Movement’ run-up to the February 7 episode and later, MDP hard-liners have not tired of blaming the ‘pacifist’ Nasheed presidency for taking a lenient view of his predecessor’s undemocratic and corrupt actions – including five-time imprisonment for his would-be successor.

Yet, any talk now of reviving ‘transitional justice’ on the MDP’s part if returned to power, or similar ranting by the incumbent Government parties has the potential to make the run-up to the presidential poll more tension-ridden than already.

Tottering economy

Though the MDP’s predictions of a post-resignation steep fall in tourist arrivals have not been proved right, the nation’s economy continues to totter, going beyond concurrent global and regional inconsistencies of the times. JP’s Gasim Ibrahim, a former Finance Minister under the Gayoom dispensation, has begun talking about a ‘bankrupt Government’ while Presidential Advisor Hassan Saeed too has been cautioning the nation that Maldives cannot afford to live beyond its means. Here, they share the perception of the MDP and President Nasheed, when the latter was in office, yet the Waheed Government has revisited some of the IMF-dictate economic reforms policies of the predecessor-administration. Recently, the Government took a Rf 300 million loan from the Maldivian Monetary Authority (MMA), a State institution, and there is an accompanying controversy over approaching Parliament for a post facto endorsement instead of prior clearance.

What could help to bring back political order, which alone would ensure governmental stability at a time when the crying need of the economy seems the same? On political stability alone would depend foreign investments, which would be among the near-permanent sources of economic revitalisation for countries such as Maldives, particularly so in the South Asian neighbourhood, and for a long time to come before they became self-reliant. For instance, the February 8 violence that followed President Nasheed’s resignation, forced or otherwise, while not exactly rattling foreign tourists, who form the backbone of the nation’s economy, however may have make new investors to hold back their decisions, at least until political stability that they can feel and vouchsafe for returns to the Indian Ocean archipelago.

It is not as if early presidential polls would automatically ensure political stability. The problem with the Nasheed presidency was the MDP’s inability to retain its political coalition until after the parliamentary elections six months later. This meant that the Government under the Executive President system did not have a parliamentary majority – it did not have one even at inception – leading to horse-trading on the one hand, and rejection of Government’s initiative on the other. That included a resolution calling upon the Government to obtain Majlis’ approval for every major contractual decision, as with the ‘GMR case’, and refusal to endorse some Cabinet nominees of the President. Similarly, post-poll, the new President would have to ensure peace on the streets, which alone would ensure not only investors’ confidence in the nation but also the people’s confidence in democracy.

For now, all talks of early presidential polls have been shelved after the Government parties made a near-mockery of the All-Party Roadmap Talks by taking up a long list of 30 issues that were not on the original agenda, but included ‘black magic’ as among those needed national priority and hence attention. There is no talk again of reviving the all-party talks, which willy-nilly seems to be getting linked to the progress of the National Commission of Inquiry (NCI), appointed by President Waheed and expanded to include an MDP nominee and an independent member from Singapore, at the instance of the international community.

The expanded NCI has been tasked to submit its report by July-end, but the chances are that they may require extension(s) to be able to come up with anything concrete – which by the nature of things, could at best be recommendatory in character, and not mandatory in nature.

The chances are that whichever side whose arguments the NCI does not buy would not accept the findings and act on the same. And the Government, as is known, would be keen on reviving the Roadmap Talks, whose agenda included early presidential polls, only if the NCI hands down a split-verdict. All this would boil down to only one thing. That the stake-holders in the Roadmap talks could well begin with committing themselves to the findings of the NCI, and also begin taking their job seriously so as to build a national consensus, not only over the presidential polls but equally so on other issues, too. In the absence of such a course, any divergence of opinion between the Executive and the Legislature in the months after fresh presidential poll could bring the nation to a virtual stand-still, or lead to further horse-trading, which would be a mockery of democracy, all the same.

Worse still, between now and the presidential polls, whenever held, the inevitable internal dissensions within the ruling coalition, if it could be called so, could lead to mutual acrimony of the administrative kind and initiative, even as their attempt to cobble together an electoral strategy to keep the MDP adversary at bay could strain the infant democracy, still.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Black magic a national policy priority?

As anticipated, the three-day Bandos Resort retreat for participants at the Roadmap Talks has ended inconclusively. The fact that the representatives for the all-party negotiations, aimed at finding ways out of the current political impasse in Maldives, have promised to meet again should be seen as a success in itself, however limited.

