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]


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]


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]


Comment: Reconciling to reconciliation

With the People’s Majlis, or Parliament, commencing its delayed inaugural session for the current year with the customary address by President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, even if in the midst of disturbances caused by the majority Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the stage may have been set now for political reconciliation in Maldives.

If nothing else, neither can the MDP be seen as continuing to stall parliamentary proceedings without increasing international opprobrium nor can the Government parties argue that in the absence of peace in Parliament, they could not be expected to discuss and vote on advancing presidential polls, as promised.

Addressing Parliament, President Waheed declared his intention to facilitate early elections, as promised to India and the rest of the international community after MDP predecessor Mohammed Nasheedpost facto claimed that a ‘mutiny’ by a section of the armed forces and police was the chief cause for his widely-telecast resignation on February 7.

On another note of concern to the MDP, both while in office and otherwise, he spoke about plans to “empower” the independence of institutions like the Majlis and the country’s judiciary by not “interfering” with their work. In his days in office and outside, President Nasheed and his MDP colleagues had often talked about ‘reforming’ the judiciary and other independent institutions, translating in effect into what the Opposition called ‘interference’.

“This is the time for all of us to work together in one spirit, the time to bring political differences to the discussion table in order to formulate solutions. According to the Constitution, the earliest date for a presidential election is July 2013. If a presidential election is required at an earlier date, changes need to be made to the Constitution. I will do everything in my power to bring together all the political leaders, to hold discussions on the matter,” President Waheed said in his inaugural address, when Parliament reconvened on Monday, March 19, after MDP members inside the Chamber and street-protesters had stalled the originally scheduled sitting on March 1 in an unprecedented manner.

Independent of the street-protests that have continued until after the security forces had swung into action a day after the presidential address and removed an ‘MDP camp’, in what is argued to be the land allotted to the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), in turn leading to a court case, there now seems to be some scope for reconciliation in regard to the continuing political deadlock.

While arguing the MDP’s case on substantive issues, a Commonwealth ministerial team, on its second visit to the country since Nasheed quit office, did not take kindly to his party members disrupting parliamentary proceedings. Then as now, the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) too has decried the MDP behaviour inside Parliament, both on March 1 and 19.

Voices against violence

From within the MDP, there have been increasing voices against street-violence by party cadres, and also on the need for the party to return to the negotiations table for taking its agenda forward. Party president and former president Ibrahim Didi was among the first to criticise cadre-violence, targeting public and private property. Included in the list in recent days was the building housing the media establishment of former opposition Jumhooree Party founder and one-time Finance Minister Gasim Ibrahim, who in turn is among the richest in the country.

Sooner than later, the MDP will be called upon to test President Waheed’s constantly-reiterated commitment to early polls, by participating in the all-party talks, initiated at the latter’s instance weeks ago. Two other political parties, namely the DRP and the PPM, both founded by Nasheed’s predecessor Maumoon Gayoom, with he himself now being associated only with the latter, had decided to stay away from the talks after the MDP did so in the past. They too have now to be talked into returning to the negotiations table, if the reconciliation process has to go anywhere. They may want guarantees that the MDP would stick to the negotiations table until a clear picture emerged on the future course.

DRP leader Thasmeen Ali however has since reiterated his party’s original commitment to facilitate early presidential polls, pointing out however that the MDP would have to let Parliament function for that to happen. From within the MDP, too, a few voices are being heard about the need for the party’s participation in the all-party talks, if only for it to take the logical next step to early polls, and also let Parliament function normally — again, with the same end in mind.

Chicken-and-egg question

It is a chicken-and-egg question when it comes to finalising the date for the presidential polls. The MDP wants the Government to announce the poll-date first whereas the Government parties want the procedural issues in this regard addressed before they could take the logical next step. Or, that is the argument. The MDP is also unclear if they want a tentative date and a commitment to the effect from the Government — or, would want a formal notification before they could re-join the reconciliation process. The latter could prove problematic as the Election Commission — and by reverse extension, the Government — is not authorised to do so in the absence of a constitutional amendment.

Under the Third Republican Constitution of 2008, once-in-five-year presidential polls, now due in November 2013, could be conducted within three months of the due date. Any advancement, by implication, has to be facilitated by a constitutional amendment carrying two-thirds majority in the Majlis — and may require judicial concurrence, if contested. Though being the majority party in Parliament, the MDP too falls woefully short of the magic number. While the party was able to push its position from being the second largest group in the House after the parliamentary polls in 2009 to the top slot, the post-resignation period has not provided any comfort in pushing the numbers further up.

