Back in 2001, the People’s Majlis, the Parliament of the Maldives, fervently rejected the introduction of political parties in Maldives, with one MP declaring that such an introduction would be tantamount to “playing with fire”. Others echoed similar sentiments, arguing that the public was not ready – that allowing political parties would tear the social fabric and encourage religious rifts in the hundred-percent Muslim nation. The application for registration of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which had initiated the debate, was rejected.
Just four years later, in June 2005, the Parliament voted unanimously to allow political parties, with the MDP being the first to complete the registration process. This was followed quickly by the registration of Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP, or Maldivian People’s Party), led by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and consisting of top government brass and business leaders; an Islamist party called Adalat (Justice); and more recently, the Islamic Democratic Party, spearheaded by a former military officer.
Since the 2001 vote, adverse events and political blunders of the rulers had drastically intensified pressure for reform, both from internal and external sources. As the MDP began to agitate for democratic reform, the international media, which had generally seen the country as little more than an equatorial paradise, became more aware of a darker side to the islands.
In September 2003, the atoll nation was shocked by the killing of a 19-year-old prisoner in Maafushi jail. The body of the teenager, brought over from jail to the hospital in Male was kept hidden from family and friends as word spread that he had met a brutal death. As the body, completely covered in the traditional white shroud, was being shown under military/ police guard, the aggrieved mother tore off the burial cloth, exposing undeniable signs of torture. Family, friends and all concerned were shocked beyond belief. Within minutes, crowds gathered spontaneously all over Male, and there were random acts of violence targeting the High Court, the Office of the Election Commissioner, the Parliament chambers, and military/police buildings. The military reacted by using teargas to disperse the crowds. That same afternoon, prisoners in Maafushi jail who had witnessed the torture revolted and police resorted to using fire-power, killing two. More died later of wounds. Addressing the nation via radio and television late that night, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom claimed that the authorities were forced to shoot as the rioting in the jail was threatening national security!
Just weeks after these events, President Gayoom began his sixth five-year term in office. By then, the public had shaken off their political lethargy and the president was forced to rethink his strategy. One of the first moves in his new term was a sweeping amnesty freeing practically all prisoners, including those serving life sentences. Only those on life sentences for the 1988 coup attempt and for murder remained in jail. He reshuffled the cabinet, discarding two members, and two months later, in December 2003, set up the Maldives Human Rights Commission. The People’s Special Majlis, the Maldives’ Constitutional Assembly, was convened in July 2004 to carry out constitutional reform to strengthen democracy. These changes, however, have done little to relax the political tension because despite the talk of reform and democracy, there has been negligible change on the ground. The public as well as the international community has turned skeptical of change coming from within the government.
Controversy related to procedure continues to dog the Majlis to this day. Some MPs had wanted elections by secret ballot, while the more conservative members insisted on the traditional practices involving a public showing of hands. Despite worries that public votes would allow for intimidation tactics, voting was through raise of hands. Opposition and some independent members staged a walkout and went to the President’s Office demanding to meet him. Till today, there is mistrust between the government and opposition, in and out of the Parliament. Even constitutional reform, which both parties propagate, is protracted as each accuses the other of filibustering.
12 August 2004, which came to be popularly known as Black Friday, saw the Maldives’ largest-ever public gathering. Almost a quarter of Male’s residents gathered at Republic Square, overlooking the main police and military headquarters, as leaders of the ‘freedom debates’ were arrested. This series of debates carried out in the public space every evening had begun as a response to a call by President Gayoom for popular dialogue on reform, and had continued until one evening, when the crowds chanted a call for President Gayoom’s resignation. This was the beginning of “Maumoon Isthiufaa”, or “Resign Maumoon”, a popular call today.
On Black Friday, the security forces acceded to public demand and released those arrested earlier that evening. By then, the crowds had swelled and the rally had gained momentum. The demonstrators started listing names of more political prisoners and insisting that they too be released. Using a megaphone provided by the security forces, speaker after speaker addressed the crowds voicing their concerns, demanding reforms, their demands culminating in the unpalatable “Maumoon Isthiufaa”.
The rally continued for a full 20 hours. In the end, nearly 200 people were arrested – including the current Minister of Finance Qasim Ibrahim; former SAARC Secretary General and Cabinet Minister Ibrahim Hussain Zaki,recently elected Vice President of the opposition MDP; former Attorney General Mohamed Munavvar; MDP leaders Dr. Hussein Rasheed Hassan and Ahmed Shafeeg. All were members of the Constitutional Assembly. By 15 August, three days after the rally, the government was describing the protests of 12-13 August as a coup attempt. Those arrested were eventually released and all charges dropped in the name of national unity, following the catastrophic tsunami of 26 December 2004.
In the meantime, work of the Constitutional Assembly has been sluggish. It took over a year for its members to agree on a set of rules of procedure. During that time, both the Commonwealth and the European Union have stressed areas where immediate progress could have been made – allowing freedom of expression and establishing an independent judiciary as a top priority even before any constitutional reform is recommended. Allowing political party formation had also become a priority.
In May, the president requested a re-reading of the Constitution and the new Attorney General, Dr. Hassan Saeed concluded that there was no “absolute barrier to the registration of political parties, and could be overcome relatively simply by a package of legislative measures and executive devices within the framework of the existing Constitution.” The Parliament agreed.
Keeping up pretence
Since then, political parties have become a part of everyday reality in the atoll nation. Party rallies take place throughout the country in attempts to boost membership. In a country where there are few cultural events or avenues for popular entertainment, such gatherings have become a focus of public attention. Hours are spent either promoting or criticising the government, depending on the event’s organiser. Yet despite this social integration, there is still little concrete involvement by the parties in the political process. The rallies have politicised much of the public and brought a transformation of political attitudes. But the conservative political culture and the strong grip on society by President Gayoom, with his eight appointed members in Parliament, and 16 appointed members and whole cabinet in the Constitutional Assembly, throttles the opposition voice. Indeed, the chairman of the leading opposition party, MDP, Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), forcibly dragged off the Republic Square on 12 August 2005 while he and four others were marking the first anniversary of Black Friday, has been charged with treason and terrorism.
Nearly six months since political parties were allowed to register, the legislation necessary for the proper functioning, such as confirming their right to put up candidates for elections, are yet to be created. The first elections since the setting up of political parties – bi-elections for three vacant seats in the Constitutional Assembly – held on 24 December 2005 forbade candidates from running on party tickets. All had to formally register as independent individual candidates although it was known to the authorities as well as the public that the candidates were indeed representing parties. The pretence that no parties were involved was kept up by the Election Commission. Three parties, the DRP, MDP and Adalat put up a candidate each for the three constituencies, and with a high voter turn-out for a bi-election, MDP candidates won the two seats of Male, the capital, and urbanised Addu island; whilst the seat of the more isolated Shaviyani Atoll went to President Gayoom’s DRP candidate.
The opposition is out in force in the Maldives, and they see a full democracy within reach. “Six months,” says the MDP cryptically, giving an ultimatum to President Gayoom’s government. Reforms in the pipeline or not, if there are no real changes by June 2006, the party says it will lead a nationwide civil disobedience campaign. Can President Gayoom forestall a political tsunami?