MonitorsPublished on Nov 01, 2013
Addressing the 42nd annual celebrations of the bilateral relations organised by the Friendship Association of India and Maldives (FAIM) in Male on Friday, local media reported outgoing President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik as saying as much:
Maldives: From 'autocracy' to acrimony to anarchy?

Addressing the 42nd annual celebrations of the bilateral relations organised by the Friendship Association of India and Maldives (FAIM) in Male on Friday, local media reported outgoing President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik as saying as much: "We have discovered over turbulent five years that the new Constitution we adopted in 2008 is in need of major revision. We have found out that the political system we have introduced is in need of changes so that our nation will not continue upon suicidal-track."

Such a course, SunOnline quoted President Waheed as saying, was required to avoid (the nation) continuing on a suicidal track. As he pointed out, the highly divisive and polarised politics has done much damage to the country, weakening its social fabric and fundamentals of the economy. According to him, Maldives has come to "another very sensitive period in its history where the country’s resilience will be further tested".

Independent of the continuing controversy attending on his assumption of office in February 2012, and his immediate political past as a losing candidate in the annulled polls of 7 September 2013, President Waheed has expressed the kind of concern lurking in the minds of many Maldivians, and many friends of Maldives outside. In fact, his elevation from Vice-President under President Mohammed Nasheed, facilitated by the latter’s contested resignation, was a product of the ’political system’ and the nation consequently ’continuing upon suicidal-track’ he was talking about.

The ’suicidal-track’ now involves a deadlock in the first-round of re-poll for the presidency, scheduled for 9 November, just two days prior to the deadline for the swearing in of the next elected President. The EC, after much consideration and some consultation, has scheduled for 16 November, the mandatory second-round vote, if none of the three candidates in the fray pass the required 50-percent mark in the first-round poll to win the presidency.

What if the first-round does not produce a clear winner? The Constitution provides for the Speaker of the People’s Majlis, or Parliament, assuming powers for 60 days, to conduct fresh elections if the President’s post fell vacant. It has not specifically mentioned, or otherwise provided for the lapse of term for an incumbent. The 4-3 majority verdict of the Supreme Court, while recently annulling the 7 September first-round polls, suo motu declared that the President’s office would not fall vacant on the lapse of the incumbent’s term on 11 November, at the end of the five-year term ? in this case, shared by two persons.

No clarification has been sought, or has been offered, if in the court’s perception the incumbent would continue in office, or the Speaker would take over to conduct polls, if the 9 November poll does not produce a clear winner. President Waheed, who had declared his intention to consider quitting en masse with his Vice-President and entire Cabinet ahead of the 11 November deadline, wrote to Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid on the emerging situation, for the House to address the attendant constitutional concerns. He is not known to have addressed the Supreme Court likewise, as he had indicated earlier, after withdrawing from the contest.

For its part, Parliament, where the alliance led by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has a majority in the 77-member House, has since passed a resolution, providing for the Speaker to take over the administration on 11 November if the first-round vote does not give 50-percent vote to any of the three candidates. As may be recalled, MDP’s candidate and former President Mohammed Nasheed led the pack with a high 45.45 percent vote-share in the annulled first-round, yet short of the mandatory 50-percent.

It remains to be seen if the Parliament resolution has any validity in law, as decisions of the kind has to be supported by a constitutional amendment. The MDP alliance does not have the required two-thirds majority in the House to effect constitutional amendments of the kind. The question thus arises if the Speaker would be empowered to take over even if President Waheed and team quit ahead of the 11 November deadline. There would be equal constitutional confusion, if President Waheed were to continue beyond the constitutionally-mandated five-year term for the earlier presidency.

It is ironical thus that the political parties, their leaders and candidates have together pushed back to the people as voters, to decide for them on matters that the people had empowered them to decide, instead. The higher judiciary that was created and empowered by the Constitution that the elected representatives had drafted for the people, too, has not been of much help in the specific matter ? at least, thus far.

Given the current political climate, a clash between the Legislature and the Judiciary cannot be wholly ruled out, going beyond what has already been witnessed over an MDP-majority Parliament summoning three subordinate judges trying President Nasheed in the ’Judge Abdulla abduction case’. Under the circumstances, weakened Executive and a lame-duck President cannot be expected to be of much help to remedy what could emerge to be a ’suicidal course’, as President Waheed has averred.

If the people elect their President by giving one of the three candidates upwards of 50 percent vote-share in the first-round on 9 November, the problem facing the politicos and the judiciary would have been solved. It may be poetic justice in a way, as it was the Maldivian people who had voted for the presidential form of government in a referendum before the ’Special Majlis’ tasked with the job finalised the 2008 Constitution.

In a rush to usher in multi-party democracy before what they thought might become too late, pro-democracy voices within and outside Parliament passed what was essentially a draft Constitution for a parliamentary form of government but with simple modifications to make it the presidential form, as desired by the people at large. They did not seem to have the time or inclination to re-visit the relevant clauses of the Statute, to make it ’president-friendly’.

Guided democracy

Maldives is among the first of South Asian nations to try its hands at a parliamentary form of government as far back as 1931 just when neighbouring Sri Lanka became the first nation in Asia to adopt ’adult franchise’ as a creed. It was an attempt at ’guided democracy’ at best, with the Sultan continuing at the head of the Government, but the scheme did not really take off.