No time to lose

The MDP distanced itself from the negotiations process when the all-party meeting was scheduled to discuss the prioritisation of items in the outline agenda that had been mutually agreed upon. Apart from setting the priority list for the talks from the draft agenda, the all-party meeting will have to go into substantive issues falling under each of the subject-heads. The MDP wants the entire process fast-tracked so as to decide on the poll date first. The Government parties are keen also to discuss institutional reforms, as some of them are concerned about the existing estrangement between the security forces and sections of the national polity, which could spell doom, before, during and after the polls, if a meaningful reconciliation effort is not put in place and executed with elan.

Time is the essence for all concerned. Given their internal contradictions, the Government parties are sure to find mutual accommodation among themselves a tougher proposition than they may have bargained for. The younger elements in many of these parties may not have the same regard from Gayoom as the earlier generation, with the result, they may contest whatever compromise that might be arrived at on specific issues where his counsel could otherwise prevail.

In its turn, the MDP faces the danger of the focus of its current protests and political position slipping away, with extraneous factors coming to dominate the inner-party discourse. The Nasheed leadership has been able to streamline stray yet powerful voices within the party that has talked freely against street-violence and for the MDP to re-join the political process. Senior party leaders who have spoken on such issues have since been quick to point out that it was only a part of the internal mechanisms, and on all issues, including the continuance of street-protests without violence, they were with the leadership.

As the MDP leadership may have seen for itself already, the continuing non-cooperation with the Government on the commitments that the latter has made in relation to restoration of normalcy, and more importantly, early presidential polls, has not gone down well with friends of the party elsewhere and non-cadre sympathisers nearer home. The latter in particular are already feeling the pinch of street-protests interfering with the peaceful daily life that they had been used to — with financial consequences to individuals, too.

Islamic faith, national spirit

While referring to the economy, tourism and international relations, President Waheed in his parliamentary speech also mentioned Islam. “Being a 100 per cent Muslim nation, Maldives does not offer opportunities for the practice of other religions within the country,” he said. “The Government will work to revive the spirit and strengthen the principles of Islamic faith among the people.”

However, President Waheed followed this up with a more direct reference to nationalism, per se. Said he in this regard: “Special efforts will be made to strengthen national spirit and togetherness of Maldivians. Activities to understand our history, culture and nationality will be conducted.” This reference is less perfunctory than it may sound, though the more direct mention of Islam may or may not be as purposeful as it too may read.

As may be recalled, throughout the campaign for the introduction of multi-party democracy in Maldives, the MDP in the years before 2008 had constantly referred to what it propagated as President Gayoom’s efforts at Islamisation of Maldives – an idea that caught the imagination of the pro-Nasheed West in the post-9/11 era in particular. All efforts at removing President Nasheed throughout last year without the required two-thirds majority in the Majlis for his possible impeachment culminated not in any political protest but in the formation of a ‘December 23 Coalition’ by religious NGOs, to protect Islam in Nasheed’s Maldives, with the political opposition seeing in it a chance to evolve a national movement of sorts.

In the days and weeks after President Nasheed’s exit, President Waheed has been constantly and continuously referring to Islam in all his public appearances. While it makes sense in the larger context, his allies in Government have been careful not to make such references and thus possibly provide political space for religious groups outside the existing electoral spectrum. If it signals a fracture in electoral thinking between President Waheed and his political allies remains to be seen. Yet, in the context of the party’s calls for early polls, the MDP too has been silent on this score, after having chided and criticised the rest on what it called ‘fundamentalist religious’ counts during the run-up to the December 23 protest and before – but not afterward.

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]


Comment: Maldives goes from one crisis to another

Stone-walling and deflecting one issue with another have been tested methods of political strategy and administrative tactic in ‘matured’ democracies elsewhere. The young Maldivian democracy seems to have fast-tracked the processes and fine-tuned the methodology, and as a result these two aspects alone have remained three years after the nation heralded multi-party democracy and a directly-elected President in a hotly-contested campaign.

The latest in the series is the arrest of Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, Abdullah Mohammed, and the involvement of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) in executing the request of the police in this regard. Allegations have remained against the judge since the days of the predecessor Government of President Maumoon Gayoom, but his arrest, the involvement of the nation’s armed forces and the subsequent non-compliance of the orders of the civil court and the High Court in the matter, have all raised serious questions about the future of democracy in the country.

