Heady days in Male

A letter written recently to the editor of an independent Maldivian news portal identified a minor crisis in the country's rapidly changing political climate: the lack of terminology with which to describe those changes in the local language, Dhivehi. The writer lamented that journalists and political activists were turning to Arabic for words as simple as 'protest'.

Indeed, the political climate in the Indian Ocean atoll is unrecognisable from even a month ago. On 5 June, the ban on political parties was lifted, and political entities are now able to register themselves for the first time since 1953. Energy suppressed over decades of autocratic rule has suddenly found a legal outlet, leading to heady days in the Maldives. Reformists are forcing open the political space, allowed by the introduction of parties, to exercise their rights to assemble and express freely. As parties hold meetings and rallies, sign on members, and pose open challenges to the government, the climate of intimidation and oppression seems defused. Many are sceptical of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's motives in instituting these reforms, but it is clear that whatever be his intentions, a watershed has been reached in Maldivian political history.

The first party to submit forms for registration in Male was the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). This group had been denied registration in 2001 and after a series of threats and arbitrary detentions, had been forced into functioning in exile starting November 2003. Its members are now busy discussing the details of the formation of the party and will be announcing their leadership this month. The MDP is believed by now to have 30,000 signed members, a number that constitutes one tenth of the country's population.

Gayoom has started his own party. The Dhivehi Raiyithunge Party (DRP) – or the Maldivian People's Party – is now in the final stages of registration and claims 25,000 members. The DRP has been accused of using state machinery to coerce people into signing membership forms. Beyond this, a storm of controversy erupted in mid-June, when it was pointed out that according to the rules released earlier in the month, "army personnel" and "police personnel" were barred from joining political parties. Under the 1998 Constitution, Gayoom is the head of both the Maldivian army and the police force. Other parties in the process of registration are the Maldives Labour Party, the Islamic Democratic Party and the Adhaalaath Party (Justice Party).

Cusp of Transformation

Given the climate of euphoric dissent in Maldives over the past few weeks, it would be hard to believe that the atoll continues to be ruled by the man who banned, threatened, detained and exiled his political opponents for 27 long years. The walls of autocracy seem to be crumbling, but there is much that must change before a true multiparty democracy can be achieved. The 1998 Constitution devotes a majority of its articles to the powers and immunities of the president. It grants Gayoom, as president, control of both Parliament and the judiciary. The 31-point reform proposal submitted by Gayoom to the People's Special Majlis – the body formed in January with the mandate of amending the constitution – does remove the judiciary from direct presidential control but further strengthens the president's powers to "appoint and dismiss" the prime minister, the chief justice, the commissioner of elections, the auditor general, the attorney general, envoys of the state and atoll chiefs, and to appoint and dissolve the entire council of ministers.

It is understandable that the president's proposed reforms are viewed with scepticism by many. One of the items proposes that the constitution guarantee freedom of expression, but that it be restricted in the case of calls for "…vandalism, and other similar militant acts." The vagueness of this clause keeps a door open for the sort of repressive tactics the Gayoom government has long used to silence criticism of its decisions and actions. The Asian Centre for Human Rights, a watchdog body based in New Delhi, says that Gayoom's proposals, in themselves, constitute an interference with the Special Majlis' mandate as they are prescriptive and do not provide the Majlis with the opportunity to address the inadequacies of the 1998 Constitution.

And then there are the complaints with regard to the Special Majlis itself. Essentially a constituent assembly, it is made up of the Parliament's 42 elected and eight appointed members, another 42 elected politicians, and all the members of the president's appointed cabinet. There were reports of irregularities during the parliamentary elections in January, and some reformist candidates could not campaign because they were taken in beforehand. Nevertheless, 18 seats went to pro-democracy candidates who had been endorsed by the MDP in December, and this was hailed by many as a victory for the democratic movement.

The Maldives does seem to be at the cusp of transformation, but it is important that the democratic movement be wary of tokenism on the part of the government. The fight for civil liberties, in particular, will be a difficult one, given the dreadful human rights record of the government in power. In recent record, people arrested during the democratic protests of 12-13 August 2004 were kept in unhygienic conditions in cells measuring six feet by eight and beaten severely. There have been deaths in police custody, the latest being the case in early March of Muaviath Mahmood, whose body showed signs of torture. People have been imprisoned for terms ranging from 15 years to life, for publishing magazines or putting up websites critical of the government. They are still serving their sentences, and their pictures continue to be flashed on opposition websites. In refusing to release them, the government fails to reassure the opposition of its sincerity.

Free? Press?

A further impediment to the creation of a democratic environment is the lack of a free press. The electronic media is operated by the state, and the opposition is not allowed airtime. The three major newspapers – Aafathis, Haveeru and Miadhu – are owned by cabinet ministers and the brother-in-law of the president. The only independent publication is the weekly magazine called Adduvas, which continues to suffer censorship. Recently, a cartoon of the president had to be removed from its front page because of pressure from the authorities.

Despite all this, things are clearly set to change in the Maldives. In the aftermath of the tsunami disaster of late December, Gayoom's request for USD 1.3 billion in foreign aid for long-term relief work was met with resistance, such was the attitude towards his autocratic ways. Activists called on potential donors not to give a penny in aid that was not tied to democratic reform. It is believed that the release of pro-democracy demonstrators in November was largely due to the pressure from the European Union and Western governments. Many detainees were released from prison but with travel restrictions.

Gayoom seems to want to introduce multi-party democracy to the Maldives on his own terms. Unless there is constructive dialogue with the opposition and a mutually agreed path towards amendment or replacement of the 1998 Constitution, the friction between the government and the opposition could escalate dangerously. The government should announce a date for elections. Even better, it should resign and put in place a more independent caretaker government agreeable to the opposition that would lead the process of constitutional reform and oversee the first democratic elections.

As things stand, Gayoom's government is not showing the leadership required to resolve the outstanding issues with regard to the reform it has promised, and this reinforces the opposition's scepticism about its intentions. Since the advent of democracy is inevitable – indeed, the process has already begun – the government should finally allow itself to be a part of, and not an obstacle to, the movement for change in the atoll.

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