Originally Published 2015-07-10 00:00:00 Published on Jul 10, 2015
In Maldives, despite a last-minute 'cancellation' of the third round of talks between the Government and the MDP leader of the combined Opposition, there is nothing to suggest that the current reconciliation process has derailed, irrecoverably.
Maldives: Reconciliation hopes remain despite cancellation of third-round talks

Despite a last-minute 'cancellation' of the third round of talks between the Government and the MDP leader of the combined Opposition, there is nothing to suggest that the current reconciliation process has (been) derailed, irrecoverably. If nothing else, announcing the 'cancellation' of the talks scheduled for the night of Wednesday, 8 July, the President's Office only said that some officials concerned were on travel. The MDP too had refrained from jumping to hasty conclusions or issuing statements.

The talks, initiated at the instance of President Abdulla Yameen, purportedly also under pressure from the international community, has progressed well, thus far. MDP's sole representative and parliamentary group leader, Ibrahim 'Ibu' Solih, too had conceded as much after the second-talks, that too in the presence of Home Minister Umar Naseer. Minister Naseer, heading the three-man ministerial negotiations team of the Government, also did not contest in anyway Ibu's public pronouncement that the Government had agreed to free jailed Opposition politicians and also withdraw charges against 1,400 of their supporters.

President Yameen's agenda for negotiations comprise three elements, namely, political reconciliation, constitutional and judicial reform, and political party participation in development. He had originally charted out stand-alone governmental talks with the three major constituents of the Opposition combine, namely, the MDP, the Jumhoree Party (JP) and the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP). After the previous round of talks, MDP's Ibu disclosed that the Government had agreed to 'all-party talks' in the second stage.

The MDP has also presented a set of demands to the Government for political reconciliation:

   •  To make concessions on "politically-motivated sentencing" of politicians, including Nasheed, Nazim, ex-defence minister Tholhath Ibrahim and MP Ahmed Nazim

   •  Withdraw "politically-motivated charges" against protestors, including Sheikh Imran

   •  Withdraw economic sanctions against businessmen, including JP leader Gasim Ibrahim, ex-MP Abdulla Jabir's Yacht Tours, and MDP deputy chairperson's AAA company

   •  Job security for councilors, civil servants and employees of state owned companies

   •  Independent inquiry into the murder of MP Afrasheem Ali and the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan.

Issues and initiatives

The phraseology of the all-important first demand is reconciliatory in nature, as against the outright accusations of human rights violations hurled at the Government and the Yameen leadership, by the MDP and its international supporters since the arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing of former President, Mohammed Nasheed in particular. Through and through, President Yameen has distanced himself through and through from the judicial processes that had led to the court-ordered sentencing of Nasheed and others named.

By seeking 'concessions', the MDP seems to be hinting at a middle-path, despite the qualifying phrase of 'political motivation' attaching to the sentencing. How such 'concessions', implying freedom for the jailed persona, could be effected should also be a point of discussions between the stake-holders. One way could be for the convicts in separate cases to move the higher courts, which could still have reasons to strike down the trial court conviction and/or sentencing in individual cases. The other alternative is for the President, under the Constitution, to grant 'clemency' to the imprisoned leaders. At what stage could he interfere - whether here and now, or only after the higher court(s) had intervened in the matter - may be debatable, still.

Among the other demands, freedom for jailed political leaders, not convicted by the courts, and the dropping of pending charges against party cadres should not be a problem. Regarding probe into the killing of incumbent parliamentarian, Afrasheem, related to the previous regime of President Mohammed Waheed, but the 'disappearance' of journalist Rilwan occurred after President Yameen had come to power. Rilwan's family too has since reiterated the MDP demand for an 'independent' inquiry into the matter.

The issues and initiatives attending on political reconciliation has been heartening, even otherwise. If Nasheed has since been shifted from an island-prison to house-arrest under the law in the capital of Male, the Revenue Department has also given JP founder and businessman, Gasim Ibrahim, two years to settle the massive $ 90-million dues. That was after Gasim had pronounced his decision not to contest for the presidency in future elections. Freedom for jailed AP leader Sheikh Imran, charged with 'terrorism' like Nasheed before him, too, should be a done-thing as a part of any political package.

