Originally Published 2004-12-20 07:23:33 Published on Dec 20, 2004
That is the question large sections of the people of the Republic of Maldives have been raising as the small country in the Indian Ocean gets ready for the elections to its Parliament (Majlis), which are due to take place on December 31. While the Indian media and analysts have been devoting considerable attention to the coming re-poll (December 26) to elect the next President of Ukraine in order to see whether the elections there would be free and fair,
Maldives: A Mini Ukraine in the Making?
A democratic exercise or a farce?

That is the question large sections of the people of the Republic of Maldives have been raising as the small country in the Indian Ocean gets ready for the elections to its Parliament (Majlis), which are due to take place on December 31. While the Indian media and analysts have been devoting considerable attention to the coming re-poll (December 26) to elect the next President of Ukraine in order to see whether the elections there would be free and fair, hardly any notice has been taken in India of the complaints of the pro-democracy elements of the Maldives regarding the alleged attempts of President Maumoon Gayoom to once again subvert the democratic process in order to silence any opposition to his continued rule, which has already lasted 26 years.

In the absence of any demonstrated Indian interest in the smooth transition to democracy of this country, whose stability and good governance are of such vital interest to India, other external powers have been quietly moving in as well-wishers and supporters of the pro-democracy elements. If India does not sit up and take notice and bestir itself in support of democracy, it may in the long-term find its influence in the country slowly undermined just as Russia finds its influence in Ukraine facing the threat of being undermined because of its failure to take timely notice of the democratic aspirations of its people.

The same Western elements, which played a role in stirring up trouble for Russia in Ukraine by taking advantage of the democratic aspirations of the people, are seeking to play a role in the Maldives in order to facilitate its transition to democracy. There is no reason to believe that their objective is to undermine the Indian influence in the Maldives, but the end result will be the same if India fails to play the leadership role in ensuring that the genuine democracy promised by Gayoom is not once again reduced to a farce. If democracy ultimately comes to the Maldives as a result of the support of Western elements with India being merely a silent spectator, it may not do any good to India's image with the new dispensation.

Gayoom has always been liberal in his promises to ward off external pressure to be more responsive to the grievances and demands of his people, but devious and halting in implementation. In the perception of the pro-democracy forces, he has been no different this time. His continued refusal to allow the formation of political parties, his attempts to prevent many leaders of the pro-democracy forces from contesting the elections even in their individual capacity by getting them involved in what is widely perceived as fabricated criminal cases arising from the mass public demonstrations of August last in Male, the pressure allegedly exercised by the National Security Service (NSS) on individual candidates to withdraw and complaints of the misuse of the NSS and other wings of the Government to ensure the defeat of pro-democracy candidates are creating a worrisome situation on the eve of the elections.

It is believed that despite the difficulties sought to be created for them by Gayoom and his Administration, a large number of pro-democracy individuals, many of them supporters or members of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) which has been spearheading the pro-democracy campaign, have managed to file their nominations and they are hopeful of success in the elections, if they are genuinely free and fair.

Amongst the external elements, which have moved in ostensibly benignly to encourage the growing pro-democracy feelings and take strategic advantage of them are the USA's dubious National Democratic Institute (NDI) for International Affairs headed by Mrs. Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State during the Clinton Administration, and the European Union (EU).

The NDI and its parent organisation called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have been playing an active role in Ukraine in supporting the anti-Moscow elements in the name of democracy and are alleged to have spent nearly US $ 40 million for the "promotion" of democracy in Ukraine. The previous Indian Government led by Mr.A.B.Vajpayee let itself be persuaded by the Clinton Administration to act as a midwife at the birth of a project for a Community of Democracies and let the NED open a branch in New Delhi to support the pro-democracy forces in Myanmar. The NDI and the NED have now turned their attention to the Maldives, without being unduly concerned about Indian sensitivities on this subject. Two detailed notes recorded by me in 2000 on the NED and the Community of Democracies project and the planned use of democracy as a strategic weapon by the USA in furtherance of its national interests may be seen at http://www.saag.org/papers2/paper119.html and http://www.saag.org/papers2 /paper115.html.

Faced with Western pressure after the public demonstrations of August last to introduce political reforms, President Gayoom invited the NDI to send a team to the Maldives to study the possibility of creating a political party system. It sent a four-member team headed by a former Prime Minister of Bosnia which met Gayoom and a large number of Maldivians belonging to different walks of life inside and outside the country and prepared a report giving its conclusions.