If later on, President Ibrahim Nasir and his successor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom continued as elected Presidents for long terms, it owed to Maldives and Maldivians not having known any form of government other than a ’one-man rule’. In the 20th and 21st century contexts, detractors nearer home and afar described Presidents Nasir and Gayoom as autocrats and worse ? using the evolved scales of western democracy, which did not come with local versions and variations, which would have been the need of the hour, instead.

Through the 20th century, whenever a ’presidential form’ of government was put to vote in a referendum, people overwhelmingly backed the same. It was so even with the 2008 Constitution, where however the mass-support had come down from the 90-plus percent vote-share of the previous attempts, to just below 62 percent. The remaining 38 percent voted for the parliamentary scheme, whose elements continued to remain in the Draft, not after consideration and consultations but owing to compulsions of the times, and for time.

The question begs an answer: Did multi-party democracy come too early and too much packaged for Maldives than the nation, the polity and the people were prepared for ? or even understood all of its implications and ramifications despite democracy being the best known form of governance with people’s participation? It can be now argued that the ’template’ democracy models that Maldives imported from the West without imbibing their basic characteristics and requirements may have to blame in a way.

Secondly, the possible lack of understanding in the polity for what was in store, particularly after it had adopted a hybrid model that may have borrowed all wrong elements from the presidential and parliamentary forms. The marriage of the two, as Maldives has since found out, has contributed to the acrimony of the past five years, and is now threatening the nation with outright anarchy, more so after 11 November.

Even when the polity was confronted by political and/or constitutional hurdles, they tried to circumvent it by deploying other tools of democracy to subvert them rather than address or even circumvent them. Today, when the nation is at cross-roads, the polity has got used to the comforts of constitutional lacunae and leeway rather than the natural desire of the people for them to take the straight and narrow path. No section of the nation’s polity or constitutional institutions can escape accountability, they all having forsaken their own responsibility under the multi-party scheme.

Third and not necessarily the last one, sections of the polity are unwilling to acknowledge the early democratic verdict handed down by the voter. Unlike other democracies in the neighbourhood, Maldives (with no external ruler to influence ’unity with diversity’) adapted a ’coalition scheme’, as the maiden presidential polls under the 2008 Constitution demonstrated. With the Parliament polls in May 2009 throwing up a near two-party scheme, it came to be believed that there was no political space for a third or the fourth force. That was not to be as subsequent events, including the annulled first round presidential polls of 2013, have since shown.

Institutional integrity

In a message on the 25th anniversary of the ’Victory Day’ on 3 November, President Waheed said that "the most important task is to strengthen the unity among the people, and that this includes addressing the current polarisations and tensions, and refraining from actions that could further affect national unity". Failure to do so could result in immense damage to the country, he cautioned.

"We should resolve our issues ourselves" and "not let any foreign party interfere in our affairs", President Waheed said. "We must always remember that giving that opportunity to foreigners could negatively affect our independence and sovereignty, and we may have to face further harms," he added. As may be recalled that it was on this day in 1988 Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries attacked Maldives for and with the support of local detractors in Maldives. The mercenary attack was put down with timely military help from India.

"At a time when the divided polity and the constitutional institutions should be working in union to make multi-party democracy work, consistent complaints and criticism against one another have not helped matters," President Waheed said in his message. "Instead, they have introduced an air of political permissiveness, where constitutional institutions could be hauled up without proof or let-up. The ’social-media explosion’ coinciding with the advent of multi-party democracy, instead of educating the polity and people is being sought to be deployed as a weapon for ’mass conversion’, if it can be helped. No section of the polity can effectively escape criticism on this count", he said further.

Again, President Waheed has a point. Today, when the nation needs healthy precedents, it is told of unhealthy prospects. Thus, Parliament, for instance, has taken up legal and procedural changes, which have their basis mainly in the party-wise majority in the House, without necessarily having to reflect the spirit of the Constitution or the sentiments of the people. Be it the post-11 resolution or the more recent resolution to appoint parliamentary security staff appointed by and recruited by the Speaker, there are clear constitutional mandates that confer such responsibilities on the Exclusive. This again has remained an antithesis to the multi-party democracy in Maldives since commencement.

The question is whether the polity should change and could change ? or, should it change the Constitution and laws at every turn to reflect the political changes without reference to the requirements of nationhood, political stability and economic growth, all of which individual Maldivians endeavour ? and deserve even more. It is true that constitutional democracy is a ’dynamic process’ and some of the assumptions and presumptions of the early years on the socio-economic and politico-election fronts would be replaced by the evolution or creation of new constituencies and their concerns. The reverse is also true.

No democracy has escaped the change-over in the past. The change is also constant in the case of Third World nations, where the percolating effect of multi-party democracy throws up possibilities and personalities, canvasses and constituencies every now and again. It is one thing for the nation to test each one of them as they appear and aspire for a place in the existing scheme, or enlarge the same to provide for some. It is another for allowing those instead to challenge the existing scheme and put it on the reverse gear, knowingly or otherwise.

Such a trend needs to be arrested. It may not be possible for the current Parliament to address these issues. But the next Parliament, when elected in May 2014, could consider setting up a Select Committee that could visit such other Third World democracies, so as to understand the limitations of the scheme and system, and incorporate them in small or large doses in ways that the Maldivian scheme can assimilate without abrupt shocks and changes to what all have come to be accepted over the past five years in particular. That could be the beginning. Before that however the nation would still have to cross the 11 November deadline that Maldives has set itself.

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

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