Originally Published 2012-06-08 00:00:00 Published on Jun 08, 2012
In Maldives, Government parties need to come clean on their strategy for the future in the Roadmap Talks. Only based on such a strategy could they work back, on accommodating the MDP's demand on advancing the presidential poll.
Maldives: 'Black magic', a national policy?
As anticipated, the three-day Bandos Resort retreat for participants at the Roadmap Talks has ended inconclusively. The fact that the representatives for the all-party negotiations, aimed at finding ways out of the current political impasse in Maldives, have promised to meet again should be seen as a success in itself, however limited. Given the inherent nature of the talks and the stiff positions that the nation’s polity had taken on issues that were at hand, to expect anything more was rather out of the question.

In the ordinary circumstances, the talks could have broken down on the rival positions taken by the Government side and the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on substantive issues. That was not to be. Media reports indicate that the Government parties had a long list of woes that they wanted the MDP to address prior to major issues could be taken up. Or, so it seemed. Already, there was a six-point agenda, and after a lot of haggling, the MDP had agreed to stick to an agreed prioritisation for discussions. Included in the list of woes presented by the Government parties was a demand for MDP cadres not to stop Government party leaders from setting foot on various islands. The MDP could crow about the demand as a measure of its continuing popularity on those islands. Otherwise, it is a law and order problem, which the Government is expected to handle independent of the parties involved.

Then there was a demand on the MDP promising not to practice black magic on Opposition leaders and other opponents, real or perceived. News reports claimed that the police had recovered from Male’s Usfasgandu MDP camp site materials purported to have been used by practitioners of black magic. Marked photographs of some identifiable police officers, against whom it was feared black magic might have been practised at the camp site, were also recovered. The MDP has all along claimed to be a modern, no-nonsense party. It did not contest that such materials were recovered from the camp site.

It was, however, thought that the retreat and the Roadmap Talks were expected to address major policy issues, including the dire economic situation facing the nation. It is anybody’s guess when ’black magic’ became a national policy, and has gained above the nation’s economy, for the Roadmap Talks to expend its time on such trivia. If parties felt strongly about them, other avenues should have been identified for discussing their concerns, without holding the Roadmap Talks hostage to sub-texts whose numbers are many and can be multiplied at will.

It is anybody’s guess why the Government should have also initiated the provocative police action at the Usfasgandu MDP site coinciding with the retreat talks. The court has intervened since, and stalled the process, but the damage has been done. The Government’s move even threatened the retreat talks. It also contributed to the MDP possibly re-visiting its strategy for the retreat talks. Clearly, the prioritisation outside of the six-point agenda for the Roadmap Talks had to undergo a change. The 30-point talks thus aimed at facilitating the Roadmap Talks thus occupied much of the talks time at the retreat.

MDP too not without blame

Yet, the MDP, going again by media reports, too is not without blame. At the talks, the MDP representatives seemed to be playing hide and seek with the Government side on the give-aways and take-aways from the negotiations. They wanted the Government parties to commit themselves to one of the four demands they had made before the MDP could commit itself to one of the 30 points discussed on normalising the street situation - without giving any hint as to what the MDP’s offer could be. If the MDP strategists thought that they were smart, that is highly doubtful. At best, the retreat process displayed the MDP’s lack of seriousness to the negotiations process. Otherwise, it amounted to a continuing display of the party’s child-like behaviour on issues of serious national importance.

The MDP’s credibility continues to be at stake. In these weeks and months after the abrupt resignation of the party’s Mohammed Nasheed as the nation’s President on February 7, the world is not any more eating exclusively out of the hands of the MDP’s media machinery. It is watching the goings-on, revisiting the information on hand - once perceived as the truth -- and is possibly exchanging notes. On a serious note, for instance, for the MDP to send out names of people which it knew would definitely be rejected by the Government for inclusion in the recast Commission for National Inquiry (CNI) on the ’resignation episode’ was to make the Commonwealth initiative look a joke of sorts. The party was not exposing the Government to the international community. It was exposing itself - and, possibly the international interlocutors.

The MDP list included the name of a serving General in the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), the nation’s military. His presence on the CNI would prove the MDP right, the party had claimed. The Government, while rejecting the nomination, pointed out that the officer was a close relative of former President Nasheed. The MDP has not denied the Government’s statement. As may be recalled, through all these past months since Nasheed’s resignation, the party had said that serving senior officials of the MNDF had proposed a ’counter-coup’ to the ’coup’ that Nasheed claimed, after a time-lapse, as being responsible for his ’forced resignation’. Whether any linkages could and would be made remains to be seen.

