The following speech was delivered to India-based think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) on August 3, 2012. The original transcript can be read here.
It’s an honour and a great pleasure for me to speak to you at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), this morning.
As many of you would know the Maldives has recently experienced significant political change. In 2008, we ratified a new constitution, based on the principles of a modern democracy and had the first multi-party election.
This election resulted in a historic change of a 30-year regime. However, despite the change, the aspirations of the people for a more democratic future did not materialize. On top of that just after 3 years into his presidency the new President Mr Nasheed resigned. And now he is challenging the circumstances that led to his resignation and this has created further political disharmony and tensions.
Today, I would like to briefly share with you some of the challenges that the Maldives faces as an infant democracy. None of the challenges will be of great surprise to you. Indeed you have faced very grave challenges yourself.
Today, you have emerged as a mature democracy, making rapid strides in your developmental efforts. This is a source of great inspiration not only to the Maldives, but to all emerging democracies around the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, in a few days the Maldives will celebrate the 4th Anniversary of our new constitution. The process of constitutional enactment in the Maldives included a referendum on the system of government. The people favored a presidential system to a parliamentary system. We all had high hopes for our new constitution, and for a smooth transition from a largely autocratic system to a multi-party democracy.
The new constitution stipulates the separation of powers and for the first time it guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms. It mandates the formation of independent commissions and other institutions that are vital for a democracy to function well.
The new constitution also introduced the concept of decentralised governance of atolls and islands by elected local councils instead of the traditional presidential appointees. The initial major test for the new constitution was the first multi-party presidential election.
After a strong contest with 6 candidates representing a wide range of Maldivian opinion, that election ended President Gayoom’s 30 years of rule and Mr Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate, supported by a coalition of other parties was sworn in, on November 11 2008, as the 4th President of the Maldives. However, after just over 3 years into his 5-year term, President Nasheed resigned on 7th February.
As stipulated in the new constitution, the Vice President, Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, was then sworn in as the 5th President of the Maldives.
President Nasheed resigned in front of the media accompanied by his cabinet, saying he resigned for the national good. However, the next day he argued that he resigned under duress.
This has created substantial controversy and has led to the establishment of a Commission of National Inquiry to look in to the circumstances of the transfer of power. This has been the subject of a lot of speculation and featured in the media and discussions in India and elsewhere.
As I said earlier the people had high hopes for our new political system. The people expected vast improvements over the previous system of governance; they did not want law and order to be influenced by politics; they wanted the judiciary to be free from political and other influences; they wanted job security in the public sector to be independent from politics; they wanted to see greater transparency in awarding public sector contracts; they wanted a system of local governance where things that are directly related to their welfare to be, by and large, determined by their representatives at the local level; the people wanted a free and fair media; and most of all they wanted their life to be better under the new democratic system.
These aspirations were not met. This was because, the new government on the one hand, did not have the sincerity to see through the democratic process that we adopted. On the other hand there was a tendency to carry out reforms regardless of the means by which those reforms were implemented.
This increased the room for corrupt practices and other inefficiencies resulting from moral hazard. I believe, in lending support to the democratic process, the means of achieving national development objectives is as important as the ends of development themselves.
From the outset, the new government was not sufficiently sensitive to the values of sincerity and patience. It is important to underline the fundamental importance of these values in making the system work. The people need to be reassured that democracy can meet their needs in their day to day lives and serve to fulfill their aspirations for a better future.
If we are to be a successful modern multi-party democracy we need to give the people confidence that the vision and ideals that inspired the 2008 constitution are still relevant.
Let me explain in some detail some of the instances where these important fundamentals were breached by the Nasheed government.
Historians, legal and constitutional experts, and indeed citizens more generally, I’m sure would agree that the establishment and maintenance of the rule of law is a fundamental pillar of democracy.
One of the major challenges that the Maldives faces, even today is maintaining the rule of law. The people were fed up with the earlier system where the executive had a direct influence on the police service and the criminal justice system. The new constitution introduced a very different criminal justice system with a number of safeguards. For instance the establishment of an independent judiciary, and an independent prosecutor general among other measures, were impartial mechanisms to dispense justice.
The parliament had also established an independent Police Integrity Commission, which was important in setting the parameters for these institutions to function within a democratic framework. Where there is no rule of law there cannot be a meaningful or successful democracy. However, Mr Nasheed – when it suited him, totally disregarded this key principle.
A landmark transition towards democracy was the formation of a police service in 2008, accountable to the Home Ministry, ending the decades old system of military having to attend to the policing function as well. Before this positive change, the outgoing government of President Gayoom was blamed for alleged police brutality. This was a key theme of the MDP presidential campaign in 2008.
With Nasheed’s government in place, Maldivians anticipated that the military and police would be freed from any attempt by the government to use them to promote any political agenda or ends. Sadly that assumption proved to be wrong. The police and in some cases even the military were mobilized on many unlawful political tasks, some of which even defied Maldivian Supreme Court rulings.
In any consideration of the events of earlier this year, it should always be remembered that the nationwide protests and demonstrations that lasted 22 days in Male’, leading up to President Nasheed’s resignation was sparked by the unlawful detention and arrest of a Senior Judge of the Criminal Court by the military while President Nasheed was the head of the armed forces.
Therefore, despite important institutional changes, the Nasheed government influenced the police to act in ways that were favourable to MDP. As such, when MDP conducted demonstrations they received preferential treatment, while opposition rallies were summarily dispersed.
