Originally Published 2010-07-02 00:00:00 Published on Jul 02, 2010
Having kicked off the constitutional deadlock in Maldives, by getting the whole Cabinet resigned, President Nasheed needs to find a wayout of the imbroglio. A snap poll, either for the President or Parliament, or both, are the possibilities.
Maldives: Cohabitation blues cause constitutional crisis
In an unprecedented move, the 13-member Cabinet of Maldives's President Nasheed resigned en masse, charging that the Opposition-controlled People’s Majlis or Parliament was adopting a “scorched earth” policy rendering the country “ungovernable”. Almost simultaneously, police and defence forces arrested some senior political leaders, Jumbhoree Party leader Gasim Ibrabim and People’s Alliance founder, Abdullah Yameen.

“The Majlis is preventing the Cabinet of Ministers from performing their legal obligations,” President Nasheed told a news conference, immediately after team members put in their papers on Tuesday evening. “Majlis members are behaving against the spirit and the letter of the Constitution,” he said and appealed to them “not to muddy the waters for governance in this country and to lend us their cooperation”.

The President and his Cabinet Ministers told the media that some of the Opposition MPs were involved in corruption cases. Immediately after the news conference, he walked across to the Police Headquarters, directing criminal action against them. The arrests followed. Among those now under detention, People’s Party leader Gasim Ibrahim, a former Finance Minister and presidential candidate, was an alliance partner of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) until the latter ended it abruptly a day earlier. Abdullah Yameen, another former Finance Minister, is a step-brother of former President and DRP founder, Maumoon Gayoom.

The police have since confirmed the two arrests, and linked them to alleged bribery and ‘attempt to overthrow the elected government through illegal means’. Creating further history, Parliament met for the first day on Wednesday without a Cabinet in place, and ended the day’s session in chaos. The Opposition MPs shouted that even arrested MPs have to be allowed to be present in Parliament, as per the Constitution. They alleged that the police was making ‘illegal searches’ for more MPs.

Government deadlocked
The immediate provocation for the ministerial resignations came after Parliament passed a law on a private member’s motion, mandating prior legislative clearance for the Government to raise loans or rent State assets. At the centre of the current controversy was the long-term lease agreement with the Indian infrastructure giant GMR-led consortium for funding improvements to the Male International Airport against a huge upfront payment and calibrated revenue-payment model.

The Opposition lost no time in issuing a joint statement – the first since President Nasheed came to office in November 2008. Alleging irregularities and corruption, the Opposition parties, jointly and/or severally, threatened to cancel the agreement if they came to power. They contested ‘privatisation’ of State assets, and were not convinced by the argument that the ownership of the airport in this case continued to vest in the people. The Opposition also said that the lessee for the Male airport cannot increase the passenger tax from $ 18 to $ 25, as provided in the agreement, without parliamentary clearance – which they said they would not clear. They also levelled corruption charges and claimed that if ‘privatised’, the Male airport could be used by Israel to bomb Palestine.

Even before the GMR agreement had been signed, Parliament had last week amended the relevant law, to transfer powers of appointing members to the independent Civil Services Commission (CVC) from the President to a parliamentary committee. Over the past months, they had moved no-confidence motions against at least three ministers, with one more on the cards. With the parliamentary majority tilted against the Government from day one, despite periodic cross-over, cohabitation between the Executive Presidency and the Legislature had become tenuous and tension-ridden.

Though shocked by the mass resignation of Cabinet Ministers, the Opposition claimed victory. They pointed out how the Government had been reduced to President Nasheed and Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who incidentally were not seeing eye-to-eye, lately. Some called it ‘dictatorship’ while others ‘predicted’ that the President too would resign soon, or otherwise cause early elections. They have dubbed President Nasheed autocratic, for ordering the arrest of Opposition leaders.

Unprecedented Tactic?
If no-confidence motions against Cabinet Ministers became an irritating and intimidating political ploy, the financial regulation bill, passed in the aftermath of the airport agreement, mandating prior parliamentary approval for such measures, is a challenge to the economic policies initiated by President Nasheed. The MDP has consistently blamed the fiscal policies and practices of predecessor President Gayoom for the economic crisis that engulfed the nation when President Nasheed took over. If the Indian neighbour extended timely assistance, the ready adoption of IMF-proposed economic reforms is seen as a panacea for the long-term.

The MDP dispensation has followed up on the resorts-centric investment policies of President Gayoom, to try and ‘privatise’ more islands for developing tourism infrastructure and revenues. The ‘airport lease/privatisation’ policy was a part of the effort. Having assumed office at a difficult time, President Nasheed seemed to have convinced himself that there was no alternative to belt-tightening. Some of his policies like pay-cuts and job-cuts in the public sector have not gone down well with the Government employee, who comprise over 10 per cent of the nation’s 350,000-population. Any reversal of the effort at this stage, owing to parliamentary intervention, would signal not only a deadlocked policy but also delay, if not deny, anticipated economic recovery in time for President Nasheed to seek re-election with confidence.

The mass resignation of Ministers has been a tactical ploy for President Nasheed to take the issue to the people, though not in the way the Opposition would want to. Ahead of the second-round, run-off poll to the presidency, Challenger Nasheed had offered to step down half way through the five-year term, but the MDP stopped talking about it after a time. With presidential polls now due in 2013, and some serious aspirants throwing their hat publicly into the ring already, the cohabitation issue may have already forced President Nasheed’s hand, one way or the other.

Problems on the cohabitation front were predictable after the MDP could not muster a majority in the parliamentary polls of 2009. Ditching allies from the decisive, second-round, run-off polling for the presidency for the parliamentary elections, the MDP found that its seat-share was a realistic reflection of the party’s proven vote-share. Not the one’s to forget the way the MDP had treated them after obtaining their substantial vote-share from the first-round poll for the presidency, the erstwhile allies of the party were even more vociferous than the Opposition DRP. President Nasheed’s pronouncement that the parliamentary elections had proved that only two parties, namely, the DRP and the MDP, counted in the nation’s electoral politics did not go down well with them, either.

Having kicked off the constitutional deadlock, President Nasheed needs to find a way out of the imbroglio that the nation has plunged into. A snap presidential poll is one possibility, so is one for Parliament – or both. The Opposition has also indicated an intention to move the court on the current crisis. The current crisis is over politics. The earlier months had faced a fiscal crisis, particularly for homes. Visible restlessness was noticed when the Nasheed Government resorted to pay-cuts and job-cuts, and also increased power-tariff and the like. This, despite the fact that President Nasheed had announced a Maldivian Ruffiah 2000 old-age pension for those above 65-years, and also re-structured the power-tariff to provide relief to the poorer sections, when it began hurting. An infant democracy that Maldives has been after three long decades of one-man rule under predecessor President Gayoom, it thus remains to be seen how and how far the nation takes it all in its stride.

For Maldives, the constitutional crisis and issues of governance comes at a time when there are widespread apprehensions, including those from the Government, about the possible sprout of religious fundamentalism. The Government has taken serious note of it, and has at the same time sought to do a balancing act by offering to receive one or two of US prisoners from the infamous Gauntanamo Bay – causing opposition from the political class. India that had seen through the smooth change to democracy and also the government, and has also earned the respect and regard of most sections of the political class, should be watching the evolving situation with certain apprehension. New Delhi can be expected to follow India’s well-known ‘hands-off’ policy in the domestic politics of the neighbourhood, and would wish Maldivians well as they battle through the birth pangs of democracy in the Indian Ocean atolls nation. That an Indian investor of some reputation and standing should be caught in the cobweb of domestic politics in that country cannot be overlooked, either.

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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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