Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 22, 2021
Maldives may still be unready for Democracy; sitting on a powder-keg now?

Even as Parliament Speaker and former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed has been discharged from a military hospital in Germany after additional care for multiple injuries sustained in a targeted bomb-attack outside his Malé home, Maldives may have to apply correctives to the nation’s increasingly dysfunctional democracy process, before it becomes too late. With Nasheed staying back in the host-nation for a month for periodic medical check-ups, even a long-distance national discourse can include systemic changes like transition to parliamentary scheme from the existing presidential governance, as reiterated by Nasheed recently. More importantly, it should fix leadership inadequacies, and checks and balances, more than what is already there, for western democracy to work in Maldivian conditions.

Speaker Nasheed, who hopes to ‘return stronger’ (politically, too?), had commended the parliamentary scheme with him as the maiden prime minister to President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), that he himself has been heading for the past many years without change. His incomplete presidential past (2008-12), his prime ministerial ambitions and his continuance as the ‘elected leader’ of the first and single largest political party since the nation became a multi-party, modern democracy a decade and more back, is saying a lot—and is an area that desires a closer look.

The question about the viability of Western democracy arises from the inability of the ‘democratic polity’ to shed the absolutism of the monarchy without compromising political stability

Maldives had been ruled by centralised kingdoms and sultanates for 1,200 years and more, before the nation ushered in failed Republics, including an ‘elected sultanate’, in the middle of the 20th century. The nation became a multi-party, presidential democracy in 2008, without tampering with the nation’s ‘Islamic exclusivity’ in religious affairs, yet a moderate form thereof.

Not democratic enough

The question about the viability of western democracy arises from the inability of the ‘democratic polity’ to shed the absolutism of the monarchy without compromising political stability. A new low has been reached now, as the ruling MDP commands a two-thirds majority in the 87-member Parliament, apart from allies, an affable President and a charismatic Speaker, yet the nation seems to be lacking a sense of direction and political stability, taking the decade-long public perceptions of democracy down with it.

At the centre of the controversy is Speaker Nasheed, who is the nation’s single-most popular leader by all accounts, and yet is seemingly unsure of himself all the time. The 2008 Constitution has fixed a two-term upper-limit for the nation’s presidency, but no political party registered under the new laws has any such term-limitation for party bosses.

This has conferred a sense of ownership and proprietorship on Nasheed, who had upstaged veterans like one-time Attorney-General Dr Mohamed Munnavar and Ibrahim Ismail ‘Ibra’ at the party helm. Ibra is kin of Nasheed’s, like President Solih and incumbent Deputy Speaker Eva Abdulla,  and it is enough for them qualify as ‘family rule’ of the kind that ‘autocratic’ Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was charged with for three long decades (1978-2008).

Incidentally, the Gayooms, both Maumoon and Yameen, represented the ‘common man at the helm’, as against most others over the past decades, who all are identified with one or the other of what is called the ‘Malé royalty’. Any democratic move away from the status quo in the form of an elected President or even a prime minister, could throw up another commoner onto the centre-stage, though no one is in sight, after the seeming downward slide in the electoral fortunes of the Jumhooree Party (JP) founder, Gasim Ibrahim, 70.

In the normal course of things, all this should have strengthened the MDP and Nasheed, especially when they are not otherwise seen as dictatorial in the mould of previous leaders. However, the MDP’s unprecedented defeat in the nation-wide local council polls in April, and more so, the prestigious mayoralty and municipal council of Malé, has set minds thinking. Malé city accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s population and electorate, and has a major say for the directly-elected presidency, especially during poll-time.

To begin with, it has raised doubts about the ability of the MDP to retain the presidency and Parliament alike in elections that are due in 2023/24. To this is linked the fate and future of functional democracy in the country, as pitted against the MDP still is the PPM-PNC combine of jailed former President, Abdulla Yameen.

Yameen is the half-brother of ‘one-time autocrat’ Gayoom (now a poor ally of the MDP), whom he had since upstaged first in power and now in the Opposition. The big question ahead of the twin polls of 2023/24 is if Maldivians may want to settle for ‘elected autocracy’ that promises political stability and development instead of a ‘chaotic democracy’ that the older generations are still unaccustomed to, following generational habits that they are yet to shed.

Toddler democracy, still

Nothing explains the nation’s current predicament better than the MDP’s Nasheed camp going public every now and again with demands for the exit of one or the other of President Solih’s ministerial colleagues, charging them with corruption. Corruption was among the major planks on which the MDP-led combine came to power in the 2018 polls and Solih became President.

The more frequent such demands are made and conceded, more unstable is the presidency seen as becoming. Rather than talking it out in private, Nasheed is seen as taking intra-party issues to the public at every turn, that too targeting the Solih administration without hurting his one-time friend personally, as yet. Nasheed’s preference for tweet-based messaging to the President over traditional modes of communication may enthuse Nasheed’s cadres and the MDP’s political opponents alike, but not others.

All this have given rise to an increasing perception that the Nasheed camp has been feeling out of place after the majority in the MDP parliamentary party stood by a silent Solih, forcing their leader to become ‘consensus Speaker’, if only to save face inside and outside the party. The numbers reportedly remained static at 2:1 in the 65-MP group, in a straw-ballot on ‘parliamentary democracy’, Nasheed’s current favourite.