Given the inherent nature of the talks and the stiff positions that the nation’s polity had taken on issues that were at hand, to expect anything more was rather out of the question.

In the ordinary circumstances, the talks could have broken down on the rival positions taken by the Government side and the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on substantive issues. That was not to be. Media reports indicate that the Government parties had a long list of woes that they wanted the MDP to address prior to major issues could be taken up.

Or, so it seemed.

Already, there was a six-point agenda, and after a lot of haggling, the MDP had agreed to stick to an agreed prioritisation for discussions. Included in the list of woes presented by the Government parties was a demand for MDP cadres not to stop Government party leaders from setting foot on various islands. The MDP could crow about the demand as a measure of its continuing popularity on those islands. Otherwise, it is a law and order problem, which the Government is expected to handle independent of the parties involved.

Then there was a demand on the MDP promising not to practice black magic on Opposition leaders and other opponents, real or perceived. News reports claimed that the police had recovered from Male’s Usfasgandu MDP camp site materials purported to have been used by practitioners of black magic. Marked photographs of some identifiable police officers, against whom it was feared black magic might have been practised at the camp site, were also recovered. The MDP has all along claimed to be a modern, no-nonsense party. It did not contest that such materials were recovered from the camp site.

It was, however, thought that the retreat and the Roadmap Talks were expected to address major policy issues, including the dire economic situation facing the nation. It is anybody’s guess when ‘black magic’ became a national policy, above the nation’s economy, for the Roadmap Talks to expend its time on such trivia. If parties felt strongly about them, other avenues should have been identified for discussing their concerns, without holding the Roadmap Talks hostage to sub-texts whose numbers are many and can be multiplied at will.

It is anybody’s guess why the Government should have also initiated the provocative police action at the Usfasgandu MDP site coinciding with the retreat talks. The court has intervened since, and stalled the process, but the damage has been done. The Government’s move even threatened the retreat talks. It also contributed to the MDP possibly re-visiting its strategy for the retreat talks. Clearly, the prioritisation outside of the six-point agenda for the Roadmap Talks had to undergo a change. The 30-point talks thus aimed at facilitating the Roadmap Talks thus occupied much of the talks time at the retreat.

MDP too not without blame

Yet, the MDP, going again by media reports, too is not without blame. At the talks, the MDP representatives seemed to be playing hide and seek with the Government side on the give-aways and take-aways from the negotiations. They wanted the Government parties to commit themselves to one of the four demands they had made before the MDP could commit itself to one of the 30 points discussed on normalising the street situation – without giving any hint as to what the MDP’s offer could be.

If the MDP strategists thought that they were smart, that is highly doubtful. At best, the retreat process displayed the MDP’s lack of seriousness to the negotiations process. Otherwise, it amounted to a continuing display of the party’s child-like behaviour on issues of serious national importance.

The MDP’s credibility continues to be at stake. In these weeks and months after the abrupt resignation of the party’s Mohammed Nasheed as the nation’s President on February 7, the world is not any more eating exclusively out of the hands of the MDP’s media machinery. It is watching the goings-on, revisiting the information on hand – once perceived as the truth – and is possibly exchanging notes. On a serious note, for instance, for the MDP to send out names of people which it knew would definitely be rejected by the Government for inclusion in the recast Commission for National Inquiry (CNI) on the ‘resignation episode’ was to make the Commonwealth initiative look a joke of sorts. The party was not exposing the Government to the international community. It was exposing itself – and, possibly the international interlocutors.

The MDP list included the name of a serving General in the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), the nation’s military. His presence on the CNI would prove the MDP right, the party had claimed. The Government, while rejecting the nomination, pointed out that the officer was a close relative of former President Nasheed. The MDP has not denied the Government’s statement. As may be recalled, through all these past months since Nasheed’s resignation, the party had said that serving senior officials of the MNDF had proposed a ‘counter-coup’ to the ‘coup’ that Nasheed claimed, after a time-lapse, as being responsible for his ‘forced resignation’. Whether any linkages could and would be made remains to be seen.