The last time, the Government of President Mohammed Nasheed employed the MNDF likewise was in mid-2010. At the time, the MNDF shut down the nation’s Supreme Court, under his orders, following a constitutional deadlock over the inability of the Executive and Oppositions-majority Parliament to pass required legislation on a variety of subjects, under the new Constitution, before the deadline had passed. Saner counsel (particularly low-profile Indian efforts) prevailed and the deadlock was resolved at the time.

Now, as then, ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leaders, starting with President Nasheed, have called for ‘judicial reforms’. They have also reiterated the request from 2010, for the UN to help the nation introduce new canons of law and judicial practices. There is truth in the Government claims that most of the 170-odd judicial officers across the country were not qualified in law. As was known at the time of the 2010 crisis, only around 30 of all judicial officers in the country had a university degree in law.

As was again explained at the time, in a country where education stopped at A-Level (Cambridge, to be precise) for most, lawyers, and law and judicial officers with university degrees are hard to come by. Qualified lawyers in Maldives, as has been the wont in most other democracies and for historic reasons, either prefer private practice with a corporate clientele, or politics, or both. Yet, it is often argued, that the rest of the 170-plus were qualified in the Islamic Sharia. It is this that the present regime wanted to rewrite. Inherent to the effort is also the belief that most judges, having been appointed by the previous regime and without formal qualifications, tended to be loyal more to the erstwhile rulers than to the present Government and/or the Constitution.

Rallying cause for the Opposition

Independent of the merits involved in Judge Abdullah’s arrest, it has provided a rallying cause for the Opposition, after the hugely-successful December 23 protest to ‘protect Islam’. In between came the arrest of an Opposition leader, Dr Mohammed Jameel, Vice-President of the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) of Dr Hassan Saeed, one-time Presidential Advisor to incumbent Nasheed and Attorney-General to predecessor Gayoom. The arrest of the otherwise controversial judge, against whom the first charges were laid by Hassan Saeed as Attorney-General as far back as 2005, has seen that the ‘December 23 movement’, launched by non-political NGOs, now consolidating itself into a political front.

With Judge Abdulla’s arrest, the divided opposition that had joined the ‘protect Islam’ rally under the care of religion-based NGOs, have taken over the leadership of the movement, if the latter still claims to be apolitical with a single-point agenda. This may also lend credence to the Government’s argument that the ‘protect Islam’ movement, based on the installation of individual monuments by SAARC member-countries after the Addu Summit in November, was more political and less religious in form and content. In popular perception, that may not be saying a lot, as one after the other, the issues that the Government seems wanting to offer the Opposition, has only helped the latter to sink their differences even more and consolidate their unity, which prior to December 23 protest was not seen as being possible, particularly during the run-up to the 2013 presidential polls.

The controversy surrounding the SAARC monuments, starting with that of ‘Islamic Pakistan’, being idolatrous in nature, may have robbed much of the credit that the Maldivian Government and President Nasheed richly deserved. MDP leaders are not tired of claiming that it was all part of a larger political conspiracy, aimed at upsetting President Nasheed’s growing popularity during the long run-up to the 2013 polls. Conversely, the divided Opposition of the time was arguing that the Government was deliberately flagging religious issues that went beyond the SAARC monuments, if only to ensure that President Nasheed got a party and challenger of his choice in the polls which they were convinced would go into the second, run-off round.

The issues included clearance for liquor sale in a newly-built star-hotel in the national capital of Male, proposals for allowing liquor sale in uninhabited parts of otherwise inhabited islands, both going against existing laws, and the demolition of an Islamic school, again in Male. Neither the pro-Islam NGOs, nor the opposition could have divined the ‘SAARC monuments’ controversy, but when it presented itself, they were not the ones to lag behind. Today, the December 23 rally is being projected as the largest gathering of the type in the country – with most partnering outfits in the erstwhile ‘pro-democratic’ movement of the earlier years having switched sides, since.

