True to his public commitment on election to the nation’s highest office, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has extended an arm of all-round reconciliation. The MDP opposition, whose nominee and former President Mohamed Nasheed lost the polls by a narrow margin, has also risen to the occasion. Yet it will require all their collective will and commitment to stay the course, with scheduled elections to local councils and the parliament possibly occasioning a return to political adversity, if not unacceptable hostility.
Symbolising the reconciliation was the prompt MDP withdrawal of the no-trust motion against Deputy Speaker in Parliament, Ahmed Nazim who belongs to President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). As if by cue, the government side rendered a similar move against Speaker Abdulla Shahid ineffectual. President Yameen had to silence murmurs of protest from the PPM camp after two party MPs withdrew from the no-trust move against the speaker. It sent out ‘confusing signals’ but only for a while. The murmurs have died down and the reconciliation has held.
A more significant concession to the opposition was the resignation of Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz – the nation’s top cop. The MDP was critical of his role in the controversial power-transfer of 7 February 2012, when President Nasheed quit and his Vice-President Dr Mohamed Waheed took over as per existing constitutional provisions. The party was unhappy with the functioning of Riyaz even afterward.
Armed forces at bay
Addressing larger issues and concerns, the new government has proposed to bring up a bill before the People’s Majlis, proposing disciplinary action and procedure against errant personnel of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).
Both during the pre-democratisation era and afterward, the MNDF has been in the eye of political storms. Frequent transfers and summary dismissals – caused possibly by the over-politicisation and political misuse of the forces – were not wholly uncommon. It will surprise any student of military history that Maldives does not have a disciplinary law for the armed forces. It is hoped that the new law would address not only individual acts of ‘indiscipline’ but also ‘institutional lapses’, protecting the MNDF hierarchy from political acts of avoidable transfers and demotions, and continually testing their ‘loyalty’ to the State (read: ‘loyalty’ to the person of the incumbent president).
Despite bifurcation of the National Security Service (NSS) into the MNDF and the Maldives Police Service, presidents – both during pre-democratisation era and afterward – have been known to have commanded the former to execute what were patently illegal acts of arrests and the like. Anyway, under the bifurcation formula, such arrests fell within the mandated responsibilities of the police, which unlike the MNDF was directly answerable to the nation’s judiciary.
However, the current efforts come on the heels of the Yameen Government dismissing at least eight MNDF officials in two groups, on charges of ‘spreading hatred’. It was said that some of the dismissed officials, including two seniors in the rank of Brigadier-General – one of them demoted – were identified with what could be described as ‘independent’ or ‘anti-government’ campaign since the power-transfer of 2012.
The MDP’s Nasheed has promptly criticised the dismissals. It remains to be seen how the party reacts to the issue and the promised new bill – in parliament and outside. While defending the dismissals, the Defence Ministry has said that it was in consultation with authorities on initiating legal action against those making such criticisms. Both the MDP charges and the caution about possible action are remnants from the past, and have the potential to rock the ‘reconciliation boat’ in more ways than one.
One solution could be to address issues futuristically as a nation, to see if and how the uniformed services could be ‘de-politicised’ completely, as is prevalent in many matured democracies.
Responsive to internal compulsions
Responsive to internal compulsions of the PPM-led coalition from the second round, Yameen named Umar Naseer – who had contested against him for the PPM presidential nomination, taking his subsequent defeat to the courts – as the all-important Home Minister. Naseer had sided with Jumhooree Party (JP) presidential hopeful Gasim Ibrahim, yet throughout the campaign seemed not to have resorted to political or personal attacks against the PPM and its leadership. He is a JP nominee in the cabinet.
Unlike the observed approach of predecessors, President Yameen seems to be keen on sharing official responsibilities with Vice-President, Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed – a PhD holder in criminal law from the UK. That was an issue over which President Nasheed and Vice-President Waheed differed, for instance, contributing in no small measure to the subsequent controversies.
At the time, supporters of President Nasheed had argued that under the ‘US model’ adopted by Maldives, the vice-president was a stand-in for the president should the office fall vacant, and did not otherwise have any constitutional responsibilities. In the Yameen dispensation, Vice-President Jameel discussed the ‘visa issue’ with Indian High Commissioner Rajeev Sahare, indicating that he had a portfolio to call his own, thus sharing and shouldering part-responsibilities of his president.
Consensual economic policy?
Based on the parliamentary poll results of 2009, President Nasheed declared that there were only two major political parties in the country – namely, his MDP and the one led President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his predecessor for 30 long years. On issues and common concerns of the nation, it did not translate into a ‘bi-partisan approach’ to policy-making or programme-identification. The reasons were too many, including less-talked-about ideological differences within the Gayoom-led Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) and the breakaway PPM.
By boldly talking about ‘lean government’ and slashing government expenditure even in his first news conference after election, President Yameen has adopted a policy otherwise close to the MDP’s heart. He straightaway offered to cut his presidential pay by half and ordered the recall of the 2014 Budget from Parliament, with directions to the Finance Ministry to cut down projections by MVR1billion.
