Maldives: Consensus, the only alternative
N Sathiya Moorthy
02 March 2012
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has not served its cause for early polls nor has it covered its democratic credentials with glory when it stalled Male and stopped President Mohammed Waheed Hassan from delivering the customary annual address to Parliament on Friday, March 1. For their part, the Government parties, while commendable as their conduct was in not allowing themselves to be provoked both inside and outside Parliament on the occasion, seem to have backtracked on the spirit of the India-facilitated Roadmap consensus document on restoration by being vague on early polls to the presidency than when due in November 2013.
The alternative to consensus is utter chaos that Maldives now or ever could ill-afford. That was also the spirit of pragmatism that attended on the Indian concerns for encouraging the Roadmap document and subsequent Roadmap discussions. Political stability being the touchstone for progress of democracy in any community or country -- and Maldives is a combination of both than in most -- the Roadmap provided for this and more. Or, else, the rest of the world with their vast democratic experience would not have endorsed the Indian initiative to recognise the alternate Government of President Waheed after President Nasheed had announced a vacancy through a much-televised resignation, as provided for in the nation's Constitution. Both the US and China were in the list though the latter cannot be called democratic by any stretch of imagination.
Having encouraged defections in a 77-member Parliament where it did not have the numbers after the 2009 elections, the MDP cannot complain about democracy-deficiency in the rest of the polity -- greater or lesser be its concerns. Having taken to the streets and encouraging individual policemen and MNDF soldiers to join forces for demanding President Nasheed's exit as numbers would not help his impeachment through a two-thirds vote in Parliament, the present ruling combine cannot blame the MDP for adopting similar tactics to drive home its demand. The consequent deadlock cannot be allowed to hold the nation to eternal ransom, which it will be if Parliament does not meet in cooler climes to address irritants and issues which in fact had facilitated democracy-deficit in the first place.
Singing a different tune
The solution lies in between. The ruling parties of the day need to acknowledge that functional democracy is not possible without a parliamentary majority even with an Executive President at the head. The MDP in turn has to acknowledge that with only 34 memb4ers, up from the post-poll 27 but excluding the one disqualified by the Supreme Court after President Nasheed's exit, it is still short of an absolute majority. At the bottom of the MDP's problems, both parliamentary and political, while President Nasheed was in office was its failed strategy for the parliamentary elections. The party compromised healthy parliamentary precedents that it should have set, and encouraged questionable prosperity in individual members, which did cause eyebrows to rise when they decided to support the Nasheed Government in the past.
President Waheed's Government cannot continue with the perceived pitfalls from his predecessor's time and expect to give a government different from that of President Nasheed, and hope to win over the masses (read: voters) ahead of the presidential polls. Having argued that all economic and fiscal measures of the Government would require a parliamentary approval when the MDP Government was in a minority, the anti-MDP group that now backs President Waheed cannot sing a different tune if and when they want to change what they call the 'faulty economic policies' of the predecessor, even if only to win over the masses.
The less said about the complexities attending on early elections the better. Having faulted constitutional institutions other than that of the Executive, represented exclusively by President Nasheed and his Cabinet, which in turn was tied down to parliamentary endorsement based on majorities, the MDP now cannot rush the nation into elections, and then complain all over again, if Candidate Nasheed were to return to power once more. The alternative to working with the existing institutions at the time would be outright autocracy. The party says it shuns autocracy, and is not tired of referring to Nasheed's predecessor, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, as one -- even while the reference otherwise are to people who had once served the latter and have since found a place in President Waheed's team.
Burden, not a boon?
The MDP needs to cool tempers -- not just of its leadership and cadres, who feel indignant and frustrated at what they claim to be the forced exit of President Nasheed. They need time even more for cooling the tensions that had built up between the party, the Government of President Nasheed and various institutions and arms thereof. The MNDF and the police force are main components of such a scheme, and without addressing the issues triggered by the 'mutiny charge' and frequent changes at the top with them, an MDP President could be a burden to the nation than a boon. The latter, not the former, should be the case, post-poll.
The MDP needs to give the nation and Parliament time to rework the institutional framework as they exist, though not time enough for imbibing in them a new sense of purpose and direction expected of them in a democratic scheme. The latter would take a lot more of time, and Rome, after all was not built in day. Putting the cart before the horse will also be a lop-sided approach which could only upset the MDP apple-cart, and the larger cause even more in a fledgling democracy with its inherent and institutional problems that have already shown up for what they are worth -- or, not worth.
The inherent problem to post-Gayoom democracy in Maldives owes to the kind of Constitution that they all produced in haste in 2008, with the sole aim of getting the incumbent out of their way, and of the nation's way, as they had thought. That many political parties that are now against the MDP and are thus in the Waheed dispensation, had worked with the MDP to have their way when Gayoom was the sole power-centre. Just because they have fallen out even before the ink on the constitutional document had dried up, they, together with the MDP, cannot expect the inherent institutional inadequacies, to drop out, too.