Role of the Vice-President

A new dimension has been added to the current crisis with the Opposition leaders and other partners in the December 23 movement calling on Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Though it has been a practice for Maldivian political class to hold their public rallies and have their consultations post-dinner time and possibly going beyond 2 am, the urgency with which they called on the Vice-President at 1 am did not go unnoticed. The country’s first PhD-holder (from Stanford University), Waheed has resisted the MDP’s persuasive efforts to merge his GaumeeIththihad Party (GIP, or National Unity Party) with the major electoral partner, for him to be considered for the running-mate of President Nasheed again in 2013. Quiet in temperament, this former UN/UNICEF executive did not take kindly to the MDP later wooing away his senior Cabinet colleagues to its side.

At the end of the meeting with the Vice-President, the interim leader of Gayoom’s newly-floated Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the controversial Ummer Naseer, told the local media that they had decided to “pledge support to the Vice-President.” Quoting Naseer, local media reports said, “Dr Waheed assured the party leaders that he would “take any legal responsibility he had to within the bounds of the law and was “ready to take over the duties specified in the Constitution.” In an even more significant observation, Naseer was quoted thus: “After these discussions we are now calling upon the nation’s security forces, on behalf of our ‘December 23 Alliance’ of all the Opposition parties in the country as well as the NGO coalition, to immediately pledge their allegiance to the Vice-President.”The stand of the ‘December 23 alliance’ was that President Mohamed Nasheed has “lost his legal status”, the media quoted Naseer as saying further.

The President’s camp did not seem overly or overtly perturbed by the development. President Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair was quoted by the media that the Vice-President “has not said anything to cause a loss of confidence in him by the Government. “He was very careful in his statement, which was that he would undertake his duties as stipulated in the Constitution. Had the protesters gone to meet with (Fisheries Minister and MDP president) Dr Ibrahim Didi or (MDP parliamentary party leader) Reeko Moosa they would have said the same thing,” Zubair said.

The protesters claimed to represent 13 political parties and 21 NGOs, Zuhair said, “but all the rallies have seen the involvement of no more than 300-400 people. It is very disproportionate”. According to him, “The protests are slowing down and now they are trying to save face – pledging allegiance to the Vice-President is the same as pledging allegiance to the government. The VP is working in Cabinet today – there is no rift. This is a non-story,” Zubair maintained. The government was not concerned about Dr Waheed’s late night meeting with Opposition leaders, as letting the protesters into his house “was the polite thing to do,” Zuhair said. He also dismissed Opposition claims that there was anti-Government sentiment brewing in the security forces.

As in most democracies, the President – and by extension, the Vice-President, can be removed from office only through an impeachment motion in Parliament, with two-thirds of the members voting in favour. In a People’s Majlis with 77 members, the figure comes to 51. Neither the ruling party, nor the opposition (combine) has the number, and both have been falling back on the Independents to add up the numbers for obtaining a simple majority for their legislative initiatives, from time to time. Like the US pattern, the Maldivian scheme does not provide for fresh elections in case the presidency fell vacant mid-term. The Vice-President steps in, instead, to complete the unfinished term.

At the height of the ‘constitutional crisis’ triggered by the Government, entailing the en masse resignation of the entire Cabinet in mid-2010, Vice-President Waheed, would not comply with the MDP initiative, for him to quit, too. Owing to Vice-President Waheed’s considered stand, the Executive could not proceed with a politico-electoral showdown with the Opposition-majority Parliament, particularly over their criticism of the GMR contract for the modernisation of the Male International Airport, involving the Indian infrastructure major.

The Opposition, going by sections of the local media, has twisted President Nasheed’s alleged statement that he would not go in for fresh elections until he had ‘reformed’ the judiciary. The observation was contained in a leaked tape, which was broadcast by sections of the local media, and is purported to be contained in a conversation with the MNDF. The Opposition has interpreted this to argue that President Nasheed had no intention of holding elections, when due, by arguing that the promised judicial reforms were not yet over. It was also the reason for their mid-night meeting with Vice-President Waheed.

A surprising element in the current controversy is the unexpected criticism of the Government’s action by Dhiyana Sayeed, the Maldivian Secretary-General of SAARC since the Addu Summit in November. A nominee of the Nasheed leadership for the top job in the SAARC, which is as rotational as the SAARC Chair, the first woman Secretary-General of SAARC promptly put in her papers, as the SAARC Charter specifically prohibits the organisation from interfering in the internal affairs of member-countries. In between, she had also courted arrest for a brief while along with the ‘December 23 movement’ leaders, protesting Judge Abdullah’s arrest. Though not very well known nearer home or overseas, given in particular, her short stint at SAARC, the former Attorney-General has still stirred the net, nonetheless.

