Originally Published 2014-03-25 03:58:33 Published on Mar 25, 2014
As in the world's many democracies, parliamentary polls in Maldives too have underlined the coalition reality of the times. The polls have also proved the add-ons do count, as former President Nasheed had proved in his second-round victory in 2008.
In Maldives too, polls underline coalition reality of the times
In not a wholly unexpected development, President Abdulla Yameen's 'ruling' coalition, led by his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), has won an absolute majority in the recast 85-member People's Majlis, or Parliament. To an infant democracy that was tottering through the first five years, it should be a welcome first step, ensuring political stability for the Government to address equally important and immediate issues, starting with the nation's tottering economy.

Between them, President Yameen and former President Mohammed 'Anni' Nasheed, leader of the losing Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), have hinted at a stable polity for the next five years that the nation can do with. Nasheed readily conceded defeat long before the official results were known. He congratulated President Yameen on the victory. Though Nasheed may not have added the names of any other leader of the 'ruling' Progressive Coalition, from the MDP's side, it was saying a lot.

President Yameen had commenced the reconciliation game even before the parliamentary polls. In one of his last campaign rallies, he was quoted as saying that his Government would not resort to witch-hunting or appoint commissions to probe allegations of wrong-doing by previous governments. He obviously had the Nasheed presidency (2008-12) in mind. This was a reiteration of the commitment Yameen had made in public immediately after winning the hotly-contested presidential polls against Nasheed in November last.

When numbers add up

Give or take a seat or two, provisional results, being updated sluggishly by the local media after a point, owing obviously to slow vote-count, showed (at the time of writing this piece) that the Progressive Coalition had won a total of 53 seats in a recast House of 85 members. The Opposition MDP bagged 26 seats, down by a solo from the numbers won in the outgoing House, which only had 77 members.

From among the ruling coalition members, the Progressive Party of Maldives, founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, of which President Yameen is at present the torch-bearer, has won 33, down from the originally forecast 35, the Jumhooree Party of former Constituent Assembly (Special Majlis) chairperson, Gasim Ibrahim 15 and the Maldivian Democratic Alliance (MDA), five.

Five seats have gone to Independents. Progressive Coalition leaders have claimed that they were either 'rebels' from constituent parties and/or would back the Government. If true, the Government would have a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament. Apart from Independents, one seat has gone to the religion-centric Adhahalath Party (AP), which had backed Yameen in the decisive second, run-off round of the presidential polls last year. The party fell out with the JP ally from the first round presidential polls, over seat-sharing for parliamentary elections.

The lessons from the current series of three elections - to the presidency, the local councils and now Parliament - are clear. One, Maldives cannot escape the rigours and realities of coalition politics for at least some more time to come. That coalition politics and administrations need not be bad after all, and that party leaderships should accept this realities and consequent compulsions - and responsibilities, on the reverse - if democracy has to take deeper roots than already.

The absence of such realisation on the part of the MDP after Nasheed's election as President in 2008 may have been among the major causes for the troubles that the nation and the constitutional scheme had to face in the years that followed. This meant that, unlike at present, the Nasheed Government had to do without an absolute majority in Parliament, which was controlled by the 'Opposition' comprising the traditional rival in the Dhivehi Progressive Party (DRP), then of President Gayoom, the People's Alliance (PA) of President Yameen and Gasim Ibrahim's JP.

At the end of the day, the numbers (alone) added up, as they had done in the second-round of presidential polls of 2008 and 2013. With the voter turn-out in the current polls pegged at 75 percent, based on available counting figures for a total electorate of 240,652, the Progressive Coalition obtained 62.3 percent vote-share (PPM: 38.8 percent, JP 17.6 percent and MDA 5.9 percent). Against this, the MDP had got 30.6 percent vote-share. The AP, contesting the parliamentary polls alone for the first time, recorded 1.2 ercent vote-share though winning only a lone seat - that of Ms Anara Naeem.

Nasheed attributed the poor MDP showing to the low voter turn-out, caused in turn, by the Supreme Court allegedly compromising the independence of the Elections Commission, by sacking two members, including EC President Fuwad Thowheek, a fortnight before the 22 March poll. With less than a sixth of the vote-sheets to be counted, the last reported voter turn-out of 75.5 percent this time is 16 percent lower than the highest ever 91.41 percent in the high-voltage second-round of presidential polls on 16 November. The current figure is 10 percent higher than the initial EC calculations of a much lower 65 percent polling.

With available figures, the Progressive Coalition's vote-share this time is 11 percent more than the 51.39 percent polled by President Yameen in the second, victorious round. It included the 1.2 percent attributable to the AP partner at the time. The MDP's vote-share is 18 percent lower than Nasheed's tally of 48.6 percent in November. Even granting a voter turn-out of 91 percent from the presidential polls, and also allotting the 16 percent votes that were not cast this time as against the presidential second-round to the MDP, the party would not have made up the 31 percent gap against the Coalition. In fact there would still have been a high 15 percent gap.

