Originally Published 2013-03-06 00:00:00 Published on Mar 06, 2013
After a week of relative lull on the political front, Maldivian politics revved up on March 5, after the police detained former President Mohammed Nasheed, for production before the Hulhumale' court.
Maldives: Political scene hots up again
After a week of relative lull on the political front, Maldivian politics revved up on Tuesday, March 5, after the police detained former President Mohammed Nasheed, for production before the suburban Hulhumale' court in connection with the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case'. The arrest, possibly delayed pending President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik's customary annual address to Parliament a day earlier, came less than 10 days after Nasheed had ended his 11-day sit-in at the Indian High Commission in Male, claiming that New Delhi had brokered a 'deal' for his contesting the presidential polls in September - but denied by both Governments.

If tried, convicted and sentenced to prison term exceeding one-year imprisonment (it can go up to three years, or a fine of MVR 12,000), and he also runs out his appeals ahead of the poll notification, Nasheed will be disqualified from contesting the polls. It is in this context, his claim that India has brokered a 'deal' assumes significance. So has his subsequent appeal/declaration of sorts, implying that New Delhi should ensure that he contested the polls.

Defining moment

In a way, the presidential polls, scheduled for September, is turning out to be as much a defining moment as the one that institutionalised multi-party democracy in Maldives. Yet, as the chips are down, President Waheed managed to address the People's Majlis, or Parliament amid interruptions and in four instalments. Out after the sit-in in the Indian High Commission and anticipating detention and disqualification, his predecessor would not acknowledge the legitimacy and continuance of President Waheed. A couple of days before the customary/mandatory presidential address to Parliament in its first session in the calendar year, Nasheed had an uninterrupted interview with NDTV.

The Indian television channel is accessible in Maldives and much of South Asia, and in many other parts of the world. The uninterrupted nature of Nasheed's interview would also have made it cohesive and comprehensive, to viewers afar and nearer home, too - what with the local newspapers also picking it up for their readers. Against this, President Waheed's address, disrupted constantly by parliamentarians belonging to Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was limited in its appeal to Maldives, at best, and political Male, positively.

As much as the content of the speech - whose text would have been anyway made readily available - the punter, if any, would have wagered on the possibility of President Waheed completing his address in the first place - and, if allowed to do, with how many interruptions. The final count was three breaks and in four innings. The score was better this time than in the previous year - Waheed's first address to Parliament as President - when fresh for the controversial power-transfer, MDP parliamentarians did not allow him to do so on March 1, the first day in the calendar year when the House met after the long recess. Waheed had to go to the Majlis on another day, March 19, to be precise, when alone he could manage to do the honours - of course, with MDP interruptions.

This time round, the President could deliver his address, even if amidst interruptions, only after Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid 'named' a few MDP members for disturbing the proceedings, and the security people moved in, to bundle them out. Incidentally, as MDP parliamentary group leader Ibrahim Solih said later, the party, as the largest (non-government) segment in the House, has stuck to its previous year's decision not respond to President Waheed's address within 14 days under Article 25 (b) and 25 (e) of the Constitution, holding it an 'illegitimate regime'.

At the same time, presidential address on both occasions would have gone into the records of Parliament for all time to come. It is thus unclear, what benefit the MDP could have derived by disturbing Parliament, that too during presidential address, when it is felt that the party would need to win over the ranks of 'non-party' or 'undecided voters'. Invariably, these are moderate segments of the electorate, and take their time, evaluating not just the motives of the contending parties but also their methods. Their numbers supposedly add up to 50 per cent of the electorate.

Certainly, it does not do any good to the kind of democracy that the MDP wants to usher in all over again in the country - going by unforgettable memories of the turn that the protest by the party MPs took this time last year. In electoral terms, it might have kept the party cadre-mood upbeat, but their votes are already for the MDP. The party needed votes from outside this constituency, and that needed greater, different and differentiated initiatives and efforts - not just the beaten path of the past year alone.