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]


Comment: South Asia should become single economic entity

There is an increasing realisation in New Delhi about the cross-benefits available to the country on social, political, economic and strategic fronts from its neighbours as they are bound to benefit from healthy bilateral and multilateral arrangements encompassing the entire South Asian region. The idea should be making the rest of the world see the South Asia region in its geo-strategic and politico-economic entity without individual nations having to compromise on traditional rights of sovereignty, as understood in the modern times.

Owing to a variety of reasons, both historic and management-related, India is the dominant force in South Asia. This fact cannot be ignored, over-looked or upset. Sovereignty rights do exist without compromise, but there is a greater understanding in all South Asian countries that it should be used as a tool for greater integration and inter-dependence, and not as a weapon to out-shout one another in terms of numbers in organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Increasingly, SAARC summits that once used to be a periodic pause have come to acquire a certain degree of cohesion, direction and cooperation among member-nations.

This scheme needs to be further strengthened, so as to make South Asia a single economic entity while dealing with the rest of the world. Sovereignty would not be compromised if member-nations volunteered to surrender some to the regional forum themselves. Political controversies of the India-Pakistan kind have ceased to undermine the relevance and usefulness of SAARC. Such differences have often come in the way of regional cooperation taking faster strides. Yet, to expect SAARC to take any political initiative to try and resolve the problems between the ‘Big Two’ in the South Asian community is fraught with consequences for the regional entity, which is still fledging despite being around for 25 long years.

Over the years, a view had emerged among certain strategic thinkers in India that the neighbours stood to benefit more from a regional union than was the other way round. The real situation was always not so – and it continues to remain more so even today. India of the economic reforms era has to begin looking at South Asian neighbours not as a challenge in the global job market. It is a synergy all nations can build into a common cause, particularly in the services sector that they excel in. It is going to take a long, long way, to ensure that bilateral and regional cooperation of the kind, but time is no more on the side of South Asia, if it has to benefit from the existing advantages that once used to be seen as disadvantage.

Time was not long ago when the world used to growl at the growing population in countries such as China and India, the underpinning being that the rest of ’em all were being forced to produce food and other consumables for populous countries to consume without any check on their growth rates on this score. Magically over the past decades, both nations have become attractive markets not only for goods but also for investments. Controlled population in the developed world has re-engineered their perception of Third World countries like India and China for out-sourcing not only the 21st century services sector jobs but also their traditional manufacturing strengths.

Learning from the West

South Asia has lessons to learn from this new and changing perception of the West. New Delhi, to begin with, has to acknowledge that the entire South Asian region is a market for India and Indian investments in this continuing era of economic instability in the developed world. It is not unlikely that the ‘New Cold War’ between the West and China may lead to a situation where a weakened dollar could hit on the former more than the latter, both in terms of existing concepts and practices. Big-time Indian investors seeking to serve even the Indian markets may be attracted by the comparable costs prevailing in the manufacturing sector in some of the neighbourhood countries. Likewise, South Asian neighbours of India may find distinct advantages in doing business with and in India, not available to them elsewhere, particularly in terms of transportation costs, etc.

Economic integration would still require a lot more to be done, and thought of. The ‘big-nation-small-nation’ mix in the European Union and the ASEAN have shown the way for South Asia not to mix up sentiments with the business of planning for the future. For larger nations like India, and even Pakistan up to a point, to feel comfortable, nations of the region should unite not to encourage profligacy and also address governance and procedural issues in a big way. At the same time, they will have to fashion an economic model that addresses inherent socio-economic disparities that have political consequences, as is being evidenced at present in countries of the region after the IMF-dictated economic reforms came into force. This would be a departure from the IMF model that all of them have got accustomed to but may have to deviate from.

In sectors like education and engineering, agriculture and automobile sector, healthcare and rocket science that India has a lot to offer the neighbourhood. None of these nations can grudge India for what it is. The sheer size of its landmass, economy and market has together made it an attractive investment proposition. There is this realisation in all the neighbourhood countries that they should also seek to benefit from the current Indian boom and participate in the processes involved. At the same time, there is also a need for India and Indians to recognise the talent-pool that these nations have to offer, particularly in the labour sector. Encouraging this pool in positive ways alone would help India create the markets that it would need to seek in the immediate neighbourhood, to benefit from the logistical and transportation advantages that proximity has to offer.

