Maldives: Will early polls end this drift?
N Sathiya Moorthy
29 June 2012
At one-level, it is business as usual in Maldives, at another it is calm before possible storm. With 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 news 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 a 'running-mate' can 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 the 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.
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 aRf 300-m 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)