Continuing mistrust

The pre-expansion CNI has since come out with a time-line of events surrounding the resignation episode that it was tasked to probe and report on. The MDP having questioned the impartiality of the three-member probe as it stood, the latter seems to be recording its interim findings for the people to judge – before the expanded CNI took over. The party has since described the publication of the time-lines by the truncated CNI as a “blatant attempt to conceal the truth by pre-empting impartial enquiry”.

The publication is a reflection on the continuing mistrust among the stake-holders. This mistrust cannot be allowed to continue if the findings of the expanded CNI, with a former Singaporean Judge identified by the Commonwealth, and an MDP nominee accepted by the Government, have to be seen as being credible and conclusive. A split-verdict is a possibility, and any run-in during the run-up to the functioning of the expanded CNI would not make things easier, either for the impartiality of the probe or the credibility of its findings. The external member on the panel would be under pressure, too, he having to be seen as being impartial as much as he is impartial.

It is still not unlikely the expanded CNI might start off with reviewing the work already done by the probe, starting with the time-lines already publicised. It could only be a starting-point. Having had its way in having the CNI expanded with its nominee to boot, the MDP would have to swear by its report, whenever submitted. Independent of the protestations to the contrary, the party will have to answer queries on the time-lines set out by the pre-expanded CNI, particularly on the controversial questions on the even more controversial situations leading up to President Nasheed’s resignation.

For instance, there is one question on who ordered the pull-out of police men on duty at the site of competing political rallies on the night of February 6 – and, why. Reports at the time had indicated that a section of the policemen on midnight duty for weeks by then had protested to the unilateral withdrawal from a scene of prospective violence without suitable replacements being ordered in. They were among those who had taken to the streets the next day, along with political protestors, leading to the resignation, it was reported further.

Mixed bag for stake-holders

It’s at best a mixed bag for all stake-holders. Expelled MDP president Ibrahim Didi and vice-president AlhanFahmy have since taken the easy way out, by joining the Jumhoree Party of billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim, who had chaired the constitutional negotiations in 2007-08. The duo had threatened to challenge their expulsion by a nominated national council of the MDP in the court after the Election Commission refused to entertain their petition. The CNI time-line now indicates that Didi, then also a Minister, had chaired a Cabinet meeting when President Nasheed was in the MNDF Headquarters, talking to commanders and possible protestors, during the fateful hours preceding his resignation on February 7. Didi’s version, if any, to the CNI could thus be seen as being coloured. So could it contradict his pro-Nasheed protestations while in the party.

The MDP however has suffered a reversal since. The People’s Majlis, or Parliament has voted out the no-confidence motion moved by the party against Speaker Abdullah Shahid. Numbers did not add up, as two MDP parliamentarians voted against the party resolution and two others abstained. The party is in a quandary about initiating disciplinary action against them. It cannot afford to lose numbers. Nor could it allow individual violation of the three-line whip for MPs to become a greater issue of indiscipline that it may not be able to handle after a time. Already, the party has lost two parliamentary by-elections held since the resignation episode, bringing its strength to 31 in a House with 77 members.

The MDP cannot complain that the Government was inducing/encouraging defections from the party. It had adopted a similar tactic when President Nasheed was in office, with mixed results after failing to muster a majority in the parliamentary polls of 2009. Otherwise, too, the party needs to sit up and review its strategy in terms of targeting every democratic institution in the country as being inimical to the MDP – and by extension, to democracy as a concept. The MDP needs to look at the mirror and apply correctives if the international community on the one hand and discerning Maldivians, whose numbers are not small, have to take the party, and also its claims and allegations more seriously than at present.

Internal contradictions

The Government too cannot settle down to business as usual as if nothing had happened between December last and the present. The delayed processes pertaining to the CNI and the Roadmap Talks may have conferred post facto justification for delayed elections to the presidency than was perceived. That is not saying all. Political administration may be about processes and procedures. It is not so with politics, per se. There is a growing feeling that the Government parties are shying away from early polls, not sure of the MDP’s continuing popularity – and also owing to the internal contradictions within the ruling coalition and the internal problems facing some of the parties in power.

These internal contradictions will remain, whenever the presidential elections are held – now, or when due by July-November, 2013. Nor could the internal differences within some of these political parties, notably the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Gayoom, be wished away at any time in the foreseeable future. The run-up to the presidential polls, whenever held, could be an occasion for furthering these differences, not cementing them. That being the case, the Government parties would need to come clean on their strategy for the future. Only based on such a strategy could they work back, on accommodating the MDP’s demand on advancing the presidential poll. Other arguments in this regard, including constitutional constraints, would fall flat on the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Taking the political momentum forward

It did not receive as much media attention as the one by predecessor Mohamed Nasheed a fortnight earlier in the host nation, yet when President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik came calling at New Delhi he did make his points, loud and clear in corridors and quarters that mattered.

