Originally Published 2012-02-10 00:00:00 Published on Feb 10, 2012
Maldive's new President Mohammed Waheed's hands are going to be full as the country is left with a bagful of unresolved crises, each piling upon the other, all of them needing urgent or not-so-urgent attention from the new leadership.
Maldives: Challenging days ahead for President Waheed
Sworn in to complete the remaining part of his predecessor Mohammed Nasheed’s five-year term after the former’s sudden resignation, Maldives President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik has the next 20 months to revive constitutional institutions, which had suffered a certain erosion in authority over the past couple of years. Better still, the nation, polity and society need to work with him to this end, so that the Indian Ocean archipelago becomes a robust and functioning democracy, as envisioned by his predecessor, in time for the presidential election due in October 2013. In a way, a new beginning would (have to) be made in 2013, but the twice-born ’democratic transition’, both involving President Nasheed, the torch-bearer of transformation in the Indian Ocean archipelago, can ensure that the nation could leave the starting problems way behind, to evolve into a modern State with greater confidence and clarity, maturity and (democratic) mentality.

The first job on hand for President Waheed, who earlier was the Vice President, would be to restore law and order across the nation of islands spread out across 950 km. The cadres of President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) are youthful and pro-active, both inside the party forums and outside, on the streets. It was also the party’s strength as it fought former President Gayoom for introducing multi-party democracy. Pro-activism on their part has often provoked the security apparatus to react in kind -- and this in the past would become a talking-point, particularly in Europe, from where most tourists used to come. It was no different this time after Wednesday’s violence and police action. President Waheed’s administration has since been able to restore normalcy, and hopes are that the situation would remain calm in the coming weeks and months.

Accompanying in a way, but following the return of normalcy, would be the new President’s efforts at initiating across-the-board reconciliatory efforts involving all major political parties and players. He has already mentioned his desire to have a ’national unity government’, implying that he at least would want to have the MDP too on board. The mood of the MDP, particularly after Nasheed’s declaration of a coup de’tat, to join hands with their political adversaries in this regard is not known. The rest, starting with the political opponents of the MDP, may have their own problems in accommodating the MDP, particularly when they are sworn to reverse some of the controversial steps of the Nasheed dispensation. The charge that members of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) threatened President Nasheed to quit would also require some explanation.

’Social transformation’ to ’democratic transition’

That the early years of transition for a nation given to centuries of centralised authority would be full of pot-holes had been known when Maldives ushered in multi-party democracy in 2008, though only after street-protests by groups owing allegiance to the likes of later-day President Nasheed. In perspective, the 30 long years of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime was part of this ’transition’. The consolidation of the nation-State as is known now, after the ’Southern rebellion’ in the early Sixties, and the institutionalisation of administrative apparatuses across the board could have been delayed and even distorted but for this interregnum.

President Gayoom also took forward the progressive initiatives of predecessor President Ibrahim Nasir on the socio-economic front. The spread and modernisation of education and healthcare across the country silently but surely made individuals in disperse islands stake-holders to the new Maldivian scheme/dream. Often misunderstood since, the Maldivian education scheme, ushered in by Nasir and entrenched by Gayoom, is based on the Cambridge scheme up to the A-Level, where it all mostly stops. For the uninitiated, modernisation scheme replaced ’madrasa’ education with the British scheme, with answer-scripts being evaluated in the UK. It remains so to date.

Those families wanting their children to undergo (additional) madrasa education send them overseas, not only to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but also to India at times, depending on the kind of religious studies that they want their wards to undergo. Fundamentalism overtakes religious studies on occasions -- and this gets projected over much, overseas in particular. This is not to say that there is no element of fundamentalism in the practice of religion in what is otherwise a modern, moderate Islamic country, where Sunni-Muslims alone are still entitled to citizenship even under the Third Republican Constitution of 2008.

Television visuals of the man on the street in Male -- and women, too -- showed them in modern attire. That in a nation where some women wear the purdah, they still have political views and preferences and also hold party membership too should be an eye-opener to many outside the Indian Ocean archipelago. Women in their trousers and other modern attire are possibly more on Male streets, and maybe elsewhere in highly inhabited islands, too. It is not confined to one section of the polity or society, either. All major political parties have strong women in the helm who are leaders in their own right.