'Aggressive' India, defence deal with China

In his television interview, Nasheed was clearly addressing an Indian audience. He claimed that there was kind of a deal between India and the Maldivian Government for him to end his 11-day sit-in in the Indian High Commission in Male, protesting the imminence of his arrest, possibly leading to his disqualification from contesting the presidential polls, scheduled in September. He wanted India to take an 'aggressive' posture if the Maldivian Government tried to arrest him again. He did not explain what he meant by New Delhi's 'aggressive' posturing.

That Nasheed was addressing the Indian TV viewers, possibly with the hope of pressuring New Delhi into ensuring that the Maldivian Government did not pursue with its current moves to have him tried and punished in the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case' before the presidential polls became clearer when he referred to China, which could not be contextualised either to his own predicament, or bilateral relations between India and Maldives, otherwise.

"Well, there is instability in the Maldives. So, there will always be a room for other actors to come in. Therefore that is all the more a reason why we should be able to have free and fair elections as quickly as possible," Nasheed told the interviewer. "We did not have a military-defence agreement with the Chinese Government but this Government has now come up and signed an agreement," he said. Nasheed's reference of an 'aggressive' India thus did not relate to China, but to the internal political dynamics of Maldives - and that was saying something in terms of his current perceptions about bilateral relations between India and Maldives on the one hand, and India and China, on the other.

Media reports in Maldives, citing Nasheed's interview, also quoted Waheed Government's reiteration of the denial about the existence of any such agreement. As some reports have been recalling from time to time, Nasheed as President inaugurated the Chinese Embassy in Male in November 2011 - which was understandable - but on the very day Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was landing in the country for the SAARC Summit, followed by a bilateral.

'Small State, small justice'

Against this, President Waheed seemed to have taken off from where Nasheed had left - not the 'China factor' as in the latter's interview, but the Indian angle, instead. Without naming India or any other nation, the President told his Parliament that the foreign policy of the Maldives will always aim at defending the country's independence, sovereignty and Islamic values. He claimed that several groups were interested in influencing and interfering with the political independence of the country, and said that the Government would (nonetheless) address the issues and concerns of the international community.

The President, local media reports quoted him as saying that that foreign countries' concerns will be acknowledged but their interference in internal politics of the country and calls to hold elections before a certain date, will not be accepted.

"The Government will not accept 'small justice' because we are a small State," he said. In context, Waheed referred to 'certain groups' in the country welcoming the pressure by the international community, and said that such pressure are not aimed at the government, but would affect the country's independence.

In the same vein, President Waheed, again without any pointed reference to President Nasheed's tenure, when he himself was Vice-President, and said that the nation's economy had 'fallen into a pit' when he took over in February last year. The external debt stood at $725 million (MVR 11,179.5 million) owing to high expenditure, and his Government, he claimed prioritised on early economic recovery. "Several steps have been taken to reduce Government costs, and several Bills have been submitted to Parliament related to increasing Government income and revising laws," he said, without acknowledging the early initiatives taken in this regard by the Nasheed Government.

In this context, President Waheed claimed that regaining control of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport from the GMR Group, the Indian infrastructure major, had increased foreign currency-flow into the country, and facilitated solutions to the problem of dollar-shortage. "The Government's aim is to ensure that foreign currency that enters the country is retained," he said. In contrast, Nasheed had said that if returned to power, he would endure to restore the GMR contract.

'Free and fair polls'

Alluding obviously to the international community's call for 'free, fair and inclusive' presidential polls, Waheed promised as much in his parliamentary address. By referring to his Government in this regard, he distanced the Judiciary from the process, after his camp had repeatedly asserted that the administration did not have anything to do with the case against Nasheed at this stage. It was for the court to decide on the next course, seemed to be the Government's refrain.

"I would like to assure Honb'le Members that the Government will put every effort to see that the Maldives presidential election this year is a free, fair, and open to all political party participation, and is held according to the Constitution and laws of the State," local media reported Waheed as telling the Majlis. Clearly, he was countering the MDP declaration that the party would boycott the polls if Nasheed was disqualified, and was possibly indicating that it could/should nominate another candidate, instead. He also said that the Government will cooperate with the Elections Commission to clear any obstacles that might oppose free and fair elections - possibly referring to anticipated street-protests by the MDP if Nasheed was disqualified.