After a lull, the Indian media did wake up though not to the same extent. However, their Maldivian counterparts gave more and instant coverage for his than for President Nasheed’s visit. An indicator for this was the better media management for President Waheed than his team is credited with in comparison.

Coming as they did in quick succession, the two visits reflected the personalities and politics of the respective leaders, their relative strengths and weaknesses.

President Nasheed’s has been people-centric politics. It has often boiled down to cadre-centric protests. In New Delhi, he made one too many media appearances. His face and his charge of a mutiny that he said had forced him out of power were familiar themes in India. But his charge of collusion by Indian High Commissioner Dnyaneshwar Mulay as kind of a co-conspirator in the alleged coup was not. The issue, and not necessarily his accusations, thus caught the imagination.

There were not many takers, however. The more he repeated his allegations on TV cameras, the more he might have ended up losing. Reportedly, his feeble protestations to the contrary did not cut much ice, afterward.

President Waheed’s was not a storm-trooper’s entry into politics. Not many in the Maldives cared about his position as Vice-President under President Nasheed until he succeeded the latter on February 7. That too owed to the circumstances under which he became President. Under President Nasheed earlier, he seemed unsure about his role in the constitutional scheme. None bothered him with a clarification to his satisfaction. The situation only worsened after he had reportedly declined to resign as Vice-President when the rest of the Cabinet resigned en masse in mid-2010, purportedly over the ‘scorched earth policy’ being adopted by Parliament against the Executive.

As a member of the Nasheed Cabinet, Vice-President Waheed would want specific responsibilities assigned to him. President Nasheed’s camp, on the other hand, would argue that as per the American scheme that the Maldives had adopted in this respect, he was only the President-in-waiting, and eternally so. It was this camp however wanted Vice-President Waheed to quit when the rest of the Cabinet quit en masse, at the instance of President Nasheed in mid-2010. In this however, Vice-President Waheed did not see any shared responsibility, to quit.

Which position between the two ? that he should have been assigned specific ministerial/departmental responsibilities, or he was only the President-in-waiting, scored in the end, is still a debatable question for future arrangements of the kind. Thereby hangs a tale.

It would remain an unanswered query of contemporary Maldivian history if Vice-President Waheed’s resignation in 2010 would have upstaged the 2012 political crisis, or advanced it by as many months. On card in 2010 was the possibility of President Nasheed putting in his papers, handing over the reign to Parliament Speaker Abdullah Shahid. The latter would have been in office for only two months, time enough for ordering and supervising fresh presidential polls under the Constitution. The inability of President Nasheed to carry his deputy with him in 2010 meant that Parliament would not clear all his Cabinet nominees, when appointed, and the Supreme Court would endorse the views of Parliament in the matter, thus fuelling fresh crises, and reviving the existing ones too since his coming to power in November 2008. The rest, as they say, is history.

Questions would remain over what if the Cabinet had not resigned with President Nasheed, when he did on February 7, and decided to continue under President Waheed, instead. This generally would have been the case, barring a few possible replacements, in the ordinary scheme of the circumstances in which the Constitution-makers had construed presidential succession. Clearly, the Constitution-makers, most of whom are still active in politics and also parliamentarians to boot, had definitely not thought about the contingency of the kind that the nation witnessed in February. A solution that was aimed at addressing a constitutional impasse under a different set of circumstances applied to an entirely new set of events and developments. However, the succession itself could not be challenged as illegal or unconstitutional for this reason.

Between the two, and compared to any other politician in the country, President Nasheed is considered media-savvy. Yet, on his overseas trips, his team had failed to take his message to home audiences, concentrating mostly on viewers and opinion-makers in host-nations. In contrast, President Waheed’s office seemed to have established a good understanding of the local constituency of the Government coalition. An extension of this was a better understanding of the local media needs, and feeding them, too, from distant Delhi. It may be too early to assess the relative benefits to the respective camps in the Maldives, but having comparatively lesser media coverage in the host-nation seems to be better than more media, as the two leaders may have found out by now.