Continuing mistrust

The pre-expansion CNI has since come out with a time-line of events surrounding the resignation episode that it was tasked to probe and report on. The MDP having questioned the impartiality of the three-member probe as it stood, the latter seems to be recording its interim findings for the people to judge - before the expanded CNI took over. The party has since described the publication of the time-lines by the truncated CNI as a "blatant attempt to conceal the truth by pre-empting impartial enquiry".

The publication is a reflection on the continuing mistrust among the stake-holders. This mistrust cannot be allowed to continue if the findings of the expanded CNI, with a former Singaporean Judge identified by the Commonwealth, and an MDP nominee accepted by the Government, have to be seen as being credible and conclusive. A split-verdict is a possibility, and any run-in during the run-up to the functioning of the expanded CNI would not make things easier, either for the impartiality of the probe or the credibility of its findings. The external member on the panel would be under pressure, too, he having to be seen as being impartial as much as he is impartial.

It is still not unlikely the expanded CNI might start off with reviewing the work already done by the probe, starting with the time-lines already publicised. It could only be a starting-point. Having had its way in having the CNI expanded with its nominee to boot, the MDP would have to swear by its report, whenever submitted. Independent of the protestations to the contrary, the party will have to answer queries on the time-lines set out by the pre-expanded CNI, particularly on the controversial questions on the even more controversial situations leading up to President Nasheed’s resignation.

For instance, there is one question on who ordered the pull-out of police men on duty at the site of competing political rallies on the night of February 6 - and, why. Reports at the time had indicated that a section of the police men on midnight duty for weeks by then had protested to the unilateral withdrawal from a scene of prospective violence without suitable replacements being ordered in. They were among those who had taken to the streets the next day, along with political protestors, leading to the resignation, it was reported further.

Mixed bag for stake-holders

It’s at best a mixed bag for all stake-holders. Expelled MDP president Ibrahim Didi and vice-president AlhanFahmy have since taken the easy way out, by joining the Jumhooree Party of billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim, who had chaired the constitutional negotiations in 2007-08. The duo had threatened to challenge their expulsion by a nominated national council of the MDP in the court after the Election Commission refused to entertain their petition. The CNI time-line now indicates that Didi, then also a Minister, had chaired a Cabinet meeting when President Nasheed was in the MNDF Headquarters, talking to commanders and possible protestors, during the fateful hours preceding his resignation on February 7. Didi’s version, if any, to the CNI could thus be seen as being coloured. So could it contradict his pro-Nasheed protestations while in the party.

The MDP however has suffered a reversal since. The People’s Majlis, or Parliament has voted out the no-confidence motion moved by the party against Speaker Abdullah Shahid. Numbers did not add up, as two MDP parliamentarians voted against the party resolution and two others abstained. The party is in a quandary about initiating disciplinary action against them. It cannot afford to lose numbers. Nor could it allow individual violation of the three-line whip for MPs to become a greater issue of indiscipline that it may not be able to handle after a time. Already, the party has lost two parliamentary by-elections held since the resignation episode, bringing its strength to 31 in a House with 77 members.

The MDP cannot complain that the Government was inducing/encouraging defections from the party. It had adopted a similar tactic when President Nasheed was in office, with mixed results after failing to muster a majority in the parliamentary polls of 2009. Otherwise, too, the party needs to sit up and review its strategy in terms of targeting every democratic institution in the country as being inimical to the MDP - and by extension, to democracy as a concept. The MDP needs to look at the mirror and apply correctives if the international community on the one hand and discerning Maldivians, whose numbers are not small, have to take the party, and also its claims and allegations more seriously than at present.

Internal contradictions

The Government too cannot settle down to business as usual as if nothing had happened between December last and the present. The delayed processes pertaining to the CNI and the Roadmap Talks may have conferred post facto justification for delayed elections to the presidency than was perceived. That is not saying all. Political administration may be about processes and procedures. It is not so with politics, per se. There is a growing feeling that the Government parties are shying away from early polls, not sure of the MDP’s continuing popularity - and also owing to the internal contradictions within the ruling coalition and the internal problems facing some of the parties in power.

These internal contradictions will remain, whenever the presidential elections are held - now, or when due by July-November, 2013. Nor could the internal differences within some of these political parties, notably the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Gayoom, be wished away at any time in the foreseeable future. The run-up to the presidential polls, whenever held, could be an occasion for furthering these differences, not cementing them. That being the case, the Government parties would need to come clean on their strategy for the future. Only based on such a strategy could they work back, on accommodating the MDP’s demand on advancing the presidential poll. Other arguments in this regard, including constitutional constraints, would fall flat on the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

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

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