Originally Published 2015-01-03 00:00:00 Published on Jan 03, 2015
In Maldives, a ruling coalition member's decision to move an amendment to the 2008 Constitution, to fix an upper age-limit of 65 years for contesting presidential election, has landed President Abdulla Yameen in an unnecessary controversy.
Maldives: Trivialising the Presidency

By letting, if not encouraging, a ruling coalition member to move an amendment to the 2008 Constitution, to fix an upper age-limit of 65 years for contesting presidential election, the ruling combine of President Abdulla Yameen may have contributed to trivialising the nation's highest office without cause, reason or justification.

Worse still, the Jumhooree Party (JP), the one-time ally of President Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), too did not cover itself with glory when a parliamentarian mooted, though outside the House, that the lower age-limit for the presidency should be brought down to 18 years from the present 35 years.

The bill for fixing an upper age-limit was proposed by Mohammed Ismail (Hoarafushi), an MP belonging to the Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA) partner of the PPM. Lately, the MDA is often seen batting - or, battling (?) -- for the PPM and the ruling coalition whenever controversy hits on the face. JP parliamentarian for the Kendhoo seat, Ali Hussein, came up with a constitutional googly on the 18-age lower-limit.

In mooting an upper age-limit, MP Ismail cited Census figures to point out that half the nation's population was below 25 years, hence their interests needed to be represented adequately. However, with no past experience of the kind the member also argued, "We do not want a President who cannot function due to old age and has to be brought to important meetings in a wheelchair." The counter on 18-year lower-limit obviously took off from where the other had left.

There was/is nothing from the recent past to show that a Maldivian President in future would be bound to a wheel-chair. The oldest of Presidents in the recent past was PPM founder Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He was in his Seventies when he lost the 2008 presidential elections. To date, he has been active in politics - and is not wheelchair-bound. If the 'wheelchair argument' is untenable, it should not surprise anyone if a rights group takes up the cause of 'people with special needs', as other NGOs have criticised the PPM-led government whenever even half-a-chance came their way.

Targetting Gasim?

The JP's anguish and anxiety in joining the 'trivialisation chorus' is understandable. The never-say-die JP-founder Gasim Ibrahim would have crossed 65 years of age when the next presidential elections became due in 2018. Having lost the first round in the presidential polls of 2008 and 2013, he however has increased his vote-tally from 15 percent to 24 percent in those five years.

Should he be 'disqualified', his decisive and 'transferrable' vote-share -- personally, not necessarily politically -- as proved in 2008 and 2013 presidential polls, could be up for the grabs. An alternative could be for those 'semi-urban/non-urban' voters, including youth, to look the other way and boycott the polls, or resort to 'direct action' - at times in dangerous directions. One could be worse than the other in terms of the nation's socio-economic cohesion and priorities, possibilities and security.

Both in 2008 and 2013, Gasim's 'transferable' first-round vote-share went a long way in ensuring victory for Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate Mohammed Nasheed in 2008 and PPM's Yameen in 2013, after he had pledged support to the two, respectively. In the PPM's company, the JP obtained a respectable 15 seats in the 85-member Parliament in March 2014, as against a lone seat out of 78 in May 2009.

As has been the case with and for the JP since inception five years ago, the days after the parliamentary elections saw the emergence of a love-hate, or love-turned-hate relationship with the second-round senior partner from the presidential poll. Not only did the PPM poach on the JP to make up an absolute majority, post-poll, the Yameen presidency has also been encouraging 'non-conformist' JP Ministers to leave the government.

Recently, the JP parliamentary party was also divided over voting out Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Ahmed Faiz and another Judge Muthasim Adnan - providing the much-needed two-thirds majority for what otherwise should be have been dubbed 'impeachment' under the law and Constitution. The JP leadership found it politically prudent to let his party MPs take independent decisions on the vote.

MDP proposal/threat?

