Originally Published 2010-07-22 00:00:00 Published on Jul 22, 2010
Three weeks well into the constitutional deadlock that has stalled governmental functioning an parliamentary proceedings alike, there is no end in sight still to the political crisis overwhelming the Maldivian archipelago. The infant democracy, which otherwise used to be inward-looking until the politico-constitutional changes of 2008, cannot allow to fail itself - and its political leaders cannot try to have it both ways, either.
Maldives crisis: Need for statesmen-like behaviour
Three weeks well into the constitutional deadlock that has stalled governmental functioning an parliamentary proceedings alike, there is no end in sight still to the political crisis overwhelming the Maldivian archipelago. The infant democracy, which otherwise used to be inward-looking until the politico-constitutional changes of 2008, cannot allow to fail itself ? and its political leaders cannot try to have it both ways, either.

Keen observers of the Maldivian scene were not surprised when the politico-constitutional crisis erupted in end-July. Only the issue and the context remained to be written into the script when President Mohammed Nasheed?s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)-led combine failed to obtain an absolute majority in the parlimanetary polls. This was after the Nasheed Government had hired an international consortium headed by Indian infrastructure major GMR to upgrade the Male International Airport against payments and receipts spread over a 25-year period. That was also when the People’s Majlis, or Parliament, passed an Opposition-sponsored Finance Bill that curtailed the powers of the Executive President ? and thus the Executive ? on entering into contracts with third parties without prior legislative clearance.

Stung by a series of legislative initiatives of the kind that was seen as a misplaced hurdle aimed at stalling the functioning of the Government, and even more by unsubstantiated charges of corruption in the airport deal, that too within 24 hours of the signing of the agreement for the purpose, President Nasheed, ’Mr Clean’ in Maldivian politics, hit back in a way he was expected to do. His Government lost no time in dusting the Auditor-General’s report of past corruption against some of the Opposition leaders when they had shared power under the precedessor administration of President Maumoon Abdus Gayoom. People’s Alliance leader Abdullah Yameen and Jumbhoree Party found Gasim Ibrahim, the latter the bitterest and the earliest critic of the airport deal for reasons best known to him, were kept under house arrest. Yameen is still under the ’protective custody’ of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) with his family members in a Presidential retreat island. The Government claims that it was for his personal security and at his instance. The Opposition is not convinced.

The role of the nation’s judiciary, rather than clearing some of the constitutional confusion, has added to the current political problems. The Government, for long, has been pointing out how individual judges have been allowing alleged criminals to go scot free even when material evidence in the form of banned drugs in bulk and large sums of money, purportedly linked to such criminal activities, had been recovered by the police. There has also been an instance in the current phase when the court refused to issue ’search warrnat’ to the police in a corruption case against an Opposition leader. It is another matter that the Government, acting through the police, refused to obey court orders that directed freedom for Yameen. There has also been an instance since of the police breaking open the door of Deputy Speaker Naseem, against whom the police had obtained an arrest warrant. As coincidence would have it, most such arrests have been effected during the dead of night, and no convincing justification has been offered either.

Where from Here?

The 2008 Constitution, which ushered in multi-party democracy, after 30-long years of ’autocratic rule’ by President Gayoom, has not conferred any powers on the President to dissolve Parliament. At best, through an ’emergency’ proclamation, whose validity is only for 30 days, the President can at best ’suspend’ Parliament for as many days. It would have to be business as usual afterwards if the Government were unable to muster a parliamentary majority. Despite making various attempts at it, the Government has not been able to do so over the past year. Despite coming together hurriedly after the airport contract was signed, the Opposition has still not been able to garner a two-thirds majority, required to impeach an incumbent President.

Ironically, Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), which had lent moral support for the contiuance of the Executive Presidency in a referendum, is leading the campaign against the incumbent. The ruling MDP, along with some of the then Opposition parties ? which are still where they used to be after a brief honeymoon with power under President Nasheed ? had written in ’restrictive powers’ on the Executive President in the past, identifying Parliament as the democratic tool for the purpose. The roles having reversed, the two sides seem unable to live with the reality. Nor has Maldives the time to go through the complex nature of ’transitional democracy’, particularly under an Executive President not enjoying parliamentary majority.

The ’separation of powers’ and ’checks and balances’ relative to matured democracies with Executive Presidents, as in the US, took decades and centuries to evolve. Maldives did not seem to have given itself that kind of time. At least, its political leaders seem not having the luxury of time to sit back and absorb the intricacies of the democratic scheme, many of them not having had the occasion or opportunity to observe it at work from close quarters. President Nasheed’s choice being pushed into a second run-off round, in which minority stake-holders played a crucial part under the 50-per cent vote scheme, also seem to loom large before some of the future aspirants. Long before the current crisis, many an Opposition leader had openly thrown his hat into the ring for the presidential polls of 2013, even though the incumbent will be completing the second of his five-year term only in November this year.

Need for fresh look

It is becoming increasingly clear that neither side to the current crisis had prepared for a safe-exit, or a fall-back option, or even a successful end-game before they proceeded to target the other side. Though Parliament hurriedly passed the Finance Bill, among other controversial pieces of legislation, the Opposition pretty well knew that the incumbent President could not be expected to give his assent to any one of them, given the political realities of the situation. In its wisdom, the ruling MDP got all 13 Cabinet Ministers to resign en masse, but not very long after, ended up re-appointing them. The Parliament is yet to give its mandatory clearance for the re-appointments.

The current crisis is not about the constitutional deadlock or even the airport contract. They are products of a political reality which both sides refuse to acknowledge, but need to do so, if the Maldivian youth, who had posted great faith in democracy in 2008, are not to lose heart and feel frustrated. A regional icon of Third World democracy in the extended Islamic neighbourhood as much as in South Asia, President Nasheed has since grown an acceptable global icon for environment, out-beating former US Vice-President Al Gore, who however could not become Head of State. Considering that his MDP at the time had derived democratic strength from the international community, his Government should now be wary of his one-time allies, now again in the Opposiiton, playing the same card against him.

President Nasheed’s predecessor, Gayoom, now in his seventies and having handed over the reins of the DRP to his trusted running-mate Tasmeen Ali, who incidentally, is from outside his family, has the opportunity and need to play an equally statesman-like role, if the current crisis has to be resolved. Others in the list, and there are not many at the moment, are Parliament Speaker Ahmed Shaeed and DRP’s Tasmeen Ali, himself. By the virtue of the position that they hold, the latter two can contribute immensely to resolving the current crisis, which is as much constitutional as it is political.

The need of the hour is to diffuse the current crisis, which for now hinges on the Opposition making an issue of Yameen’s continued custody. Given the internal pressures and also the public standing, President Nasheed and his camp cannot be expected to be seen as ’compromising’ on corruption cases without having to face electoral retaliation in future. The Opposition charge being the inadequacy of ’rule of law’ under the current dispensation, the ends of justice would be met if ’law is allowed to take its course’ in the matter. This could mean Yameen still having to face the court case and yet being able to obtain bail. Better still, there is need particularly for the two major parties in Parliament, namely MDP and DRP, to sit together and come together in the cause of national unity and reconciliation. They also need to resist the temptation of encouraging defections in the interim, with the full realisation that the continuance of the current deadlock would ultimately lead to such a situation, in which either or both of them would be the victims, one way or the other. The question is who would blink first. But either or both of them would have to blink now or later. It is all about timing, and more about the costs involved. But there would be costs to pay, and the worst would be if the nation is made to pay, instead.

(The author 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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