Going by media reports, while in India President Waheed told his hosts, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, about his Government’s willingness to modify the terms of reference and expand the composition of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) into the ‘mutiny charge’ held out by President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

With Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai having visited Male twice in three weeks in February-March for the purpose, any progress in the ‘Roadmap Talks’ that President Waheed had put in place would have to await the findings of the CNI, the Indian interlocutors were reportedly told further. Translated, it would mean that the MDP and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) cannot complain about inevitable delays in the CNI coming out with its report, originally scheduled for end-May.

From the beginning, the Waheed Government had linked the MDP’s demand for early presidential polls at the end of the year to the findings of the CNI, which again was on President Nasheed’s agenda since quitting office. His camp had also argued that under the Constitution, presidential polls can happen not prior to July 2013. They are otherwise due by November 2013, when alone President Nasheed’s five-year elected term would have ended. Any advancement of elections prior to July 2013 would require a constitutional amendment, which was not possible under the current political climate.

The Government team is also said to have impressed upon the Indian leadership the inadvisability of President Waheed Manik and his Vice-President Waheed Deen quitting simultaneously, to hand over power to Speaker Shahid. Rather than facilitating early polls, as the MDP would want, it could trigger more problems than solving any. Political instability and consequent troubles for and during early presidential polls could only be one of them,  but the most critical one, too. Or, so was it argued, as the Waheed camp has been telling visiting international interlocutors of whatever hue and purpose.

With the Waheed Government offering to amend the NIC mandate in ways that would satisfy the MDP and the CMAG, and also offering to include mutually-acceptable nominees of President Nasheed on the probe team, a clearer situation could emerge only after the report becames available, hopefully around end-July. Whether the CNI would require more time would be known only after reconstituted probe revisits the work already done. On that would also hinge the Government’s position on the MDP’s demand for presidential polls before year-end. How the MDP would balance its two demands remains to be known. So would be the choice of the party’s nominees on the CNI, the Government not being comfortable with the aggressive politics of some already named but rejected with equal speed.

The CMAG has however clarified that the ‘qualifications’ like past political linkages and other credentials that the Government expects in the MDP nominees should be applicable to all members of the CNI. As is known some members of the CNI, all named by the Government, have been identified with some of the ruling parties, particularly the PPM. Simultaneously, however, there seems to have been some agreement on accepting the All-Party Talks convenor Ahmed Mujthaba as the new chair of the CNI as the incumbent would be away on Haj pilgrimage. The Government has also conceded the CMAG demand for expanding the CNI to give it a non-partisan appeal, by including in it an expert from Singapore.

Doubts however remain in Government circles as to the political outcome of the exercise. On the one hand, the CMAG is seen as reflecting the sentiments andemands of the Nasheed camp. Yet, there is no guarantee that whatever was acceptable to the CMAG as the findings of the CNI would be readily acceptable to the other camp, too. More importantly and immediately, there are doubts about the possibility of the CNI process being derailed owing to internal differences that could be expected at every turn, given the politicised composition of the probe team. How this would reflect in the working of the Roadmap Talks also remain to be seen. However, there are no short-cuts to give the CNI a non-partisan outlook. Whatever charges that the Government parties could level against the MDP, the latter could and would return in a greater measure ? given in particular that the Nasheed leadership is seen as the aggrieved party in the whole episode.

In between, major partners in the Waheed Government are also saddled with internal problems of their own. Among them is former President MaummonGayoom’s second-find in the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), floated after he had split the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) that he had founded under the new Constitution. That came with the introduction of multi-party, multi-candidate presidential polls of 2008. As incumbent, President Gayoom lost it in the second, run-off round, after leading substantially in the first. Today, with his walking away from the DRP to found the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the latter is yet to hold organisational elections, to satisfy the rules under the Election Commission.

It is easier said than done, as there are at least three identifiable groups vying for the top slot. In the present-day context, he who is elected party chief could also aspire to become the PPM’s nominee for presidential polls ? for which separate primaries would however have to be held, under the party’s rules. Indications are that at least one or the other of the groups would stay away from presidential poll campaign if their leader is not named the PPM candidate. This inherent and initial weakening of the PPM’s electoral position can become a problem if the presidential polls move on to the second, run-off round, as is being anticipated.