Following in the footsteps of President Nasheed, President Yameen has also called for a review of pays and/or perks at all levels of government and ‘Independent Institutions’ under the constitution. In a nation with little job opportunities, the state provides employment to over 10 per cent of the population. The pay bill recorded a two-thirds hike in the last two years of the Gayoom presidency (2006-08).
It remains to be seen if President Yameen will be able to proceed on the same road. Before him President Nasheed found himself balancing the 20-percent cut in pay and staff with ‘freebies’ for select constituencies, and lifting the artificially pegging of the Maldivian ‘ruffiya’ against the US dollar – all proving politically unpopular. The Nasheed dispensation could not also resist the political temptation of creating elected, full-time island councillors, with pay and perks, adding to the Treasury’s woes. President Yameen has called for a review of the scheme, as had been promised when he was in the opposition in parliament.
For all the good intentions and better equations that President Yameen is striving to achieve with the MDP opposition and allies alike, it is inevitable that the political road ahead is strewn with bumps and pot-holes. Even before the ink on the presidential polls dried, the Election Commission had scheduled nation-wide local council polls for 18 March, followed by the all-important parliamentary polls on 22 March.
In ordinary circumstances, the heat generated by the presidential polls does not inspire confidence in the current reconciliation process. For the street-smart MDP, the upcoming polls are a healthy way to re-energise their cadre, demoralised by the results of the presidential election. For President Yameen, he will have to extend the electability of his leadership beyond the immediate self, which ‘coalition calculus’ alone made possible.
For now, President Yameen is unlikely to leave party and coalition politics to the care of President Gayoom, the PPM chief and his half-brother. His government and leadership cannot escape the burden of any reverses, particularly on the coalition front. It will be more so in the upcoming elections to parliament, where already the MDP coalition has a majority.
Incidentally, President Nasheed did not have the parliamentary majority that his government sorely needed when in office. They could manage it only after the 2013 presidential polls were well under way, the Supreme Court having annulled the first-round elections of 7 September. The DRP, which President Gayoom had founded only to leave to form the PPM, has since joined the MDP coalition with seven or eight MPs to call its own. But its electoral contribution, as witnessed during the presidential poll, was next-to-nothing.
The JP can be expected to demand its pound of flesh in seat-sharing talks within the government, for the 23 per cent first-round Gasim vote-share that was ‘transferred’ to Yameen in the second-round of the presidential polls. Otherwise, the party has been reacting cautiously to post-poll initiatives of President Yameen. The JP seems to have adapted itself the role of a ‘political watch-dog’, otherwise the role of the MDP, which has promised to show how a ‘responsible opposition should conduct itself’.
Another ‘second-round partner’ of President Yameen – the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) has since indicated its intention to go it alone in the local council polls and the parliamentary elections. The party is now a partner in the Yameen Government, though its decision to go it alone in crucial polls is akin to its past record. In 2008, the party supported the MDP in the second round presidential polls and partnered with the subsequent Nasheed Government until pulling out and taking to the streets on ‘Islam-related issues’.
Though the AP may not win many parliamentary seats, it can make a dent on the local council front, more so than it did in earlier polls. The party can also make a difference in ‘marginal seats’ in the parliamentary elections. This should be a cause of concern for the ruling coalition. Some of the AP’s ideological positions could yet be cause for political concern within the new government and its leadership.
Early checks on hand
Ahead of the twin polls to the local councils and parliament in the first quarter of the New Year, December promises to be a crucial and critical month for Yameen presidency. The parliament should vote for the revised 2014 budget before the year is out. Speaker Shahid has also scheduled parliamentary approval for Yameen’s cabinet appointees for 29 December.
The Yameen cabinet features nominees that the MDP had frowned upon for their alleged role in 2012 ‘power-transfer’. Adapting the US model to suit the prevailing mood of the Gayoom era, the Maldivian Constitution provides not only for the Majlis to clear individual cabinet ministers – it also empowers the Majlis to recall individual Ministers at will and vote them out.
The democratisation era has already had its quota of controversies surrounding delayed parliamentary approval, denied approval, recall and vote-outs. The MDP’s Nasheed has declared that the party does not believe in a coalition arrangement and will vote only for President Yameen’s government – as the 48 percent voters who cast their lot with him too believed. Translated, it could mean that the MDP may clear the five PPM members of the cabinet, and hold back confirmation for the other 10, who represent the Yameen government’s ‘coalition interests’.
The next five years of rule, President Yameen may be faced with the possibility of ministers’ recall, and not only during immediate ‘confirmation proceedings. Unless the MDP leadership intervenes, it is not unlikely that the proceedings of the party-controlled ‘Government Oversight Committee’ of Parliament – which would initiate the ‘confirmation proceedings’ – could witness fireworks. How it translates into floor-level operation/cooperation in the house as a whole will remain to be seen during the long run-up to the parliamentary polls in March.
