Originally Published 2013-03-16 00:00:00 Published on Mar 16, 2013
Not all seems to have been lost to the infant Maldivian democracy. Arch-rivals in the still -unfolding national political drama have come together again, to re-vote two Bills to ensure mandatory assent after President Waheed Hassan Manik had returned them.
Maldives: Bipartisanship still has a chance
Not all seems to have been lost to the infant Maldivian democracy. Arch-rivals in the still-unfolding national political drama have come together again, keeping faint hopes alive on the way forward. Though on specific issues, 'major parties' in the country have come together in Parliament to re-vote two Bills to ensure mandatory assent after President Waheed Hassan Manik had returned them.

Better news still for democracy. For starters, President Waheed gave his assent to the two Bills, without contesting it beyond a point -by subterfuge, if at all and not in public. Any clash between the Executive and the Legislature thus was avoided. More so, it meant that the Executive went by the wishes of the Legislature, as under the Constitution. A constitutional deadlock was averted, after all.

More was to follow. Acting on petitions before it, the Supreme Court has since stayed the operation of the Political Party Act, which increased the minimum membership of political parties for registration with the Elections Commission (EC), from 3,000 to 10,000. Only five parties qualified to stay on in the EC Registry while 11 others, including President Waheed's Guamee Iththihad Party (GIP) were taken off.

Stand-off averted

At one point, it looked as if the presidential assent for the two Bills -the other on parliamentary privileges -was heading for a stand-off. For the infant democracy, it was not of course the first experience of the kind. In mid-2010, President Mohammed Nasheed, then in office, had delayed his assent for the Finance Act amendment law, after the People's Majlis, or Parliament, had voted in a second time after he had 'returned' it.

The amendment flowed from the Male airport contract with the Indian infrastructure major, GMR Group, when Parliament wanted it taken into confidence on matters of such import and importance. President Nasheed delayed his assent for the Bill until after the GMR agreement had been inked, which itself faced unexpected delays, shortened however to hours and days, instead of weeks and months -as might have been anticipated.

In the present instance, under Speaker Abdulla Shahid, the parties addressed a news conference, urging President Waheed not to delay ratification once the Majlis had cleared the two Bills for a second time. There were also concerns after the Government, through the Attorney-General, moved the Supreme Court even before the Bills had become law with presidential assent.

It is not as if the Political Party Act alone is facing legal hurdles. Among other things, the new privileges law has now made it mandatory for all persons summoned by either Parliament or parliamentary committees to appear before them for answering queries and offering clarifications. Specifically, it has directed journalists to share their sources of information.

Journalist organisations have since protested the new law, and have moved the Supreme Court since, arguing that it violated the Constitution. The argument also runs that rather than codifying the privileges of the Legislature and members of Parliament, to make them restrictive, the new law has made it expansive -and thus coming in the way of free speech and Press freedom. For Maldives and Maldivians, it has deeper connotations.

MDP initiative

Interestingly, the two new Bills were moved by former President Mohammed Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and had the support of other major parties in the country, but not all of them with substantial representation in Parliament. The MDP is the single largest party in membership terms, within and outside the Majlis.

The four other parties that have made it to the EC Registry are the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the second largest both inside and outside Parliament, the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), the Jumhooree Party (JP) and the religion-centric Adhhalath Party (AP). Of the four, two, namely DRP and the PPM, were founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in that order. Among the 'removed' parties, the People's Alliance (PA) was founded by present-day PPM parliamentary group leader and Gayoom's half-brother, Abdulla Yameen. The list goes on.

Of the five parties that have retained EC recognition, the Adhhalath Party does not have parliamentary presence. But two other parties with parliamentary representation, namely, the PA and the Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP), the latter founded by Presidential Advisor and one-time presidential hopeful, Dr Hassan Saeed, could not make it to the Registry. More importantly, the list includes President Waheed's Guamee Iththihad Party (QIP)

From among them, the PPM does not share the views of the rest on parliamentary privileges, while the DRP has announced that it will move amendments to the law once the presidential ratification came through. The GIP and DQP are among those that have contested the Political Party Bill and its implementation in the Supreme Court, since.

'Removed, not dissolved'

Pending any action initiated by the Supreme Court, the Elections Commission stuck down the names of the 11 parties from the Registry. The EC has since clarified that it has only 'removed' their names from the Registry and has not 'dissolved' them. Either way, it flags issues as parties like President Waheed's GIP and the newly-formed Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) claimed to have submitted over 10,000 membership forms to the EC for verification, and the 'removal' now came in the way.