The alternative could be to find a fourth candidate acceptable to the existing three, including President Gayoom, to varying degrees. President Waheed could fit the bill. If the hunt is for an ‘outside candidate’ acceptable to the PPM factions and supported by other partners in the Waheed Government, the net could widen in good time. If allowed to fester, this by itself could contribute to avoidable speculation, and consequent political instability. Given the inevitable circumstances of coalition politics in the country since the inception of the Third Republican Constitution of 2008, speculation of the nature could cause more problems not only for the present Government but also for a post-poll political leadership in the country.

Today, the MDP too is riven with dissensions. The Nasheed camp, dominating the national council, voted out elected party president Ibrahim Didi and his deputy Alhan Fahmy last fortnight. Didi contested his ouster in the Election Commission, which in its order indicated that it would not intervene in the matter, thus favouring the status quo on the ground. He has since declared his intention to move the Supreme Court. This could have consequences, both for and by the party. Anyway, the party split is complete. Given its long drawn-out open battles with the higher judiciary in the country, the Nasheed camp in particular cannot be expected to accept any court order not favouring its position. Otherwise, it could jeopardise the Nasheed camp’s political progression in the interim if the order were to go against it, and if they are called upon to create a new identity and popularise a new symbol, flag, etc.

A conclusive split in the MDP could mean that either of the factions would have to float a new party and conduct organisational elections in time for contesting the presidential polls. It could be a tall order for a new party. For the Nasheed camp, if it were at the receiving end, it could mean that organisational elections would have to take precedence over the current phase of party primaries, where President Nasheed is still the sole candidate. He is expected to win much more than the mandatory 10 per cent vote in a single-candidate primary, but the process will still have to be gone through.

For now, however, the Election Commission’s ruling may have helped revive the All-Party Roadmap talks, initiated at the instance of the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary RanjanMathai in March. Apart from other hiccups in its working, mostly based on reservations expressed by the MDP at the time, the last meeting on May 5 had to be abandoned after some non-MDP parties cited the party-split as reason enough for delaying the political negotiations until after a clearer picture emerged on that front. The talks are now scheduled for Monday, May 21, but how any order of the Supreme Court, or an interim order, could impact on the course will be known as and when the Didi camp moves the higher judiciary in this respect.

How, or how not to balance the internal exigencies of Government parties like the PPM and the forceful demands of the MDP, where Nasheed’s non-officious leadership has come under a cloud, are other factors that need to be counted in while debating any advancing of the presidential polls. On the one hand, parties would have to push through their organisational commitments under the law in time for the presidential polls, even if held only when it is otherwise due. On the other, they too would have to provide for exigencies, should the CNI finding cause a situation where the advancement of the poll became as much mandatory as politically inevitable.

The current political imbroglio has also triggered a national discourse of sorts on the role of multi-lateral agencies and organisations. The CMAG has been a hate-object for most parties in Government. In New Delhi, President Waheed clarified that he did not share the opinion of some of the Government parties that Maldives should quit the Commonwealth after the CMAG had repeatedly come down heavily on the Waheed Government on CNI-related issues, and the earlier pronouncements relating to the resignation of President Nasheed. However, Government party members who had moved a resolution for Maldives to quit the Commonwealth, remain unmoved. By keeping their resolution alive, whether they have linked it to future pronouncements of the CMAG too remains to be seen.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Commonwealth ultimatum sparks call for pull-out

With the People’s Majlis, or Parliament, confirming the nomination of Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Deen, an element of political continuity and consequent stability has been injected into the Maldivian polity for now.

Yet, the visiting Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG)’s ultimatum to the Government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik to recast the National Inquiry Commission (NIC), probing MDP predecessor Mohammed Nasheed’s charges relating to power-transfer, has thrown up a counter-call from Government leaders for Maldives to pull out of the Commonwealth – thus taking the focus away somewhat from domestic politics.

In Parliament, over the confirmation vote, all but one member belonging to the 32-strong majority MDP group, boycotted the 77-member House. The House also cleared all 14 Cabinet members individually, after the Supreme Court had upheld the procedure followed by the Majlis when President Nasheed sent the list of ministerial team for confirmation after their en masse resignation in 2010. The MDP is considering action against errant member Shifag Mufeed, who violated the party’s three-line whip and also spoke against its known line on the ‘coup charge’ in Parliament.