The Indian decision to create a `50,000-crore fund to help nations in need would go a long way in fostering better relations in the neighbourhood, if administered as effectively and efficiently as intended. The taste of the pudding is in the eating, and nations and people in the neighbourhood and also elsewhere in the world could appreciate the Indian assistance, only if it is both adequate and timely. In countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives, and also in the extended South-East Asian neighbourhood, nations were appreciative of the Indian intervention when tsunami struck in end-December 2004. In money-value, the Indian decision to rush Navy, Air Force and medicines to the affected people in these countries was not as substantial as on many other occasions. But I t was the timeliness of it all that came to be appreciated, including the fact that New Delhi had rushed help when parts of India were also similarly affected by tsunami. In tactical terms, it also proved the preparedness of the Indian armed forces to rush aid to the neighbourhood without much of a notice.

Ending ‘Cold War’ perceptions

Independent of economic perception is the evolving regional strategic consideration that South Asia has to learn to live as a single unit in overall terms if individual nations have to be secure and feel secure. Barring India, no other nation in the region has to fear for extra-territorial aggression of any kind. Their security concerns are domestic in nature, or are based on their perceptions of India, flowing from a collective ‘Cold War’ past. In the case of former, linkages are beginning to be made as to how problems can multiply for everyone if the regional nations did not work together — or, do not stop targeting one another.

In terms of their perceptions of India, New Delhi has been doing enough over the past decade and more, to make individual nations of the region, including Pakistan, feel friendly. India too continues to be affected by its memories about the role individual nations of the region could play to make it feel insecure in different ways. Where nations could not take on India directly, whatever their perception and consideration, they were known to have provided base for other adversaries of India to do so. Whether it was a strategy or tactic, their attempts had paid off in terms of making India feel uncomfortable, if not aggressive.

Steeped in contemporary history as also the distant past, the chances would not occur overnight, but here again there is a need for everyone concerned to acknowledge that time is running out, after all. Political India is however beginning to understand the complexities in multi-lateral relations, where individual neighbours are seen as trading with extra-territorial powers, in terms of politics, economic cooperation and infrastructure creation. There is also an emerging understanding all-round that their strategic security is closely linked, and any effort at inducting extra-territorial powers would have an economic and developmental cost to play — which their domestic constituencies might not countenance hereafter.

In this context, it is necessary for everyone, including India, to acknowledge that the packaging development aid (in whatever form) is also a way for extra-territorial powers to acquire strategic depth in the region. The question now will be to accept certain realities, including problem areas, and address the issues in a forthright manner in which solutions are found. A road-map for collective development has to be laid out and practised in ways in which they do not hamper the strategic security cooperation that these countries have to adopt – but become part of that process, too. The step-by-step approach adopted by SAARC may not be fast but it is the right way. As resolved by them at the Addu Summit in Maldives in 2011, it would be a good idea if the SAARC nations meet the goals set for them before the next Summit, and yet fast-track the processes in ways that the political leaderships would find the need for shortening the deadlines for individual and collective action, without having to extend them, indefinitely.

Yet, political issues will remain, as between India and Pakistan, but not exclusive to them alone. Even smaller nations such as Nepal and Bhutan, for instance, have issues between them. Problems flowing from governance apparatus and decision-making processes remain. Though most South Asian nations had inherited the British colonial model, post-Independence, many have reverted to the pre-colonial model of personalised decision-making apparatus but under a constitutional, democratic scheme. Though in India, too, personalised politics is a hallmark, structures of decision-making remain intact. In Pakistan, at different levels, the armed forces may have their say. Differences in perceptions among South Asian nations about the decision-making processes in others have often led to confusion and consternation. Either they put their heads together to work on a common governance scheme for them all to draw from, or learn to live with whatever they have in others, instead, and work together, 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]


Indian Ocean ferry service and renewable energy investment among key SAARC agreements

The 17th SAARC Summit concluded today with the signing of the ‘Addu Declaration’, containing a number of key agreements affecting the region.

One of the most significant for the Maldives was a commitment to ensure that final preparations for an Indian Ocean passenger and cargo ferry service were completed by the end of December.

In a press conference following the closing ceremony, SAARC Chairman President Mohamed Nasheed pointed out that this development would allow someone to cheaply travel from Kulhudhuffushi in the country’s north to Colombo or Kochi in as much time as it would take them to reach Male’.