Today, the MDP still wants to keep the political ghost of Gayoom alive, to try and win another election. It refuses to understand that after three years in office, and wide publicity that a thinly spread-out nation had not seen before, the voter would be judging the MDP by President Nasheed's tenure, and not by that of his predecessor, per se. The near-dignified conduct of the Government parties to the MDP's street protests and parliamentary behaviour is a silent message that the MDP should be reading, instead. This coupled with the cost of living and dollar-rate are among the issues agitating the voters, and would be more so than democracy issues, as flagged by the MDP, if only after a time from now.
At the end of the day, both the MDP and its opponents in Government are working on narrow political, rather electoral agendas, and are not on a national manifesto that the Constitution still enshrines. The MDP would want to strike the electoral iron when people's memory is still hot on the democracy and injustice issues that it now flags. The party does not seem to have the confidence to go back to the voters, based on its claims to be a better government than its predecessor. The Government parties are also aware of the MDP strategy, and seem to be working with the sole aim of denying the MDP the pleasure of early elections.
The Government parties also have the problem of having to decide early on about their own strategy for fresh presidential elections, and would want that date pushed as far back as possible. It would have been a different ball-game had presidential polls come in their natural course. The focus would then have been on President Nasheed and his completed five-year term. The question now is whether they would want to contest the first round of presidential polls independently or collectively, or in different combinations -- and re-work their strategies for the second, run-off round, if they are confident of a second round in the first place. The last time round, all anti-Gayoom parties contested alone in the first round, but pooled their votes in favour of Nasheed, the first runner-up to give the latter his first electoral entry into the nation's politics.
If the parties decide to go it alone now again, political morals dictate that their representatives on an otherwise apolitical Cabinet pull out before the presidential polls. One alternative to the possibility is to talk the MDP into joining what truly should be a 'national unity government', as propagated by President Waheed on assuming office, but not necessarily afterward. The other and worse alternative would be for the incumbent President to reconstitute his Cabinet, and yet hope that Parliament would clear the names.
It is a pre-requisite of the times that Parliament clear President Waheed's team, as the Government parties had insisted upon when President Nasheed was in office. With Independents still holding key to a parliamentary majority, it could mean a lot in terms of compromises, if not corruption charges for purchasing their loyalties, which could at best be issue-based, and for obvious reasons. This is not the kind of democracy that Maldives and Maldivians deserve.
The ruling parties now have to record with appreciation the successive climb-downs that the anguished and aggressive MDP has made since President Nasheed's exit. The peaceful conduct of successive rallies after the first one 24 hours after the exit had turned violent, should be a case in point. Maldives cannot even afford the police force clashing with the MDP cadres, and contributing to the continuance of peace in political rallies has become a condition-precedent for the Maldivian State to maintain a semblance of order and structure than at any time in the past decades. The alternative could be outright anarchy, and the dividing line is too thin for the nation to strain.
Likewise, the MDP has also begun participating in the Roadmap talks, for which it had earlier laid pre-conditions. It may be true that the party has used the talks only to drive home its demand for early polls, and nothing more, it would soon (have to) realise how it needs the rest as they may need the party. Again, it can settle for a continued deadlock the kind of which that started the nation at the face under President Nasheed in 2010. This time round, however, such a deadlock could mean that the presidential polls may not become due until November 2013 -- which is against the party's demands and expectations.
There is a consensus that a new President should have a full five-year term, and not the residual term for which President Nasheed was elected in 2008 and a part of which President Waheed is now entitled under the Constitution. The MDP needs to acknowledge that it needs the rest of them all to have the Constitution amended with a two-thirds vote, to facilitate an early election that they want. Not having compromised on issues in Parliament in the past, and having deflected the nation's focus from one issue to another, the party may now find it difficult to take firm positions on the Roadmap even if in terms of reaching where it wants to reach.
Parliament, and not Male's street, is the venue, and nothing is going to change inside the Chamber beyond a point by pressures from outside. If that were so, it would have happened even when President Nasheed was in office. Hoping to play the old game and paint President Waheed's team as a revival of President Gayoom's 'autocracy' has not convinced anyone who mattered elsewhere. It would remain so even more. The MDP, more than the rest, has to learn to work with other elements in a democracy and the Government in a democracy. Possibly because they have to live down their 'autocratic past', the rest of them all seem to be less judgmental or unit-directional than the MDP.
Learning from others mistakes
It is unfortunate that mischievous sections tended to attribute motives to Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai's reported reference to the Roadmap propositions at the all-party meeting that he was invited to attend by President Waheed, during his second and more recent visit to Maldives after the political crisis blew up in the first week of February. As Indian officials have already clarified and explained, Secretary Mathai was only referring to the Roadmap that all of them had agreed upon during his previous visit, and which the all-party conference chair too had circulated for fixing priority. That was the crux of the matter, and not the Indian position, of which there was none.
Coming from the world's largest and equally complex of democracies, Foreign Secretary Mathai's prescriptions, if any, would have been the quintessence of the Indian experience and exposure to a scheme that was alien to the shared sub-continental pride and traditions. Maldives can learn from other people's mistakes. Alternatively, it could learn the lessons by going through the birth-pangs of democracy itself, which the nation anyway cannot avoid after a point, despite external prescriptions to induce pain at appropriate times and extinguish the same on other occasions. It is for Maldives and Maldivians to decide which, what and when they want them -- and how, and how much of each. The rest of it all would follow, as if they were a natural course.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)