According to details of the NDI report as disseminated by the pro-democracy elements, "it finds no good reason why the Maldivian Government continues to refuse registration to political parties, such as the MDP. The NDI finds widespread yearning for change and deep unhappiness with the Government of President Gayoom and a profound skepticism as to whether the President is committed to genuine reform. The NDI further finds that the possibility for free elections and fair trials is severely limited in the Maldives."

Amongst the observations of the NDI team, as quoted by the pro-democracy elements are:

  • "Public demand for reform is both broad and deep. Although the President is to be commended for his reform proposals of June 9, 2004, experience with past reform proposals, the detention of leading opposition figures and perceptions of continued political intimidation have created a deep public skepticism regarding the sincerity of the reform process." 

  • The NDI also found a "sharp cultural division between the 'old guard' and a younger generation, many of whom are frustrated with the lack of space that they have to participate freely in political life." 

  • The NDI found a divide between Male' and other Atolls. "The potential for political intimidation by the appointed atoll and island chiefs is much greater in the Atolls than in Male'". "The patronage system, which is strongly engrained in the country, creates a dependency which the Government uses to influence voting behavior." 

  • The "frustration of citizens with their inability to influence Government has also contributed to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism within the country…a narrow version of Islam that is imported from abroad." 

  • The NDI found that "support for genuine political change…extended well beyond the opposition MDP" with "a wide range of civil servants and Government officials also sharply critical of Government leadership." 

  • There was also "widespread skepticism that genuine reforms will be carried out; many individuals noted that the actions of the Government appear inconsistent with the content of the Government's reform proposals. Above all, the detention of the opposition leaders has prompted many of those interviewed…to dismiss the Government's reform measures as cosmetic. Among the reasons that people cite for their skepticism are the 26 years of rule by the current President; the strong network of family relationships that permeates Government and other aspects of political life including control of the media." 

  • Among those the NDI interviewed there was also "a degree of fear and uncertainty about what reforms will mean in terms of stability, but the level of aspiration and frustration is such that most of the interviewees felt that reforms must go ahead nonetheless." 

The pro-democracy elements have quoted the NDI team as making the following recommendations in its report: 

  • Confidence building - "if the Government is to regain public trust with respect to reform, it must proceed quickly and aggressively with reforms that are viewed as genuine, rather than merely cosmetic." There is a perception that "detentions are politically motivated…threats of prosecution have been used to dissuade individuals from competing in the elections or to silence opposition." The NDI recommended allowing those under house arrest to participate fully in the Special Majlis, licensing opposition media and conducting sweeping and urgent reforms of the legal system. Moreover, there must be a "clear timetable for the enactment of specific reforms… should include a timeframe for early multi-party elections."

  • Legal framework for the development of political parties - the NDI recommended a "minimalist approach with respect to the regulation of political parties" to allow for quick registration of parties in the Maldives.

  • Other changes in the legal environment necessary for effective parties - the NDI noted that "an effective multi-party system is impossible if people fear reprisal for speaking out against the Government." It recommended changes to the civil service to prevent the Government sacking employees for political reasons and a free media accessible to all segments of society, not just to the Government. It also recommended that there must be a "fair pre-election environment and fair elections." 
  • Improve mechanisms for the enforcement of constitutional and political rights - the NDI stated that "separation of the judiciary from the executive is essential" and that "steps must be taken to prevent the use of politically-motivated prosecutions." It noted that "many people view the court system as having limited credibility with respect to the protection of political rights." It felt that UN engagement in trials could be a way forward. 
  • Capacity building - the NDI found a need to educate the citizens on "the role of political parties in a democratic system" and suggested teaching political and civil rights in school. 

The NDI offered the Government further assistance for creating a multi-party system in the Maldives but only "on the condition that the NDI is permitted to provide the same range of assistance to parties within the full political spectrum".

In a joint statement issued on December 13,2004,the Heads of Mission of the EU accredited to the Maldives called upon the Gayoom Government to ensure that the elections were free and fair.It said: " It is essential that those wishing to stand for election be permitted to do so, and that candidates be able to campaign freely. Open public debate should be an integral part of the election campaigns, State-owned resources should be employed even-handedly in a way that does not advantage certain candidates and disadvantage others."

It welcomed the decision of the Government to invite observer missions from the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) and said: "A reform process developed through open discussion in the Special Majlis (the Constituent Assembly), and informed by wider public debate, will make a significant contribution to ensuring the future stability of the Maldives. Public discussion is a vital means of providing legislators with feedback and constructive ideas. Democracy can only develop in an atmosphere that accommodates divergent opinions and encourages open discussion."