There could be procedural problems, thus, accentuated by the deadline-driven presidential polls that have been tentatively scheduled for September but cannot be delayed beyond mid-November. The Supreme Court would have to dispose off the petitions challenging the Political Party Act one way or the other in good time for the EC to notify the election process and get going.

If the court were to uphold the pending petitions, either on the legal or procedural issues, or both, then the EC may have a huge problem on hand, if it has to verify the large numbers of membership forms in its hand before poll notification. The new law also mandates thumb-impression verification for party membership, and the court, if it came to that, may have to clarify if it would relate to new members or all members, for political parties now 'removed' from the Registry.

The EC may also face technological problems, given in particular, the short at its possible disposal. Verification of thumb-impression cannot be done manually, and the very physical effort entails both costs and effort. It would still need trained and experienced eyes to make the difference, and thereby hangs a tale.

Already, there are reports of dead persons finding their names into the membership registry of individual parties. This week, the Police Media spokesperson said that the names of many policemen have found their names into political parties' registries without their knowledge and consent. The spokesperson did not clarify if the EC had verified those membership forms are not.

The question will also arise if enrolled members of parties that had been 'removed' from the EC Registry joined one of the five registered parties in between, but would want to return to the parent-fold, if the court held their 'removal' unconstitutional. Seemingly technical in nature, the issue could have consequences for parliamentary polls in May 2014.

In all, 77 MPs have to be elected across the country, with the electorate in most hovering around 3,000. Urban Male and other 'population centres' account for most voters but with de-limitation, based not on population but still on the traditional ways of islands, island-groups and atolls.

'Swing voters' still

The 'removal' of 11 parties from the EC Registry adds a new twist to the membership-tale. EC reports before the new law showed that only around 50 per cent of the 241,000 voters alone were among the registered members of all 16 political parties. The 'removal' of 11 parties from the EC Registry has brought down the figure by a few percentage points, below the 50-per cent mark.

This puts the 'other half' under two broad categories in terms of their electoral preference -one, those who are supporters and sympathisers of a political party or candidate but are not its members, and the other those who are 'undecided voters' or 'swing voters', who vote according to issues and the choice of candidates, at times influenced by campaigns and campaign styles, as in any democracy.

It is unclear as yet how the 'swing voters' behave in general terms for an analyst to make a division between the two categories. Should the parties whose names have been 'removed' from the EC Registry remain so at the time of presidential polls, if the Supreme Court were to rule accordingly or delay a decision, then their combined vote-share could form another 'group' with possible divisions of the kind within. If they were to vote in unison, then it is not unlikely that they could be among the 'decisive factors' in the first round.

Independent of what the Supreme Court may decide on the issue, the Political Party Act may be an aberration in terms of the 'spirit of democracy' that facilitated a multi-party democracy in the country, and the said law in due course. For instance, the MDP, the political identity that the pro-democracy movement in the country assumed at the inception of the 2008 Constitution, was non-existent before it was made possible.

The new law discourages the democratic eruption of such possibilities, with consequences over the short, medium and long terms, particularly with close to -or, more than -half the nation undecided as yet on their preference for a political administration. It is unclear if Maldives, like the US, whose presidential model that it has adopted, will be able to manage, if not 'manipulate' a form of 'guided democracy' that the new law entails -or, will still have the energy and momentum to think and act otherwise, even in terms of democracy.

The case of the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) is worth a closer study. Formed almost after Parliament had passed the new law for the first time only months earlier, the MDA claimed to have crossed the 10,000-member mark for being able to enter the EC Registry by the time the new law came into force. President Waheed's GIP, hovering around with around 2,000 members since the 2008 polls, claims to have made up the numbers to the EC Registry. These claims need verification. The religion-centric AP touched the 10,000-mark not very long ago.

The Election Commission's month-wise membership list has shown near-stagnancy in the case of the top three parties in particular. The MDP's has remained a high 46,000 or thereabouts. The PPM and the DRP have been vying for the second place in rotation, with around 22,000 members each. There is a message in this also for the MDP leader of the pack and others too, as the total membership of the two Gayoom-founded parties comes close to its figure.

The larger message is for all three of them, put together. Despite the vagaries and vicissitudes of the nation's politics and polity over the past year, the 'swing voters' is not moved to the point where they would queue of before their party offices to sign in as members. If claims to the contrary are to be proved right, then the reverse may after all be the truth -questioning also the logic behind the new law, thus.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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