President Gayoom’s undoing was his unwillingness to go when the going was good. Age was no more on his side, and the Maldivian voter and the rest of the citizenry understood quicker and clearer than he did. Frozen in time, his camp possibly forgot that the newer generation of Maldivians born into the benefits of ’social transformation’ that his Government had heralded more. This new-modern ’IT generation’ was exposed to global events -- not only to what was happening in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan -- but also in Europe and the rest of Asia, where democracy gave voice to the people, which was stifled at one level and rendered inaudible by the small numbers spread out across a larger Ocean.

’Restoring freedom of judiciary’

As President Waheed indicated after being sworn in, among his first priorities would be to restore the freedom and authority of the Judiciary and Legislature, and the confidence that the common man has in them. As in all of South Asia, and also most democracies, the average Maldivian has a lot of respect for Judiciary as the final arbiter of the nation’s laws and the last protector of the individual’s rights and freedoms. This got a beating under the previous regime, first when President Nasheed directed the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) to shut down the Supreme Court in the midst of constitutional crisis in mid-2011.

The MNDF was also involved in the detention of two senior Opposition leaders in the same year. This has since been followed by the direction for the MNDF to assist the Maldivian Police Force to arrest Criminal Court Chief Justice, Mohammed Abdullah, in mid-January this year, contributing to the existing crisis and culminating in President Nasheed’s resignation. While questions were raised about the suitability of Judge Abdullah for the post over the past several years, the way the Nasheed leadership handled the entire issue did not go down well even with the staunch supporters of his. They had acquiesced to similar arguments about ’right reactionary forces’ identifiable with President Gayoom thwarting judicial reforms, when the Supreme Court was shut down -- but not anymore, going by the subsequent events and developments pertaining to other sectors of democratic administration.

Considering that the MNDF and the Police politely declined President Nasheed’s last-minute suggestion for their further involvement in enforcing law and order as his regime deemed fit, the nation may have scored a point over itself -- reiterating in the process the Independence of the two institutions, whose non-partisan role and benign presence are required for the success of modern democracy in any country. It also reaffirmed the traditional role of traditional institutions in a modern democracy, which they were not exactly accustomed to. At the end of the day, the message went across -- that the ruled, more than the ruler mattered the most in a democracy, independent of the ’democratic credentials’ of the latter -- and that the traditionally non-democratic institutions would not be found wanting in the matter.

A third and notable institution that may have suffered the multifarious attacks by the democratic polity in post-2008 Maldives is the People’s Majlis, or Parliament. The Nasheed Government alone could not have been blamed for the failure of the legislature in meeting the expectations of a modern democracy and the aspirations of a youthful population that had caused the former in the first place. Yet, the fact remains that the Nasheed camp, having misread the mood of the people after his election to presidency, deserted its existing allies, leading to his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) being reduced to a minority in the Majlis, after the parliamentary polls of 2009. They had a price to pay, and ended up paying it, too -- but not wanting to acknowledge it as such, even once through the long and eventful course.

A street-fighter to boot, Nasheed and his youthful camp-followers may have mistook tactic for strategy, when neither was required, and generated the kind of trust-deficit, which only kept accumulating by the week, if not day. Apart from causing the exit of the DQP and JP allies from the run-off round of the presidential poll, which alone ensured Nasheed’s election in the second-round, that too ahead of the parliamentary polls, the MDP also brought a classic crisis upon itself through the en masse resignation of the Cabinet, minus Vice-President Waheed, if only to create a constitutional deadlock of the kind that they had anticipated. Such instances are many.

New coalition, new Cabinet

Under the existing US model of Executive Presidency, members of the Maldivian Cabinet are not (necessarily) members of Parliament. Even while putting together a new coalition, President Waheed will now have to look at respectable candidates for ministerial berths, who also have acceptance by the anti-MDP parties and groups at one level, but can muster parliamentary majority for their mandatory approval. Even this had become an issue under the Nasheed presidency, with the courts having to interpret the powers of Parliament in the matter, after the Government came up with a creative interpretation of the same. It remains to be seen as to how many parliamentarians from the anti-MDP camp would want to don ministerial caps.