Confirmation for Vice-President Deen takes the punch out of the MDP argument against the need for a constitutional amendment for facilitating early elections. In India recently, and elsewhere too, President Nasheed and his MDP aides had said that President Waheed’s resignation could lead to Speaker Abdulla Shahid taking over the reins for a mandatory two-month period, when fresh presidential polls had to be held under his care. Vice-President Deen’s confirmation now means that even if President Waheed were to quit, the Vice-President would take over his place, as he himself had done when President Nasheed quit on February 7.

For advancing presidential polls without amending the Constitution, both President Waheed and Vice-President Deen will have to quit simultaneously. President Nasheed was believed to have attempted a constitutional coup of the sort when his Cabinet quit en masse, but Vice-President Waheed, it was said, would not play the ball. However, Government coalition partners like the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) have said that they were not against early polls, but favoured a full five-year term for the new President, and were against the nation spending money and time only to fill in the residual part of the current presidency, ending in November 2013. This would require a constitutional amendment.

Yet, the numbers don’t add up for a constitutional amendment of the kind. With two by-election losses after the February 7 power-transfer and now the walk-out from the party by a single member has reduced MDP’s Majlis’ strength to 31. Yet, it remains the ‘majority group’ against the DRP parliamentary group’s 32 after the latter split formally following the two by-elections. Rules mandate that for parliamentary recognition, a political party should have won at least one seat on its symbol. The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Gayoom after splitting away from the DRP, his original political-find, opened the account by winning the Thimarafushi seat in the April 14 by-election.

The PPM now has 17 members in the House, and Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yammen has become the ‘minority group’ leader in the House, a position held by DRP’s Thasmeen Ali. The latter has 15 members. Even if the MDP and the DRP were to vote together, it would add up to only 46 votes in Parliament, and would fall woefully short of a two-thirds majority. Indications are that in the absence of a national consensus over a constitutional amendment, the DRP can be seen as siding with the MDP only at the cost of further erosion in its parliamentary strength.

The leadership of Thasmeen Ali, once President Gayoom’s running-mate in 2008 and later anointed by him as DRP president and presidential nominee for 2013, is said to be acutely aware of the possibilities of a further split, particularly of the cadres drifting towards the PPM than in favour of the MDP, where again internal trouble seemed brewing all over again.

Consternation of and with Commonwealth

Two greater issues however have since captured the nation’s imagination and attention. On return to the country after its first visit soon after the power-transfer, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) served a four-week ultimatum on the Waheed Government to recast the team probing President Nasheed’s coup-charge linked to the power-transfer, to make it more credible, or face more severe action. This only helped open up a national debate, with some Government party members, as if by cue, telling Parliament that Maldives should reconsider its membership of the Commonwealth.

Outside Parliament, President Waheed and some probe team members took different positions on recasting or expanding the commission’s membership, to meet stringent quality-control. President Waheed said that the team’s terms gave it powers to recast itself. Team members however said that they had a limited mandate, and had a May 31 deadline to meet. However, probe team’s leader has since clarified that it had inherent powers to seek external experts to assist it in the probe. Until the CMAG served the ultimatum, President Waheed and his Government had reiterated their request for Commonwealth to suggest experts for assisting the probe without compromising on the nation’s sovereignty. The CMAG has been silent on the request, since.

President Waheed sought to put a lid on the demand for Maldives quitting the Commonwealth, by declaring that it was not in the Government’s mind. However, former President Gayoom, whom the MDP says was the brain behind the ‘power-transfer conspiracy’ and the real power behind the Waheed Governent, has kept the pot boiling since. He said that the Commonwealth’s character has changed, from being supportive of smaller member-nations to become the power-base of the bigger ones. He has also pointed out that the Commonwealth was essentially a club of once-colonised nations whereas Maldives was not a colony, only a protectorate.

Despite President Waheed’s denial two ruling combine MPs have since presented a Bill to Parliament calling upon the Government to pull out of the Commonwealth. The members belong respectively to former President Gayoom’s PPM and Presidential Advisor Hassan Saeed’s DQP. Maldives’ Permanent Representative to the European Union, Ali Hussein Didi, was reported to have said that the situation in the country did not give the CMAG a clear mandate to place the Maldives on its agenda, as per the 2011 Perth summit. Yet, Maldives “will continue to extend “maximum level of cooperation”, Maldivian media reports quoted him as telling a monthly meeting of the EU on South Asia.