"I also give assurance that the Government will not influence an election, and will not do anything that might hinder electoral rights," Waheed said, in an obvious reference to the exclusively role of the nation's Judiciary in the matter from the current stage on. "The Government continues cooperate with the Elections Commission and provide any assistance they might require. If there are any obstacles to holding the election, the Government will provide whatever cooperation necessary to the Elections Commission to remove such an obstacle," said the President.

'Reforming judiciary'

For his part, Abdulla Yameen, parliamentary group leader of the second-largest, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), a presidential hopeful himself, said that President Waheed should lead the process of strengthening criminal justice system in the country. By timing and implication, his observations could be interpreted, or mis-interpreted, as the case may be, to be projected as a left-handed backing for the MDP's charge that Nasheed would not get justice from the existing judicial system in the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case'.

"The entire criminal justice system has problems. Regardless of the reasons behind the problems, the Head of State should take the responsibility of finding solutions if the delivery of justice is being delayed. The purpose of this isn't to ensure that the case is concluded in a particular way. It is a responsibility of the President, under Article 115 of the Constitution." Yameen reportedly told a local television channel.

Yameen, according to media reports, said his was only 'constructive criticism' of the existing system and should not be construed as a personal criticism against President Waheed. Incidentally, while suggesting that not all charges taken to the police have to be converted into court proceedings, Yameen referred to avoidable delays in the dispensation of justice, which is what the MDP seeks to imply through its demands, through Nasheed's offer to face trial in the abduction case after the conclusion of the presidential polls. If elected President, Nasheed could not be tried while in office, followed by certain immunities, post-retirement, but unavailable to him now in the 'Judge Abdulla case', it would seem.

Line-up unclear, yet

For all this however, the presidential poll line-up is unclear, as yet. Nasheed's candidacy depends upon the pending court case, which has however not made much headway in recent weeks. Despite his arrest - the third since October, if only to ensure that he presented himself before the court - there is still a chance of the case not running its due course, including possible interlocutory and appeals stages, at this pace before the Election Commission issues the required notification in due course. The Waheed camp used to assert his own candidacy until the top-rung PPM partner in his Government declared its intention to contest the presidency itself, and set its primary for the purpose for March 30.

Yameen, who is one of the two candidates in the primary - the other being former PPM vice-president Umar Naseer - and he could consider full-throttled campaign, if at all, only after the primary. The same applies to Umar Naseer, who contesting alone in 2008 presidential polls, obtained less than one per cent vote-share, before joining the Dhivehi Rayyatunge Party (DRP), founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Inside the DRP, Umar Naseer used to be seen as the voice of Gayoom, and used to remain so even after the latter walked out with his group, to found the PPM. Gayoom, after being unanimously elected PPM president in December, has vowed to work for whichever nominee the party's General Council chooses.

That leaves out DRP leader Thasmeen Ali and Jumhooree Party (JP) founder Gasim Ibrahim. As elected party leader succeeding Gayoom, Thasmeen automatically became DRP's presidential nominee as early as 2009. Gasim also announced his candidacy very long ago. Between them, however, Gasim has been seen actively campaigning for the party while the DRP leader is still busy competing with the breakaway PPM, enrolling new members for the party, to become the second largest one after the MDP - outside Parliament after it had lost the game inside the Majlis.

Otherwise, the course of the elections depends on the decision of the MDP should Nasheed be disqualified. The party's National Council has announced that the MDP would boycott the presidential polls if Nasheed is not allowed to contest. Independent of other arguments and consequences, such a course would flag the theoretical question if the MDP if the party would continue with this position even for the parliamentary polls, which is due in May next year.

Thereby hangs a tale, which remains unfinished, as yet. Considering that poll campaign in the atolls-nation spread across 950 km, but with less than 250,000 voters - close to a third of it in the capital city of Male - consumes time and money, delayed start could be a problem for candidates and parties. This is despite the fact that the Constitution has earmarked 0.1 per cent of the GDP for registered parties with 3,000 members - increased to 10,000 by a Bill that President Waheed has since returned to Parliament. That will also be an issue Parliament will be tackling in this session, what with the PPM and DRP, partners in President Waheed's Government, backing the initiative of the MDP Opposition!

(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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