Two years on

Two years on

Near the two-year anniversary of Mohammed Nasheed’s election in the Maldives, democracy in the atolls continues to experience growing pains, made more difficult by an increasingly bipolar polity.

In mid-September, the Maldives took its seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council, one of the smallest countries ever to hold a post in the body. This is all the more remarkable as, when the country was voted onto the Council earlier this year, it secured the highest number of votes ever registered – 185 out of 188, thus tying with India. For the newly democratised country this was indeed a proud moment, and an opportunity to build on its growing reputation as a regional and global champion of human rights. This was something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago, before the November 2008 election of Mohammed Nasheed and his longtime opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Thus it would seem that things were progressing splendidly for the Maldives, as a vibrant government had brought about the possibility of change and hope, a government that signalled the end of 30 years in power of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the longest-serving leader of Southasia. Yet behind the rosy picture of political freedom, and the touristy postcards, all is not well in the atolls.

First, a bit of background is necessary. The country's new Constitution from 2008, though drafted as a presidential system, had significant oversight mechanisms vested in the People's Majlis (the parliament), as well as the power to impeach the president with an absolute majority in that body. With no such oversight mechanism over the legislature provided to the executive, however, the president cannot dissolve the Majlis and call for elections. In retrospect, this constitutional lacuna has now become a significant stumbling block for the current government. Despite the significant political changes that have taken place in the Maldives in recent years, the opposition – led by former President Gayoom's Dhivehi Raiyyunthuge Party (DRP) – continues to hold a majority in the Majlis, with many members having been key players in the previous regime.

In addition, the Constitution stipulated a two-year transitional period, which ended on 7 August. During this time, pieces of legislation necessary for the smooth functioning of the Constitution were to be adopted, alongside the establishment of independent commissions to strengthen local governance and accountability, consolidate rule of law and curb corruption. Yet the deadline for the transitional period passed amidst the executive wrestling with both the Parliament and the judiciary, with accusations of others overstepping constitutional limits. Led by the interim chief justice, Abdulla Saeed, who had been appointed by the Gayoom government for the transitional period, early this year the interim bench of the Supreme Court sent a letter to President Nasheed declaring permanent the interim bench. At that time, the opposition-led Majlis had failed to pass legislation for a permanent Supreme Court, while President Nasheed's nomination for chief justice was still pending endorsement.

In late June, an en masse resignation of the cabinet took place, with the ministers saying that they were unable to carry out their duties due to parliamentary encroachment of their functions. In the lead-up to this event, the Majlis passed legislation that shifted some executive powers into the legislative. Amendments to the Civil Service Act, the Finance Act and the Police Act, for instance, systematically handed over executive powers to the legislative, from processing nominations for members of the Civil Service Commission (created under the Civil Service Act, noted earlier) to endorsing them, with the president's role reduced simply to overseeing the swearing-in process. The most recent amendments to the Finance Act would force the government to seek Majlis approval to raise loans from abroad and to rent state assets, an action that would have serious ramifications for government plans for privatisation. The president's veto powers are limited. Further, all of these amendments have been cleared from the Majlis with a two-thirds majority, forcing the president to ratify the changes as is.

The situation was further exacerbated when the Judicial Services Commission started re-appointing judges – who are selected for life – utilising extremely lax criteria. This was seemingly designed to ensure that there was no effective screening and that all sitting judges, many of whom have low educational qualifications and even legal cases pending against them, were eligible for re-appointment. Allegedly, this dilution of the overall judiciary was done simply to favour certain judges. President Nasheed appealed to the Commission to reconsider its criteria and, as a last-ditch effort, barricaded the Supreme Court building on 7 August. The Commission continued its work, however, and the judges were sworn in behind the locked doors, with the president's appointed member of the Judicial Services Commission blocked from joining the ceremony.