Other agreements included the strengthing of the SAARC Secretariat, the establishment of a South Asian Postal Union, and intensification of efforts to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade and reduce the sensitive list.

During the Summit, India had announced its intention to reduce its sensitive list for Least Development Countries (LDCs) from 480 tariff lines to 25, with zero customs duty for those items removed.

An unexpected commitment was an agreement in principle that SAARC countries would spend an “appropriate proportion” of their national income on renewable energy technologies.

The percentage would be determined by energy authorities and finance ministers in each country, but Nasheed said that if investment reached even one percent it would create the world’s largest market for renewable energy technology overnight.

No agreement was reached regarding the possibility of installing a human rights mechanism in SAARC, however Nasheed said the matter had come up as dear to several SAARC leaders, who had spent time in jail and faced torture over their politics.

“I don’t think they will stop talking about human rights,” he said.

The Heads of State also agreed further measures to combat maritime piracy in the region.

“When the next season of pirates drift into the Maldives, we must be able to deal with them,” he said.

“It is not a matter of stopping them, but what we do with them after we capture them,” he said, noting that the Maldives currently had 37 in custody.

“They have no ammunition on board by the time they reach the Maldives, and no passport or identification papers, so we can only treat such a person as a refugee adrift.”

Observer statements

During the closing ceremony observers from eight countries made statements in support of SAARC, reaffirming various commitments in the region.

The Australian representative observed that Australia was united with South Asia not just through sharing the Indian Ocean, but through a shared love and appreciation of cricket – 80 percent of the market for which was based in South Asia.

Australia pledged an additional AUD$20 million over two years, extending its support for infrastructure development to AUD$40 million over six years, and announced 297 scholarships to South Asian countries in 2012.

China meanwhile announced an additional donation of US$300,000 to the SAARC Development Fund.

The European Union welcomed steps taken at SAARC to move beyond trade to also cover political issues, such as counter terrorism.

The former “complexity” of SAARC had compelled the EU in one instance to decommit funds allocated for developing standards, the representative noted, but highlighted a €6.5 million commitment in civil aviation cooperation.

Iran noted its shared linguistic heritage with South Asian countries and raised the possibility of tourism cooperation.

Japan meanwhile thanked the Maldives for its contribution of 69,000 tins of tuna following the earthquake in March, and pledged broad support around the region. Particular emphasis, the representative said, included stability in Afghanistan, democracy in Pakistan, peace and security in Nepal, disaster preparedness in Bangladesh, and democracy consolidation in Bhutan and the Maldives.

The representative from the Republic of Korea noted that it was only in the last 50 years that Korea had transformed itself from a recipient of donor aid to an OECD country, and announced that the country intended to triple its overseas development commitment by 2015.

The representative from Myanmar/Burma announced his country’s desire to promote trade with SAARC countries, given its proximity.

The country was in the process of transitioning from a military government to a democracy, he claimed, appealing for the “understanding and support of the international community.”

The United States representative reiterated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ambition to help establish “a new silk road” in South Asia, which would in turn address insecurity and extremism plaguing the region.

The US was very encouraged by the bilateral talks and trade agreements negotiated between India and Pakistan during the SAARC Summit.

At the same time, the US urged the need for greater transparency and accountability of government “in the pursuit of better government.”

Parallel ‘People’s SAARC’

The parallel ‘People’s SAARC’, a collective of South Asian civil society organisations, meanwhile observed that the Summit was taking place “at a time when South Asian states are beginning to look inwards to realize the region’s immense political, economic, and diplomatic potential.”

“While the agenda of economic and social development might have moved up as a priority item for the SAARC countries, South Asian states continue to veer towards their aspirations for superior military might, prompting them to divert resources from developmental goals.”

The parallel SAARC urged leaders to close the income gap by dropping “wasteful” expenditure of further militarisation, institute a regional human rights mechanism protecting the rights of migrant workers, and create and independent climate commission.

“We would also like to see the establishment of a regional monitoring body with a mandate to assess the compliance of the member states in installing, safeguarding and institutionalising democratic governance.”

“SAARC should encourage member states to adopt competent and credible constitutional, legal and administrative framework to end all forms of discrimination, displacement, deprivation and the deeply rooted culture of impunity to secure a better future for the billions on inhabitants of the region,” the statement read.