On 18 August, Maldivians over the age of 18, amounting to a voter population of 194,000, went to the polls in a public referendum to decide on the future system of the country’s government. With re-polling due to irregularities in two districts in Addu Atoll three days later, a preliminary count at deadline stood at 93,581 for the presidential system to 57,158 for the parliamentary system.
The ballot box where President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom cast his vote, T14, had 52 percent in favour of a parliamentary system. But of 29 ballot boxes in Malé, where the most vocal opposition to President Gayoom exists, 18 ballot boxes were reported to be weighted towards a presidential system. Addu Atoll, the second-largest urban centre in the Maldives and a stronghold of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was also reported to favour a presidential system. To say the least, this was a result that has confounded many.
Despite the unrest feared by some, voting went smoothly. Nonetheless, in the aftermath, certain complaints remain unaddressed. MDP members report that they lodged 147 complaints, ranging from multiple casting of votes, to party representatives being prevented from observing the counting of ballots. There were also issues regarding the placement of ballot boxes. President Gayoom’s own Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) itself lodged 127 complaints, accusing MDP supporters of surrounding polling booths and threatening voters. As Himal went to press, neither the Election Commissioner nor the 11-member Committee of the Constitutional Assembly overseeing the referendum had responded to the complaints on either side. The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, the only local organisation to independently observe the referendum, had also yet to issue a report. In the meantime, conspiracy theories galore float around the islands.
Besides the uncertainty about the results of the referendum, there also exists abundant confusion about the current system of government itself. This was an issue much discussed in the election campaign, with supporters of the presidential system arguing that what exists now is more akin to a parliamentary system than a presidential system. On the other hand, those in favour of a parliamentary system argue that what is in place today, and which has permitted President Gayoom’s autocratic rule for almost three decades, represents a presidential system. In fact, what exists today may be an exclusive ‘Gayoomist’ system that is neither presidential nor parliamentary, where all powers belong to him and him alone, as does much of the country’s history, culture, language nationalism and national identity.
The Maldives has had many democratic hiccups over the last thirty years. In 1990, as the Maldives celebrated 25 years of independence, President Gayoom declared the Maldives the archetype of a democracy, exemplary to the rest of the “so-called” democratic countries. Years later, with mounting opposition within and pressure from the international community growing, the president declared that the Constitution that he had reformed after 17 years of deliberation was in fact inhibiting democratic rule. Thus there began a second attempt at constitutional reform, this time to introduce a “modern democracy” with a “perfect presidential system”.
A presidential system under a new constitution would take away the president’s embedded power base in Parliament, in that the cabinet would be appointed from outside parliament. But government accountability would also weaken, as cabinet ministers would not be made answerable to the Parliament, but only to a parliamentary committee whose workings would remain outside public scrutiny.
Although the decision to hold a public referendum on the future system of government had been taken by the Constitutional Assembly as early as August 2006, there had been no attempt to educate the public on the two systems of government. A month before the referendum date, there began an earnest campaign by political parties to garner support for their system of choice. A multi-party coalition, which included all registered as well as waiting-to-register political parties, joined President Gayoom to campaign for a presidential system. In the meantime, the MDP, which has consistently opposed Gayoom’s autocracy, stood alone in favour of a parliamentary system.
The active and unequivocal support of the other political parties in promoting a presidential system soon made the referendum a virtual standoff between the MDP and what became a Gayoom-led coalition. Covertly capitalising on this turn of events, state media allocated equal airtime on both radio and television to political parties to promote a system of government. This effectively ensured the presidential system around 80 percent of the total airtime.
In the politically charged, emotion-driven campaign, supporters used whatever influence they could to sway the public to their preferred system – meaning the system that they saw as most likely to bring them to power. For instance, the Socialist Democratic Party – formed by former MDP president Ibrahim Ismail, and currently awaiting registration – sought to explain why it had shifted from the arliamentary to the presidential position. The Maldives had changed since political parties were first permitted to form in 2005, it held, thus making a presidential system more suitable in the current context. The political-Islamist Adaalath Party declared a presidential system to be the “most Islam-friendly” system of government. President Gayoom himself travelled the islands promising ports and harbours, schools and hospitals – and all else that he had failed to provide in his thirty years in power – if the people voted for a presidential system. By the last week of campaigning, the president was using his office to campaign for a presidential system, issuing a flurry of statements belabouring the point that the president – and thus, by inference, the government – favoured a presidential system.
For its part, the MDP continued to insist that the referendum was less about a future system of government, and more a referendum on President Gayoom himself. But the DRP vehemently denied any ulterior motive, or that the vote had any link to the president. Of course, this rhetoric lasted only until the results were announced.
Within hours of the referendum, President Gayoom was claiming leadership to be a divine right, maintaining that the referendum results were yet another endorsement of his popularity. Meeting the press in his official office, the president declared victory for himself, saying, “I’m very happy that the Maldivian people have given me a massive vote of confidence. It is a clear mandate to go ahead with the reform programme.”
Indeed, the people of the Maldives may now appear increasingly unable to shake off the Gayoomist web. Yet if the referendum was in fact a vote for Gayoom, the results show his popularity has waned drastically – 63 percent support, as opposed to the more than 95 percent majority that he has claimed in six uncontested referendums of the past. Further, all of the other minority parties and parties-to-be that supported the president all have a share in that 63 percent – a share they would surely claim in the next elections.
In the days immediately before and after the referendum, President Gayoom’s hold was further shaken with the resignation of his three most prized cabinet ministers – Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, Attorney General Hassan Saeed, and Justice Minister Mohamed Jameel Ahmed. These were the young and vibrant reformists who pulled Gayoom through the quagmires in recent years, as the opposition made increasingly vociferous demands for change. Come 2008 and the scheduled elections, Gayoom’s future in the Presidential Palace – which he built and has occupied these many decades – is not at all certain.