Ambassador Didi also criticised the CMAG for not responding to requests for assistance to the ‘coup inquiry’, and reiterated the Government’s current position that presidential polls would be conducted by July 2013, at the earliest, as per the constitutional provision. This, even as Ibrahim Didi, the MDP president, reportedly contested the former’s claims about his purported interpretation of the events of February 6-7, media reports said, while the party also contested the presentation before the EU that President Nasheed’s resignation owed to a ‘popular uprising’. On other issues, flowing from power-transfer, MDP’s Didi seemed to be at logger-heads with the Nasheed camp, nonetheless.

Roadmap talks, or internationalisation further?

In the normal course, the confirmation of the Vice-President should have introduced a greater element of continuity and consequent political stability. Yet, the Commonwealth ultimatum, which runs out in another two weeks, has re-written and re-focused the script, indicating that at least a section of the international community does not want a status quo mind-set in Male to forget past commitments on a credible probe and early presidential polls. The nation’s polity since seems to have become aware of the drift and the impending consequences, which none of them may be in a position to control, after a point.

Pressured from different sides, the government parties and the MDP have since met across the table, to revive the all-party roadmap talks. Participants said they had authorised convenor Ahmed Mujthaba alone to talk to the media, but also indicated that the talks were productive in seeking to prioritise the agreed agenda, worked out at the instance of visiting Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai. They are meeting again on May 5, and progress on the poll-date is also expected in time.

An international civil servant under the UN before returning home to enter pro-democracy politics, President Waheed seems aware of the limitations of domestic protests and protestations, and the compulsions caused by the international community. Committing to inject credibility into the power-transfer probe, the Government reportedly sought international expertise from both the Commonwealth and the UN, expecting possibly the former to respond favourably earlier than the latter. At the time, the government also said that it had asked nations like Malaysia and India to suggest a team of experts for the purpose.

At present, Belgian mediation expert Pierre-Yves Monette is in Maldives, at the instance of the UNDP and on the request of All-Party convenor Mujthaba. Local media reports indicated that he had worked with the Maldivian stake-holders and brought them back to the Roadmap talks. The MDP in particular reportedly had reservations to Monette’s presence at the earlier round of talks, but not anymore. Yet, his engagement is confined to the Roadmap talks, and not the ‘coup probe’. The CMAG’s purported conditions now for sending in a list of experts for the Maldivian government/probe commission to choose from, seem to have thrown up a situation where the request for the UN to help out in the matter, if honoured, could have deeper consequences than Maldives can stomach, some sections in the country seem to feel.

In this regard, recent examples involving neighbouring Sri Lanka and other member-nations are cited as example of excessive and extraneous UN intervention. For India, it means that any reference of the Maldivian case to the UN Security Council could imply that the incumbent government in Male would have more immediate use for China. New Delhi could not complain. Conversely, as the Sri Lankan and Syrian precedents have shown in recent months, by taking the Maldivian case away from the Security Council and to other UN portals such as UNHRC, where veto-power does not apply, the ‘pro-democracy’ West can have a decisive say, but the stake-holders in Maldives, independent of their present predicament, may have none.

The Maldivian stake-holders seem to understand it, too – for, any UN engagement of any kind in recent times has signalled not an early end to what essentially is a domestic problem, often of egos and perceptions, at times in the garb of principles and policies, if at all. For the Government, the internationalisation of the question of early elections (and, not the ‘power-transfer’ issue, where alone UN expertise has been sought) could lead to a global discourse, where extraneous global concerns like religious radicalism and strategic location of Maldives could dictate the mind-set and dominate the proceedings. Issues such as parliamentary confirmation for the Vice-President and the Cabinet, the arguments favouring the power-transfer probe team and elections only when they are scheduled would then be of little consequence.

For the MDP, not only could early elections become worse than a distant possibility but also the party’s nationalist credentials and its democratic sheet-anchor could come under question. If nothing else, sympathy that the party and President Nasheed claims to have retaken following the power-transfer after it was believed to have lost it to the Nasheed Government’s economic policies and political approach to the Opposition of the day may become suspect all over again. Not just MDP, but even the very concept of ‘democracy’ may then be in question in the country, which ushered in the processes and also peaceful power-transfer through multi-party elections as far back as 2008, and long before the ‘Arab Spring’, among others.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]om

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