Telescoping the transition

The current phase of Maldivian democratic experience, starting with the MDP's last year-end call for President Yameen to hand over power to JP's Gasim Ibrahim, without any constitutional provision to support it, may have been avoidable, but the transitional phase per se could not have been escaped. Like most post-colonial, Third World democracies, Maldivian democratic transition has been both dynamic and telescopic. The inevitability of the democratic jitters, the nation has gone through at one go now, and any review of the current scheme could be one step closer to the ultimate, even if not the 'ultimate' in itself.

Constitutional and judicial reforms that would (have to) be taken up in continuation of freedom/concession for political prisoners would have to check against any return to the 'dynasties-centric' palace-politics that had dominated Maldivian leadership tussle(s) for centuries. The possible exit of Gasim Ibrahim (after scoring nearly 25 percent vote-share in the first round of the 2013 presidential polls), and with it, the exit of the JP, too, from the political scene can throw up more questions than answers, which the nation and the polity need to address with openness and transparency, honesty and sincerity.

The MDP-JP support for amending the Constitution, for facilitating the impeachment of Vice-President Mohammed Jameel Ahmed, is only a case in point. Without addressing the larger issue of the President's freedom to withdraw the 'pleasure' of nomination conferred on his running-mate at election time, the Opposition parties seemed to have voted with the Government on the key constitutional amendment, to facilitate political reconciliation, which is equally, if not much more important. They also seemed to have been influenced, at least party, by Vice-President Jameel's political past - of jumping parties, leaders and alliances (which otherwise is applicable to most leaders in the nation, barring MDP's Nasheed and a very few others).

'Indian facilitator'

The MDP has since called for an Indian 'facilitator' for the talks. While direct negotiations among local stake-holders could do better, given in particular the complexities of domestic politics, social dynamics and dynasties-centric approach and attitudes, 'Indian experience' in constitutional dynamism and judicial reforms could be actively considered and adapted to local conditions.  In doing so, the Maldivian stake-holders also need to keep in mind that theirs is not a post-colonial polity and society as India and many other Third World nation.

India also has the unique legal/judicial scheme that combines modern, 'civil law' practices and customary tenets of Islamic Shariat (and the Hindu laws) in the 'personal law' domain. It is in the avoidable, and at times deliberate mix-up of issues and persona in this context that the Maldivian judiciary and other "Independent Institutions' under the 2008 Constitution have been put under the scanner, at times avoidably so.

When democracy came to Maldives, there was no umbrella political organization that could claim credit and people's loyalty, like the Congress Party and the United National Party (UNP) in the immediate neighbourhood of India and Sri Lanka, respectively. In those colonial nations, democracy came with Independence. They went through the inevitable disintegration, to the multi-polar political phase, where they are now.

Possibly not being a 'European colony' in the traditional sense, and having passed through a whole generation before the nation felt the need for, and inevitability of multi-party democracy, Maldives came as a divided polity, though a united, if not unified society. The stake-holders now seeking to improve upon the existing scheme has to provide for the inevitable evolution of unacknowledged societal fissures, based though not on religion, caste or language, but more definitely on regions and demography, into political identities and electoral constituencies.

The existing, 2008 Constitution was also drafted with then 'autocratic' President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in mind, and provided for 'checks-and-balances' in case he won the multi-party, multi-candidate presidential polls that year. With the result, not only was the 'American presidential system' not fully understood and absorbed, successive leaders in power, starting with MDP's President Nasheed, did everything in their capacity to side-step the accompanying 'checks-and-balances' scheme at their whim.

It may also be thus necessary for the Maldivian negotiators to consider delineating/distancing the authority of the State and the party on the one hand, and providing for societal changes and political demands, caused by those changes. A broad-spectrum understanding, not only between the stake-holders but also about the issues that stare them at the face, alone will help over the medium and long-terms. For now, freedom and/or concessions should be welcome, but they can only be a beginning.

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

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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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