Considering the inherent divisions within the Maldivian polity, which got accentuated during these early years of democratic transition, as is the wont to happen elsewhere too, President Waheed will need all ingenuity and tact to put together a coalition that can ensure a parliamentary majority for the Government -- either wholesale or on issues. Yet, given the ambiguities of the legislative majorities, it should not surprise anyone if President Waheed’s attempts to put in place a ’national government’, in a bid to restore people’s faith in democracy and democratic institutions, is not wholly endorsed by the divided polity. Considering that 45 per cent of the Maldivian population comprises, and they had favoured the 2008 ’change’ as much for the sake of ’change’ as for ushering in democracy, there is the collective responsibility of the nation’s polity to ensure that those young minds are not frustrated and are driven to extremism.

The Cabinet-formation could become all the more cumbersome if one considered that President Waheed, under the Constitution, needs to name a successor Vice-President, who will have to carry parliamentary approval, nonetheless. The Vice-President’s office is part of the Cabinet, though at the same time, as the incumbent, Dr Waheed had sought clarifications from President Nasheed as to his role and responsibilities under Article 117 of the Constitution. How he sets a healthy precedent in the matter would also be keenly watched. The greater question will remain if the MDP would extent issue-based support to his Government, or wholesale support, from inside or outside, if ever. However, the first public reaction of the Nasheed leadership after President Waheed’s swearing-in, claiming that there was a coup-bid involving the security forces may not go down well in the current circumstances. To this end, and even otherwise, the MDP as a party and Nasheed as its most popular face, will have to decide if he would be around to contest the presidency in 2013 -- or, what other role he would be playing in the party in the coming weeks and months.

Religious extremism

It is wrong to ’brand’ religious conservatism in a section of the Maldivian society as fundamentalism, though the latter too exists in the socio-political periphery. Such branding, and consequent ’isolation’ had pushed Islamic societies and nations elsewhere to own up what was not theirs in the first place -- and live up to that branding. Maldives cannot afford it, nor do Maldivians deserve it, despite certain propaganda emanating from within the country in recent years. While various instances could be cited to argue that Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise, the one instance that would still relates to the demolition of SAARC monuments in the southern city of Addu in November last, in the name of religion.

Earlier, when the Nasheed Government was considering the acceptance of a non-Maldivian Guantanamo Bay prisoner of the US for rehabilitation, the political Opposition was cautioning the rulers that it could trigger fundamentalism instead. Likewise, many of the issues on which the fundamentalist Adhalath Party ally of the MDP until recently, related not to religious code alone but more to existing laws and societal expectations. Included in the list was the existing ban on resort tourism and liquor-sale in inhabited islands, including the national capital of Male, and the decision to demolish a religious school in the heart of the city that has a history of its own.

In the absence of left-leaning ideology, as elsewhere even in the Islamic world of the post-War world, in the Maldivian context, extremism can take the shape of Islamic fundamentalism, of which some indications are now available. Needless to point out, the final push that brought down the Nasheed leadership was the pro-Islam protest launched by the hurriedly-formed ’December 23 Coalition’, where the political interests of the President’s political adversaries and the hurt feelings of the Adhalath Party and other religious groups coalesced. Devoid of a promise for restoring democracy, the frustrated youth, pushed to the wall even otherwise through IMF-induced economic measures, which have cost them, jobs and incomes, might turn elsewhere for a non-existing solution. This would be independent of the relatively few numbers in peripheral groups that are permanent fixtures in any community or country. Maldives has its own share.

A positive signal may have since emanated on this score, what with the main Opposition Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), founded by President Gayoom but from which he has broken away since, declaring that Islam would not be at the centre of the national unity agenda. The response from other parties is awaited. However, it is safe to argue that mainline political parties, given to moderation in an otherwise to concepts of modern nationhood, might well consider the possibilities of keeping Islam in the political periphery, as it used to be until it provided a unifying aspect for the ’oust Nasheed’ campaign. In a way, purist Islamists are also not going to like their being ’used’ by the political majors to meet their exclusive political agenda. However, the temptation for a section of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by Gayoom after breaking away from the DRP parent, and that of the MDP to keep fundamentalism a talking-point in the international arena, could be problematic for the nation, if left unchecked.

