Originally Published 2013-07-15 09:36:58 Published on Jul 15, 2013
With the Election Commission formally notifying the presidential polls for September 7, Maldives is gearing up to prove to itself and the rest of the world that democracy is very much at work in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Maldives gearing up for presidential polls in September
With the Election Commission formally notifying the presidential polls for September 7, Maldives is gearing up to prove to itself and the rest of the world that democracy is very much at work in the Indian Ocean archipelago. If the September 7 polling fails to produce a winner with upwards of 50 percent of the votes cast, a run-off, second round polling would be held within a fortnight, between the first two vote-getters from the first round. In a population of 320,000 (Census: 2011), over 240,000 above the 18-year age-group are eligible to vote. The first multi-party presidential polls of 2008 saw 85-plus percent voters casting their ballot in the first round by a marginally higher 86-plus percent turnout in the second, run-off round. However, the subsequent parliamentary polls a few months later in 2009, followed by the national-level local council polls in early 2011 witnessed declining voter turn-out. It thus remains to be seen if the over-driven and over-heated polity of the recent past would enthuse the 30,000 first-time voters, mostly in the 18-plus age-group, to take the democratic plunge as their earlier generation had done five years back, after decades of one-man, quasi-democracy, under successive rulers. The upcoming series of elections would also be a yardstick to measure the democratic disposition of the entire 40 percent of the electorate that is in the 40-minus age-group and constitute the voice and hopes of the future. The presidential polls this year would be closely followed by the local council polls (December 2013), and then the parliamentary polls (May 2014), completing the national process. The hopes are that the presidential election, and more so the parliamentary polls, would produce greater clarity than in the past, but expectations often belie such hopes, which at times sound unrealistic, hence untenable. It is argued that the reverse is unsustainable for a fledgling democracy as Maldives, where co-habitation involving the Executive and the Legislature had produced disastrous results at infancy. Toddler's shocks For an infant democracy, Maldives has not done badly for itself, despite the hiccups that it had faced through the crucial first five years of a multi-party system. It flowed from the inability and/or unwillingness of the divided polity to acknowledge the basic reality on which they had worked with and worked on, too, ahead of the 2008 presidential polls. Across South Asia, the disparate and hence at times desperate polity has acknowledged the fact and have acted accordingly. This includes the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, where the equally infant-democracy acknowledged the coalition concept in letter and spirit in this month's parliamentary polls. Elsewhere in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, coalition politics has come to stay. In India, the largest democracy in the world, and the largest nation in South Asia, political parties are not any more talking about the desirability of 'coalition politics' -- but about 'coalition dharma', or conduct (implying rules of mutual accommodation, adjustments) instead. Maldives was an entirely different story, at inception of multi-party democracy. Yet, the disparate and hence at times desperate polity does not seem to have learnt its lessons from the past. They continue to hedge on the perceived popularity of their respective leaders rather than accepting the reality and working out pre-poll alliances, with a minimum programme, be it on policies or on power-sharing issues. Their political propaganda in general and poll campaign in particular have remained personality-driven, not policy-centred, as they would want it believed. It also owes to the long history of the nation. Geography dictated that the affairs of small island communities first and the Maldivian nation later came to be run by powerful individuals through an oligarchy system. It is no wonder that post-democratisation, most political parties and leaders continue to come from the rich and powerful 'Male families'. Individually and collectively they also control much of the nation's big businesses, if not the larger economy, where again their hidden or not-so-hidden hand is seen in the big-ticket resort-tourism sector. It is possible that the 'GMR airport deal' kind of business models might have upset this equilibrium, though that was not the known or only reason for opposition to the Indian infrastructure major from within the Nasheed Government and outside. Yet, the GMR issue did produce an economic angle to what was essentially a political issue. The reverse was also true, and so will it be in the future, too. High-point in low-career? A further high-point in the low-career of 'coalition politics' was reached after the events in the early weeks of 2012 culminated in 'power-change' of February 7. Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, the pre-poll coalition partner of President Mohammed Nasheed, replaced him after the former resigned under controversial circumstances. For all the shock and surprise attending on Nasheed's resignation, and also the unprecedented street violence 24 hours later, the power-transfer itself was a relatively smooth affair - but for which, it would have become contestable, on the spot. Earlier in 2008, outgoing President Gayoom belied critics one more time through the democratisation process by ensuring a smooth-sail for power-transfer to MDP's Nasheed, more popular successor. Today, when multi-party democracy is five years young, the Election Commission's announcement of the presidential poll schedule has revived hopes of yet another round of peaceful elections and smooth power-transfer. Healthy precedent Chief Election Commissioner Fuwad Thaufeeg has since declared that ongoing criminal cases against prospective candidates without existing conviction and consequent prison-sentence of two years or more would not result in disqualification from contesting elections. This should end apprehensions in the minds of many, if not most, political nominees, particularly MDP's Nasheed, who is facing criminal charges in the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case' when he was President. During the run-up to the 2008 polls, the Supreme Court under the previous Constitution and existing regime dismissed contesting cases preferred possibly by interested parties, seeking to disqualify the two main contenders -- namely, Gayoom and Nasheed. Though it is often alleged/argued that the Judiciary in the country, starting