Ladies and gentlemen, Let me now turn to a brief consideration of the influence of politics on the civil service. In the Maldives, where the civil service is the single largest employer, any policy that impacts the civil service has an immediate and lasting effect on the welfare of a significant proportion of the workforce.
Prior to the Civil Service Act of 2007, the appointment, dismissal and the setting of remunerations and all other benefits related to them were directly controlled by the President’s Office.
However, with the enactment of the Civil Service Act, an independent Civil Service Commission answerable to the parliament was established with total responsibility to oversee the functioning of the civil service.
Yet, President Nasheed’s government undermined the role of the civil service. Firstly, this was by drastically increasing the number of political appointees, both by making new appointments at executive levels and by registering existing civil service employees as political appointees. This increased the number of public service employees that were directly under the purview of the executive.
Secondly, the president formed public corporations which did not come under the purview of the civil service. This enabled the executive to control large numbers of public sector employees. One example of this was the National Health Service, which was brought under a system of health services corporations and made responsible for providing health services to the community.
This meant that large numbers of civil service employees in the health sector were shifted to the health corporations. This, in turn, meant that a large number of public sector employees were suddenly dependent on the executive for their livelihood. These tactics enabled the executive to exercise undue political influence on a large number of public employees and, in effect, compromised the effectiveness of the Civil Service Act.
Ladies and gentlemen. One of the positive changes people anticipated as a result of the new constitution was the system of decentralised local governance. However, when the first local council election delivered an overwhelming victory for the opposition the decentralisation process was slowed down by the Nasheed government.
Elected local councils are, by law, empowered to carry out many aspects of governance at the local level, yet with many of the councils having at the time a non MDP majority, the government refused to decentralise power.
Instead former President Nasheed created national administrative centers, accountable just to him. This added an overbearing administrative layer to the existing structure of decentralisation. Such actions were undemocratic, partisan and led to a waste of resources at a financially difficult time.
Another key aspect of a modern democracy was the establishment of an independent media. A free and an independent media, which is often referred to as the fourth pillar of the state, received considerable attention during the process of democratic change in the Maldives.
A free and an independent media provide the necessary checks and balances within the democratic system of governance. This led to the creation of the institutional framework that governed the operation of free media, and created the space for the development of private media, particularly the development of private radio and television for the first time in the Maldives. This also led to the establishment of the concept of an impartial public broadcaster that was essentially free from political influence.
During the 30 year rule of President Gayoom, state media was used largely as a propaganda tool for the regime. This was seen as a very visible example of the absence of democracy in the Maldives at the time. One of the strongest demands when people were calling for democratic reform from 2003 onwards was for a free and independent media.
It should be noted that one of the key points in the MDP’s 2008 manifesto was a pledge to establish a public broadcaster by the parliament. However, when the MDP government came in to power they refused to transfer the assets of the state broadcasting corporation to the new statutory body, the MBC (or, the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation), that was formed as the public broadcaster. The MDP government essentially refused to comply with the legislation simply because the members of the MBC board of directors appointed by parliament was not to their liking.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are some of the key challenges confronting the Maldives as the country faces a new dawn of democracy.
Let me conclude by making a few remarks about the way forward.
The year 2008 saw the beginning of a democratic transition in the Maldives. The enactment of the new constitution was the crucial first step of this transition from an autocratic system to a modern democracy. Enacting the constitution itself however, is not sufficient to establish a functioning modern democracy.
Democratic transition is a process that needs a number of further steps in order for it to be successful. Some of these steps are outlined in the constitution. They include holding the first multi-party presidential election, the establishment of the Supreme Court, holding of the first multi-party parliamentary elections, setting up various independent bodies, holding of the first local council elections and the enactment of various pieces of legislations. Further, it is also important to strengthen the democratic institutions through capacity building.
Some of this work has already been completed. The remaining tasks need to be undertaken and completed over the coming months and years.
As the Maldives heads towards its second presidential elections under our new constitution, much needs to be done to rebuild people’s confidence at this stage of our infant democracy.
To develop such confidence amongst the people the leadership must show commitment and conviction in adhering to the principles of democracy. The leadership must have the courage to see through the process of democratic change.
Unfortunately, the first government under the new democratic constitution did not display the courage and patience to follow the path of democratic governance. As a result it has held up the transition process.
The way forward has been further complicated because of the current political tensions resulting from President Nasheed’s contention that he was forced to resign. This has resulted in further widening the political polarization within Maldives society.
Further, there is a very real fear that the people are getting increasingly frustrated that their aspirations are not being met. And when there is political instability it can undermine economic prosperity which can have a direct impact on the quality of life.
Therefore, it is important to have dialogue among the main stakeholders in order to create stability and reduce political tension. If the parties are unable to reach an amicable solution, meaningful progress in the democratic transition can only happen after the presidential elections due next year.
On a positive note, despite the frustrations, I believe, the peoples aspirations for democratisation has not changed.
We appreciate the continuous engagement by the government of India to facilitate an early resolution to the political stalemate in Maldives, particularly the timely engagement through repeated visits by the Foreign Secretary, His Excellency Mr Ranjan Mathai.
I also commend the important role of the Indian High Commissioner in the Maldives, His Excellency, Mr Mullay, for his dedication and hard work during these trying times. Also I greatly appreciate his efforts to enhance relations between our two countries, sometimes under very difficult circumstances.
The road to democracy is no doubt, long and hard, with many challenges along the way. But through persistence and good will, I’m sure the fruits of democracy will be as sweet as the future is bright.
Ahmed Thasmeen Ali is an MP and leader of the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP).
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