An internal review can be expected before various political come up with their positions on involving religion in politics and elections. It is necessary in this context to point out that on larger issues of Islam the Adhaalath Party was moderate in its approach when issues such as ban on the sale of liquor and pork in tourist resorts came to be discussed in end-December. The party would not want the Government to do anything that would affect overseas tourism, which it acknowledged was the backbone of the nation’s economy. To the extent, the party and its fundamentalist allies of native breeding are unlikely to initiate any move that would impact on tourism and tourist-inflows, as has happened elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Yet, given the recent boost that the fundamentalists had got with the ’December 23 Coalition’, to ’protect Islam’, and almost without asking, the temptation for some of them to take deeper roots here and now cannot be ruled out, either. It is here that the new leadership would require greater ingenuity and initiative to cleanse the society of mal-elements, considering that Maldives as a nation is not ready for the latter. It is also here that the now-reassured commitment of the security forces and agencies would need to be seen in full bloom, without their over-reacting to the emerging situation and individual incidents, which could cause more harm than good.

Economy and price-rise

President Waheed may be in an unenviable position when it comes to putting together the economy, where price rise, loss of Government jobs, and the high exchange rate against the dollar are crying for immediate attention and effective solutions.  It will be one of the key areas, where the MDP leadership in particular might find it hard for the nation to reverse the gear, and accept popular and at times populist sentiments, as the Nasheed leadership saw it. Yet, the coalition that caused his exit, and thus became the automatic backers of President Waheed, would not stop short of any of these things, what with their own electoral fortunes hinging onto the purported promises that they might have made to the voter, through their excessive condemnation of the economic measures of President Nasheed.

In the days and weeks ahead, the Waheed leadership would be tempted to bring around the people, particularly Government employees, who are hurt by the IMF-induced fiscal measures, meaning loss of jobs and salary-cuts. The rationalisation of power-tariff was not welcome by all, but it is no more a talking-point, either. The introduction of General Sales Tax (GST) by the Nasheed leadership also had near-all-round support in Parliament, and the Government had claimed massive increase in revenues in the early months. With presidential polls not very far away, some sections of the polity may now want the measures reviewed, which, if considered seriously, could mean that Maldives will have to look around for more aid.

Indian help for capacity-building

It is in this and in specific areas of capacity-building that neighbouring nations like India can help Maldives, as the nation proceeds through the avoidable democratic transition, however without hitches. Throughout the Nasheed presidency, both countries had discussed various sectors and areas where India could help capacity-building in the nascent democracy. These were independent of the economic and strategic cooperation, where much headway has been made, particularly in the latter. Given the multifarious engagements that both sides had even otherwise, not much headway was made on this front. As a Press Release from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said after President Waheed had spoken to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, "India as always stood ready to provide any support or assistance that the people of the Maldives might require. The President said that he looked forward to an early opportunity of meeting the Prime Minister".

President Waheed’s call followed Prime Minister Singh’s felicitation message, in which he said: "As a close and friendly neighbour, India will, as always, continue to support the Maldivian people’s efforts to build a stable, peaceful and prosperous country. Our two countries share a common destiny and have common security interests, India is committed to working with you and the Government in Maldives to further enhance our close, bilateral cooperation to mutual benefit and for the continued security, progress and prosperity of our two countries."

Through the years of the Nasheed presidency, both the Government and the nation were jumping from one crisis to another, and yet another, if only to steer away from the earlier ones. Not all of them were of the Government’s making, but their handling by the Nasheed dispensation did not help end the impasse. Critics of the Nasheed leadership would argue that even the controversial arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge, Mohammed Abdullah, was a part-ploy to divert the nation’s attention from the hugely successful ’December 23 Coalition protest’, which had begun assuming political meanings in the weeks afterward. At the end of the day, Maldives is left with a bagful of unresolved crises, each piling upon the other, all of them needing urgent or not-so-urgent attention from the new leadership in the weeks and months to come. And President Waheed’s hands are going to be full between now and the presidential poll in 2013.

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

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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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