It further said: "The Heads of Mission remain seriously concerned about the arrests that followed the August demonstrations. They urge that those still detained be released. Those persons charged with criminal offences must be treated in accordance with international norms and given full access to justice. This is essential from the perspective of individual human rights. It is also important from the point of view of creating an atmosphere conducive to free and fair elections and progress in the process of constitutional reform."

In statements issued before the elections, the MDP has conceded that there has been an improvement in the human rights situation since August, thanks to the interest taken by the outside world in the developments in the Maldives and the Maldivian Human Rights Commission. At the same time, it has alleged that Gayoom shows no signs of wanting to ensure free and fair elections.

It says: "Gayoom bludgeons the people of Maldives into submission. The international community's impact on the 31st December parliamentary election is, however, minimal. To start with, Gayoom has simply ignored the call to grant the people the right to freedom of association despite his clear, unequivocal assertion "our laws do not bar anybody from forming a political party if they want to". More ominously, Gayoom has intimidated and pressurized at least ten people (who would otherwise have won) from seeking nomination. Most of the reformist leaders, who would have spearheaded the reformist election campaign, are being systematically intimidated and continue to remain in detention. In the meantime, pro-Government candidates continue to openly enjoy state patronage and public resources for their election campaign. "

It further says: "Most of the rigging has already taken place. Even in the unlikely event that the rest of the election process would be "free and fair" the damage already done would mean that the election would be both unfair and unrepresentative of the wishes of the people. Under the circumstances, sending observers just for the Election Day would be not only meaningless, but would give Gayoom the opportunity to legitimize a grossly unfair electoral process.

"To ensure a free and fair election, the entire process needs to be restructured. According to MDP, the minimum requirements for a free and fair election are: 

  • The immediate registration of political parties. 
  • Release of all pro-democracy detainees. 
  • A level playing field free from fear and intimidation whereby reformists and pro-Government candidates can compete on an equal footing. 
  • An opportunity for detainees and others, who earlier did not seek nomination out of fear and intimidation, to seek nomination afresh. 
  • About thirty days of campaigning and 
  • A transparent system for monitoring and counting of votes." 

Even while continuing to hold that the electoral process has already been vitiated by the alleged machinations of Gayoom, the MDP has announced its endorsement of 37 reform-minded candidates for the Majlis elections. It says: " The MDP continues to maintain that the Majlis elections cannot be free and fair. The Maldivian Government continues to persecute our party's elected Councilors, members and supporters. President Gayoom's Government, in breach of Article 27 of the Constitution, continues to refuse the Party's registration in the Maldives and candidates are unable to contest under the Party banner."

It further says: "President Gayoom's Government has been hounding opposition candidates and potential candidates for the upcoming election, threatening them with life jail sentences if they contest in the election. The result of this persecution is that at least 11 popular candidates - including nine current MPs - who would have stood in the election are not contesting for the 42 seats up for election because of Government intimidation. These candidates include: Ahmed Athif MP, Ahmed Shafeeq MP, Ali Faiz MP, Dr Hussain Rasheed MP, Dr Mohamed Munavvaru MP,Gasim Ibrahim MP, Ibrahim Hussain Zaki MP, Mohamed Latheef (former MP), Mohamed Naseem MP, Mohamed Nasheed (former MP), and Mohamed Shareef MP

The MDP also feels, given the crucial period in the political development of the Maldives, the Party should endorse those candidates it believes would try and work towards the promotion of democracy and freedom in the Maldives."

There are three possible scenarios: 

  • Scenario I: The elections, despite the promised presence of foreign observers, are rigged and many of the pro-democracy candidates are got defeated by the administration. 

  • Scenario II: The elections are free and fair and a large number of the pro-democracy candidates are elected, but difficulties are created in their functioning in order to thwart the advent of genuine democracy. 

  • Scenario III: The elected pro-democracy candidates are allowed to function normally by Gayoom, who reconciles himself to the full flowering of democracy even if it means the sunset of his long rule. 

India should ardently wish for Scenario III, but if Scenario I or II takes place, the Maldives is in for a continued spell of political instability, which would not be in India's interest. India faces a dilemma in the face of the developing situation. Gayoom has been close to India, has been sensitive to India's strategic interests in the region and has been receptive to suggestions from India for the progress and development of his country. At the same time, continuing perceptions among sections of his people of his dictatorial nature and suppression of the pro-democracy movement could create political instability and a greater space for external elements, which could, in the long run, undermine Indian strategic interests. The ground realities and political constraints would not permit an open articulation of India's interest in encouraging Gayoom to pay heed to the democratic aspirations, but there is no reason why India should not be more active in working behind the scene for encouraging a national consensus on a road-map to genuine democracy. 

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail: [email protected]

Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper No. 1194, December 20,2004.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.

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