All this would render it imperative for Yameen’s government and the ruling coalition to go all-out to ensure a parliamentary majority in the president’s favour. The MDP for now has promised parliamentary support for policies similar to its own, but how far the promise holds remains to be seen in the context of ground-level political realities. Throughout, the MDP leadership would have to carry the ‘politically sensitive’ cadres with it, should they not risk further demoralisation of the rank and file.
MP jailed for ‘contempt’ – and freed
An early sign of post-poll reconciliation involved the Yameen leadership encouraging MDP parliamentarian Hamid Abdul Ghafoor to end his month-long ‘refuge’ in parliament and move home, to escape six-month imprisonment for ‘contempt of court’. Home Minister Umar Naser had said at the time that the government will do what is possible within the existing law. He even justified ‘house-stay’ for Ghafoor, explaining that the Government did not have resources to produce him in Parliament from a nearby island prison, three or four times a day to participate in the proceedings.
The Supreme Court has since ruled that parliamentary privileges amounting to violation of court orders would not hold in law. The government has since been left with little option but to send Ghafoor to prison for contempt. It is unclear, however, if and how the government would proceed against Ghafoor and other MDP leaders, arrested and charged with consumption of alcohol and drugs when President Waheed was in office.
The MDP promptly condemned the Hamid’s imprisonment. “This does not bode well for co-operation or compromise between the opposition and the ruling administration,” the party said, referring to Yameen’s post-poll commitment to be ‘President of all Maldivians’. The MDP claimed that the ‘courts are in control of the Executive’, and Nasheed himself claimed that the government could now arrest opposition MPs on the eve of crucial votes in parliament.
It may be recalled that almost throughout the shortened presidency of Nasheed, the MDP had claimed that the judiciary was opposed to the executive. The government was locked with parliament and the judiciary over the make-up of the Supreme Court bench under the constitution, leading and contributing to the MNDF lock-down of the court’s premises for a day, under presidential orders. It may be pertinent that any wholesale revisit of the post-democratisation government processes, if undertaken, will have to address issues such as the one flagged by the Hamid case, to see how other nations handle such issues.
For now, however, in a turn of events that has the potential to cement post-poll reconciliation efforts, the High Court overturned the lower court sentencing of Hamid, MP. In doing so, the High Court judge cited his written apology to the trial court for not honouring the summons the first time. The High Court also pointed out that the trial court order was not covered by the post-facto subsequent Supreme Court judgment.
MP Hamid was promptly freed from prison after the High Court verdict was known. It now remains to be seen if the State will go on to appeal against the High Court order. Technicalities and legal possibilities not with-standing, the next course of the Hamid contempt cas will be a marker of Yameen’s commitment to political reconciliation.
‘Judge Abdulla case’
Sooner rather than later, the Yameen government will also have to make a call on the criminal case pending against President Nasheed in the Judge Abdulla abduction case. This was again a case initiated by the Waheed presidency but with the PPM, JP and others lending political support. If resurrected, the case has the potential to become a ‘live issue’ for the twin elections ahead. It has a greater potential to derail the step-by-step process of national reconciliation, on which the Yameen presidency and the MDP are participating enthusiastically.
Faced with the theoretical possibility of disqualification from contesting the presidential polls, Nasheed had promised to stand trial after the elections. It is both a critical and sensitive issue for the MDP in particular, but it also has the potential to blow up into a political controversy within the ruling coalition and the nation as a whole, particularly in the midst of high-spirited election campaigns.
President Yameen will require all his political ingenuity and persuasive powers to carry the coalition and/or the nation in whichever decision he takes on the matter. To do so without distracting from his current efforts at national reconciliation and reviving the fallen economy are tasks that will no doubt be time and energy-consuming.
President Nasheed has promptly denied social media rumours that he would be contesting the parliamentary polls. Even as the MDP is busy preparing to face the new polls, it should be working to re-position Nasheed in the internal scheme of things. The party and the leader are inseparable. The party now seems to need the leader more than the other way round – or, so it seems. The party will need to keep Nasheed relevant to its internal and external political schemes for the foreseeable future.
The Judge Abdulla case and the like are thus as much political opportunities as they are personal inconveniences to President Nasheed. Needless to recall that it may have been the decision of the Nasheed presidency to summon predecessor Gayoom to a police station for questioning on issues purportedly pertaining to the latter’s days in office that changed the course of Maldivian history. President Yameen declared on his election that there would be ‘no witch-hunting’ of the MDP regime. But whether he meant to include personal cases against individuals then in office was/is unclear.
Nor is it clear how much the government can do in the matter of cases that are already pending before various courts. Yet such a line will not convince anyone, home or abroad, with a potential to re-launch an avoidable cycle all over again. However, the MDP would also be under the strain of having to win most seats in the two rounds of upcoming polls – and at the same time reassuring Maldivians that they are not there to try and torpedo the Yameen presidency at the first available opportunity.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
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