with the Supreme Court, had been highly politicised, starting with appointments, there is nothing to suggest that they had put larger national interests and popular convictions aside while addressing sensitive political issues, either pre-democratisation or otherwise. Between them, the Judiciary and the Election Commission may have set healthy precedents, which may have to be fine-tuned and improved upon. The 2008 Constitution, which the then divided Opposition, which was united only in their apprehensions about President Gayoom, too may require re-fashioning, to incorporate the lessons learnt during the past five years. Some may have to involve 'constitutional protection' for those elected to high office, some for the high office itself. There are MPs in the current Parliament who have crossed the floor at will, with no questions being asked and no 'disqualification' or disciplinary action of any kind being initiated. There are other provisions that have been interpreted to mean that constitutional authorities, including 'independent institutions' under the statute and legislative committees, could work at cross-purposes and at times demean the very purpose they have been constituted, if only to sub-serve political purposes. The dichotomy involving the Executive and the Legislature in particular, and the distrust that has been injected against the Judiciary and other independent and constitutional institutions, including the armed forces, too may have to be addressed. In this, specific provisions may have to be crafted to ensure that the political authority does not misuse and abuse the armed forces, as different from the police force for duties that are not essentially expected of the military in matured democracies. Re-visiting democratic scheme Elections-2013 is an early opportunity thus for Maldives to re-visit democracy - not the concept but the implementation scheme and aspects -- in ways it should have done even at inception. Election manifestos have not spoken about specifics and proposals, and have confined themselves to charges and counter-charges, as has been the wont. Yet, nothing much has been lost to the nation, as most, democracies, if not all, have faced near-similar situations from time to time, and have evolved schemes and systems that have absorbed aberrations of whatever kind. Third World nations, starting with the largest of 'em all, namely, India, for instance, has tackled such issues through a dynamic constitutional scheme that provides for corrective amendments, rather than coercive politics. In India, more than any other democracy, the Judiciary and other 'independent institutions' like the Election Commission, the Comptroller-and Auditor-General and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), among others, have stepped in when the Executive and the Legislature had been found inadequate or unwilling to the task - and had made a habit of their failings. In Maldives, in comparison, the 'independent institutions' became hyper-active at times as an inevitable part of democratic transition. The divided polity that had provided for such institutions did not countenance such 'interference' from those institutions as they too were unclear of the job expected of those institutions in the first place. Nor as politicos claiming to be breathing a whiff of 'fresh air' of freedom did they understand that too much of it, too early, too could vitiate the atmosphere. There is also a perception that there were too many of these 'independent institutions' at times working at cross-purposes, if not stepping on each other's toes. A recent episode involves the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) probing allegations of corrupt practices in the enrolment of party members, which otherwise is the constitutionally-mandated job of the Election Commission. A healthy precedent would have involved the ACC, if it had received the complaint of the kind, forwarding the same to the EC for follow-up action or advice for ACC to proceed in the matter. The Judicial Services Commission (JSC) is another institution in the eye of one political storm after another, while the Government Oversight Committee of Parliament, seems wanting to have its finger in every pie - without taking, or being able to take many, if not any of them to their logical conclusion. Post-polls, a new Executive and a new Legislature, among others, would be called upon to address some of the inherent deficiencies that a personality-centric Constitution (though on the negative side) has entailed. Yet again, political differences can be readily presumed. For the nation to move forward and away from the present-day politics of discord, the new leader should show the day, and leave the past behind - and for good. Identity politics Electoral democracy has another major ingredient that Maldives has to understand, and acknowledge, to be able to accept socio-political transitions and power-transfer equilibrium that accompany the same. Maybe, such shift in the equilibrium could explain the events of the past five years in many ways. Elsewhere, such transition had taken the form of ideological differences, regional disparities, religion and caste-centric aspirations, linguistic domination and enforcement, and the like. All told, personality-driven politics has not sustained beyond a point. Maldives is no different. From the 'transitional democracy' that it was five years ago and afterwards too, it is now a democracy in transition. The transition is a continuing process, whose effects could be felt instantaneously, time and again, but whose relative benefits and burdens, only history could tell, much later. Political differences and challenges, personality clashes and ideological differences, not to leave out socio-economic inclusivity aspirations would all shape things in the years and decades to come. The 'isolation' of the past would have been lost, both to the nation and to the individual. At the same time, the individual's perceptions of issues and concerns, from the economy to foreign policy, would begin shaping up the same in 'distant' Male. With a common religion, sect and language across the country, the rich-poor differences, and the 'urban-islands' disparities could provide the platform for political-divide, as 'identity politics' begin taking shape in electoral terms. With that would also change the mood and methods. Rather the latter would herald the change, so to say. What may have been despicable to a section of the population would have then become acceptable to a larger section. It may be too early to predict if it would happen now or later. But happen it would be, and Maldives did not - and cannot - shy away from that inescapable reality that is a part of any democratisation process. (The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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