The big question ahead of the twin polls of 2023/24 is if Maldivians may want to settle for ‘elected autocracy’ that promises political stability and development instead of a ‘chaotic democracy’ that the older generations are still unaccustomed to

It has also led to a substantial number of apolitical MDP sympathisers questioning the Nasheed camp’s wisdom in converting every national major issue into an intra-party affair, as if Maldives were destined be a one-party state, as in the Gayoom era – and the voter did not need to be consulted beforehand.  In turn, this is a hidden challenge to what still remains a toddler democracy, in every which way.

Multiple probes

The evolving political crisis comes in the midst of the continuing investigations into the 6 May bomb-attack on Nasheed. Even as the police investigations have seemingly slowed down after an early breakthrough with the arrest of a third suspect, Parliament’s security committee has commenced what could end up as a ‘parallel probe’.

Unlike the non-partisan post-9/11 US congressional probe, Maldivian parliamentary investigations in the past years under the MDP, too, have proved to be as much political as they have been factual. This one targets Defence Minister Mariya Didi, a popular woman leader, one-time MDP chairperson under President Nasheed, and now identified with President Solih.

A Nasheed camp MP has since claimed sharing advanced intelligence on a US $ 3-million contract on Nasheed with Minister Mariya, implying she did not act on the tip-off. The MP’s claim, if proved, may also give a new lead to investigators, who have been following a terrorism angle, though without ruling out other possibilities.

As if this were not enough, President Solih has since nominated Abbas Faiz, a foreign national, as  ‘special envoy’ (?), to supervise the (police) investigations, to ensure compliance with all international conventions on human rights. A welcome step in the normal course, it can be misinterpreted that the democracy movement, founded over the 2003 prison-death of Evan Naseem, a confirmed boot-legger, still lacks a credible apparatus despite the presence and performance of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives  (HRCM).

The appointment of the special envoy is unlike the blast-investigators accepting assistance from Australian and British police. Incidentally, Dr Ahmed Shaeed, lawyer and short-stay Foreign Minister under President Nasheed, has been the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, for the sixth consecutive year. Shaheed has since called to ‘carefully conceptualise’ the 6 May blast, describing it as ‘targeted….political violence…also a terrorist attack’.

Lacking control

For now, the MDP has accepted Solih’s post-blast advice to postpone the 29 May organisational elections, after some hesitation – but with the promise of a new date in the next 10 days. This apart, nowhere else is the post-blast intra-party political partisanship so very visible than MDP parliamentarians voting in a hurry to order the removal of those named in a probe report on the infamous ‘MMPRC scam’.

Yameen’s imprisonment, pending his Supreme Court appeal, is due to the scam. However, the governing MDP’s internal contradictions were out in the open one more time as the party’s maiden yet ambiguous two-line whip, in the place of the common three-line whip, asked its MPs to be present at the Majlis’ debate without directing them to vote one way or the other.

The parliamentary probe report names 281 ‘beneficiaries’, but concedes that independent investigations into the case of 63 percent of them has not even been taken up. At least one minister, four MPs from the MDP and two from the JP ally are among the 16 parliamentarians, whose names are in the beneficiaries list.

The MDP’s non-committal whip to party MPs was indicative of a vertical split at the top, and the leadership’s lack of confidence that all of them would vote as directed. With the result, the final vote showed four distinct batch of MDP parliamentarians—those that voted in favour, those that abstained, those that were present in the House but did not participate in the vote, and a few that could not be present.

To consider that the exposé of the scam was among the MDP’s three poll promises, which also included ending corruption and bringing culprits behind years-old terrorist killings and disappearances to justice, should mean a lot in the third year of the Solih presidency. Otherwise, the Nasheed camp is one up on the Solih team on corruption and the MMPRC scam. On the terror-probe, there are those within the party who want culprits in other cases too brought to justice early, alongside those that have targeted President Nasheed more recently.

Strain on security forces

The general public is not impressed by such hair-splitting even as the security forces, acting on specific information after the 6 May blast, have been called upon to strengthen their presence in the Parliament building, the Malé international airport, and on the streets across the island-nation. They have also arrested nine terror-suspects in southern Addu City and one more from Malé, the latter ‘with intent to carry out a terrorist act’—but their links, if any, to the 6 May blasts need to be established.

The 6 May blast-probe is only the latest for the over-worked uniformed services in the country. Going by the police protests, experienced during the weeks-long anti-Nasheed protests of the ‘December 23 Movement’ of the political Opposition, leading to his early exit as President, the strain on them could be too much, as they have been called out to help the nation’s unprecedentedly massive civil administration efforts through the past year-and-half, that too with no end in sight, this one on the COVID front.

Ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, the security forces, along with the civilian administration, had launched massive operations, to track down ‘ready-to-kill radicals’ or ‘convert’ them as some of them had barred their children, especially female, from attending schools and getting vaccinated. It was based on the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which had identified local affiliates of Al Qaeda and breakaway ISIS, for the disappearance and suspected killing of liberal blogger Ahmed Rilwan in 2015.

Considering that the public security minister in neighbouring Sri Lanka has more recently reiterated possible involvement of four Maldivians, and named another for financing the terror group involved in the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’ in that country, the Maldivian agencies may be having their hands overflowing, given especially the limited human resources at their command – and which cannot be substituted or increased, overnight.

It is saying a lot, as the nation already seems to be sitting on a powder-keg, with more detonators and remote-controls being added at a faster pace. Among them, politics alone seems to be the only one over which the nation, its polity and people may have some control —but still does not seem to possess at this critical juncture.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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