Blue v yellow
The end of the two-year transition period inevitably brought with it its own set of fireworks. Landmark events in August included the re-appointment of Ahmed Sawad Ali, the tourism minister, as the attorney-general. This followed the resignation of Husnu Suood, who left his post on 7 August stating that his position had become 'untenable' due to the constitutional void at the end of the transitional period, without a permanent chief justice and Supreme Court bench. President Nasheed appealed to the opposition for constitutional amendments to ensure strict delimitation of the powers of the executive, legislative and the judiciary, as well as fresh presidential and parliamentary elections to ensure that the will of the people was enforced.

With the political system in the Maldives threatening to grind to a halt, international stakeholders (including President Mahinda Rajapakse and US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake) hurriedly worked to pave the way for mediation talks. By mid-August, this had seen the endorsement of President Nasheed's nominee for chief justice, as well as the appointment of the Supreme Court bench with bi-partisan blessing.

As Himal goes to press both sides remain at the table, focused on bargaining over the division of island and atoll councils, a crucial part in the overall decentralisation process and strengthening of local governance. When the government-sponsored bill on the decentralisation of administration was finally passed by the Majlis earlier this year, the drafting committee had omitted a provision to create seven new provinces, each with a capital city with all necessary infrastructure – a key MDP election pledge. With the mediation efforts yet to yield much fruit, however, it is safe to say that the initial conciliatory gestures and the softening of stances on certain issues of dispute by both parties are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Now, both parties seem focused on vying for a bigger piece of the pie in the upcoming local-council elections, tentatively slated for the end of 2010.

Today, both parties claim to speak for the people, but actual public consultations on processes under debate are minimal. Instead, the media, while more free than ever before, has become the mouthpiece for the individual parties, with partisan values promoted instead of accountability of politicians and the larger national interest. On radio and television, public discourse on opinion programmes are polarised along party lines, and there seems to be limited scope for those who want to go deeper. Issues such as civic education and other social ills (including rampant drug abuse, child abuse and violence against women) are looked at through either blue- or yellow-tinted glasses – the colours of the DRP and the MDP, respectively. Except for some rhetoric by politicians on these issues, almost nothing substantial is being done to address the need for social advancement at the national level.

Free run
Among the many changes that the 2008 Constitution provided was, of course, an increased range of freedoms for speech and expression. Interestingly, one of the effects of this has been to allow for a building religious fervour, despite having been closely monitored and suppressed by the Gayoom government. Religious scholars who were suppressed in previous decades have found a new legitimacy and been allowed to give public sermons without prior permits. They have utilised this opportunity to promote their religious views on everything from music to childrearing, with slogans like 'Valentine's Day is haram' and 'who hell-fire is waiting for'.

The Nasheed government, hesitant to risk being called anti-Islamic, has systematically failed to curb the rise of extremist ideologies. Thus, religious statements that are inconsistent with government policies on gender and even public health are being routinely promulgated. A number of controversial foreign scholars – Zakir Naik from India, Bilal Phillips from Canada, Abdulraheem Green from the UK – have also been given state-level facilities by which to promote divisive, increasingly hardline, ideologies in the name of Islam. Yet in the media or among politicians, anything remotely religious is not discussed, and thus religious groups such as the Jamiyathul Salaf and Islamic Foundation are able to claim to hold the key to 'divine interpretation' on any disputed issue. The government has even been at odd with its own Islamic Ministry, run by its coalition member, the Adaalath, a party that has been criticised for abusing religion for political gain. In cases involving the Religious Unity Regulation and permission to sell alcohol – both of which saw senior officials of the Islamic Ministry openly criticising the government, to which the government eventually gave in.

In the end, much of the moderate, thinking public will be receiving the government's current policies are well-intentioned. But it is the manner in which it is conducting its business that is questionable. Understandably, 30 years of mistrust would be hard to wipe away, and people are today finding it somewhat difficult to take things at face value; in the past, after all, projects and schemes were promised, only to be forgotten after the elections. For many, it does not seem too much to ask for the media to report on the issues, rather than shadowing politicians and positioning them for upcoming elections. Nor would it seem to be too much to ask the politicians to stop using the term 'public interest' without really consulting the public. But with local councils now on every politician's mind, the public can expect more political drama and posturing in the coming days.

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Himal Southasian