It is not unlikely that the PPM coalition's apprehensions centring on Gasim in particular may owe to a recent resolution by the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) central council for President Yameen to hand over office to the JP leader. If anything, the MDP might have started off the 'trivialisation' game. As mandated by the Constitution, it could happen only if the ruling coalition facilitated Gasim's election as the Speaker of Parliament, or the People's Majlis, followed by simultaneous resignations of President Yameen and his Vice-President Mohammed Jameel Ahmed. Gasim, then as Acting President, would then have 60 days to order and preside over fresh elections to the high office.

The PPM's apprehensions are manifold in this case. Gasim had sought the Speaker's post after the parliamentary polls, recalling his contributions as the Speaker of the 'Special Majlis' that had drafted the 2008 Constitution. Obviously, apprehending unspecified future trouble, the PPM would not yield. Now after the MDP's hasty proposition, the PPM-MDA leadership(s) seem(s) to be alive to the possibility of the Opposition encouraging defection(s) from the ruling combine, and try and impeach both President Yameen and Vice-President Jameel simultaneously - all with Gasim as Speaker.

The attendant political calculus also seems be assume that Gasim would be satisfied with a short-stint as Head of State, and would work with the MDP to make party leader Mohammed Nasheed to return as president, after an abrupt end in February 2012. Even otherwise, given the high 48 percent vote-share that Nasheed recorded in the 2013 presidential polls, analytically he may have a better chance of winning another election at short-notice than any other candidate, Yameen and Gasim included.

Politico-electoral threat

Even if the apprehensions about the MDP's grand strategy and the Gasim's possible, though not probable acquiescence to the same were taken for granted, it would still be a hasty political threat with electoral possibilities. The question of fresh presidential polls and 'regime-change' would have no traction if President Yameen's leadership is able to keep its flock together.

The temptation however now would be to weaken the elected Opposition weaker than already. That's again part of a political game that all stake-holders are playing in the post-democratisation Maldives. With no anti-defection law in place, the cross-over game could go on even without any ulterior motives and ultimate strategies, and could include the MDP, too, more than already. It need not necessarily lead or contribute to a change of personalities in the high office, or fresh presidential polls.

It's entirely another matter for the government parties to consider such theoretical apprehensions with the kind of respectability that they might not deserve in the first place. Worse still and more so for the nation and its post-democracy political culture, the temptation for the Majority to try and use Parliament and constitutional amendments to silence the Opposition could prove to be counter-productive, over the medium and long terms. The MDP underwent the lessons in its time, whether or not it learnt from it.

Prima facie, there was no need for the ruling combine to have thought of a constitutional amendment of the kind, particularly when the JP was the first to condemn the MDP resolution, asking President Yameen to hand over power to Gasim Ibrahim. The ruling combine has since condemned the MDP idea, and has also taken the party to the Election Commission.

It's another matter that none of the three political parties/combines involved have clarified if the MDP resolution was passed with the prior knowledge - even if not clearance - of the JP and/or Gasim Ibrahim. Having proved its 'majority-making' capacity since the conclusion of the parliamentary elections and more so, the Majlis' vote on the 'impeachment' of two Supreme Court judges, the ruling combine should have had confidence in itself.

Since the very evening of his election, President Yameen has been reiterating the need for national consensus on all major issues. He said as much even more recently, in the context of political threats of protests that could affect the nation's economic staple-diet of tourism. That the MDP has a better international network than his party is one thing. The recent social-media threats of possible attacks that have discouraged the likes of Grammy Award-winning Jamaican dancehall artist Sean Paul from performing in Maldives for the New Year Day Eve, is another.

Constitutional and law amendments to check and/or check-mate the political Opposition is a third dimension. By not seeking a fast-track vote, as yet, on the 'age-limit' issue (unlike in the case of the CJ impeachment), it is possible that the ruling combine was only sending out a message to political adversaries that two can play the game. Yet, having been criticised that the 'judicial impeachments' aimed at removing the two Judges who had given a dissenting opinion in the politically inconvenient presidential poll case(s) in 2013, the Yameen-PPM leadership can do without more of such avoidable controversies. Post-democratisation Maldives that is troubled already can do without it, even more.

(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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