Though obtained under the coalition umbrella, the PPM's vote-share of 38.8 percent vote-share, obtained by contesting a higher number of constituencies compared to allies, is closer to the 40 percent that former President Gayoom had bagged in the first round of the presidential polls in 2008, which the latter lost ultimately. Against this, the MDP's stand-alone 30.6 percent this time compares well with the 25 percent vote-share of Nasheed in the first-round polling in 2008. It is still substantially lower than the 37.5 percent vote-share, six months later in 2009. The MDP has since been claiming this figure to be its electoral bench-mark.

Transferrable and non-transferrable votes

While conceding the parliamentary polls, Nasheed has called upon the leaders of the MDP (which is still the single largest political party in the country in terms of registered membership) to share the blame for the electoral defeat. He has also called for laws to prevent post-poll defection by elected members, apprehensive as he may have been on that count. While neighbouring nations like India, the world's largest democracy, has an effective anti-defection law, the fact remains the MDP itself mustered a parliamentary majority in the outgoing House only by encouraging defections of the kind.

Nasheed has also called upon the MDP to restructure the party organisation, and induct younger members into positions of decision-making. As may be recalled, the MDP has been without a president and vice-president since 2012. At 47, Nasheed has enough of politics and elections left in him, and he has indicated that he was ready to pass on the baton, continuing to remain and work in the party, of which he is a co-founder and also its most-popular face and effective advocate, home and abroad.

Apart from underlining the coalition reality of the times, the parliamentary polls have also exposed the charisma factor in the Maldivian situation. The Progressive Coalition has proved that the add-ons do count, as Nasheed himself proved in his second-round victory in 2008. For the MDP, this election has shown that all of Nasheed's votes in last year's presidential polls are committed party votes that are automatically transferrable to its parliamentary candidates.

In restructuring the party, the MDP leadership would also be addressing the requirements of the future, to face the presidential and parliamentary polls five years hence. Three years from, the MDP may have an occasion to test capacity of the restructured organisation, in the local council polls that are due in three years. In a way, the local council polls would be a referendum of sorts on the Progressive Coalition.

Commitment to the coalition?

Even with all five Independents on its side, no Government is possible for the Progressive Coalition without the JP and Gasim on board. Though not immediately, possibly after the next local council polls, the partners of the 'ruling' combine would be tempted to review their own positions and partnerships in the long run-up to the presidential polls, if they had not started doing already. For now, President Yameen and JP's Gasim Ibrahim, whose party has won rich dividends in the parliamentary polls owing to the continued commitment to the alliance, among others, have sworn by the Progressive Coalition.

Going by preliminary figures, the JP has now won 15 parliamentary seats as against the lone seat Gasim had got for the party in 2009. Gasim has since argued that the coalition lost a few seats owing to 'rebel candidates' and 'cross-voting'. Other coalition leaders have claimed that all five independents who have won this time are natural allies of the ruling combine. If true, the Government would have the mandatory two-thirds majority, adding up to 58, which is required for effecting constitutional amendments.

Though 'coalition figures' in the parliamentary elections are not comparable to stand-alone vote-shares, the JP's 17-plus percent vote-share this time is closer to Gasim's 15-plus percent in the first round of presidential polls in 2008, and down from the 24-plus percent in November last. Considering that Gasim has not hidden his presidential ambitions at any time, and also the 'committed' and 'transferrable' votes of the numbers that he alone may command in the nation, any dissatisfaction/disaffection on Gasim's part would be watched with caution by President Yameen and the PPM leadership - and with interest by the MDP.

An occasion would present itself immediately on testing the Coalition's resolve to stay together when they short-list a nominee for the Speaker's post. Going by the multi-party democratic experience with and under outgoing Speaker Abdulla Shahid, who crossed over to the MDP ahead of last year's presidential polls, the Government parties would be cautious in their choice of the next Speaker - as much together as they are separately.

Gasim, when asked, did not rule himself out. Nor has he thrown his hat into the ring, considering that his efficient floor-management as the Chair of the Special Majlis, and his effective coordination with Gayoom at a crucial stage in contemporary Maldivian history, are also the kind of qualities that are required of a parliamentary chair in the country just now. It would still be left to the twin PPM leadership of President Yameen at the administrative level and Gayoom at the political level, to take a call, now and/or later, on this or other issues, too.

For starters, though, the Progressive Coalition, both within and outside, and the MDP, too, likewise, could be expected to play ball within oneself and with each other. The nation's 'second honeymoon' with a multi-party government may have just begun. It would still be left to the stake-holders to play the game, by the rules they are played and are also understood locally. This proved difficult in the first five-year innings, compared to similarly-placed third world democracies at inception.

India's has had their colonial masters holding hands at democratisation even before they became independent and democratic. As Maldivians are proud of it, they never ever had western colonial masters ruling them, making it thus difficult for them to understand, appreciate and absorb the nuances of western democracy overnight, as the alien exporters of the scheme had hoped for and the local inductees too had taken for granted!

It now needs a lot more of working and re-working to take Maldives where democracy (alone) can take. Included in the list, if not topping the same, could be the on-again, off-again talk about a shift towards Westminster form of parliamentary government, with greater responsibility for Parliament, and greater accountability by the Executive with twin-heads with shared powers between a president and prime minister, than under the US form of Executive President with 'unfettered powers' - as used to be the case during the pre-democratisation past!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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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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