|Tussle for supremacy|
The power struggle between President Mohamed Nasheed and the opposition-led parliament in the Maldives has resulted in a political deadlock, with the government alleging that the parliament is constantly trying to hinder its work by encroaching on its constitutional powers, and opposition members of parliament (MP) claiming that the parliament is ´forced´ to do this because of the president’s ‘deceptive and unlawful’ policies and actions.
The background for this comes from the political developments over the past few years. A comprehensive constitution that enshrines holistic democratic changes was ratified on 7 August 2008. The constitution allowed for the separation of powers for the first time in the history of the Maldives. Multi-party presidential elections took place soon after, and the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) came to power on 11 November 2008 through a coalition effort, ending the 30-year-reign of former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
The parliamentary election in May the following year resulted in the Dhivehi Rayyethuge Party (DRP) partnering with the People’s Alliance (PA) to form the opposition in parliament with the help of some independents. The MDP has 28 MPs and the support of four independent MPs in the 77-member parliament.
Controversies and contests
The long-awaited and controversial Decentralisation Bill which was passed in April 2010 led to protests outside the parliament and mass-walkouts by MPs. One contentious issue was the government’s proposal to group electoral constituencies for regional administration and to decentralise the country by creating seven provinces. Pushed by the government, the interim parliamentary committee appointed to study the bill decided to remove the chapter on the formation of provinces. On 28 April, the Decentralisation Bill was passed with the amendments proposed by the opposition, while MPs of Nasheed’s party – the MDP – boycotted the session, claiming that their proposals were rejected.
Tensions continued, meanwhile, between the government and the opposition. On 26 June, four opposition parties – DRP, PA, Dhivehi Qaumee Party and Jumhooree Party – signed a joint statement to oppose the government’s decision to privatise the Malé International Airport. Opposition leaders claimed that this was neither in the highest national interest, nor was it a sound economic move. Two days later, the parliament amended the Public Finances Act, making it mandatory for the government to seek parliamentary approval when leasing out state assets. The amendment also required that the government seek parliamentary approval to secure loans. The president has not ratified this bill yet. The same day, the government signed an agreement with GMR, a company from India which had constructed the international airport in Hyderabad, to lease out the Malé International Airport for 25 years. In a special function at the president’s office, privatisation committee chair and civil aviation minister Mahmood Raazee said that the government’s decision was based on legal advice from the attorney general and was in accordance with the laws in effect at the time of signing.
|Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim|
Then on 29 June, the entire cabinet resigned en mass, claiming that the opposition MPs were ‘hijacking’ the executive and making it impossible for the cabinet to perform its constitutional duties and deliver on the government’s pledges. A no-confidence motion against education minister Dr Musthafa Luthufee was tabled in the parliament the following day. During a press conference the same day, where the cabinet ministers’ mass resignation was telecast live, the president said that he would investigate why the parliament was ´preventing the cabinet from performing its duties´. Within hours of the press conference, two opposition MPs, PA leader Abdulla Yamin and Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim, were arrested by the Maldives Police Services for ´treason, involving bribery of parliamentarians´. Their lawyers stated that there were grave procedural irregularities in their arrest and that, their clients´ constitutional rights had been violated. Although the criminal court and later the Maldives high court allowed the continued detention (house arrest) of Yamin and Ibrahim, both courts noted that the initial arrests had been carried out unlawfully. After appeals by their lawyers, the Supreme Court overruled the decisions of the criminal court and the high court and ordered their release, declaring that under Article 49 of the Constitution, there was not enough evidence to detain the two men.
MDP supporters protested the following day outside the justice building in Malé, which houses the criminal court. Protests also continued outside Theemuge, which houses the Supreme Court and the high court. The criminal court, meanwhile, denied a warrant to re-arrest Ibrahim and Yamin.
|People´s Alliance leader Abdulla Yamin|
On 8 July, the police arrested Ahmed Nazim, the vice-speaker of the parliament and the parliamentary group leader of the opposition People’s Alliance. He was charged with ‘bribery of parliamentarians, attempting to influence an independent commission and planning to cause physical harm to senior government officials’. The high court ruled to extend his house arrest to 15 days and a Supreme Court ruling is pending.
The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and the police, meanwhile, announced a joint special operation to control rising gang violence following the end of the World Cup and the recent political upheavals. On 14 July, following violent clashes between government and opposition supporters outside MP Yamin´s house, he was taken against his will to Aarah Island under ‘protective custody’ by the MNDF. A large group of MDP (Nasheed’s party) supporters had gathered outside Yamin´s residence after senior government and MDP party officials called on crowds during a rally to ‘go to Yamin’s house’. Yamin’s defence lawyers argued that he was being held unlawfully. A press statement issued by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives also called for his release.
Parliamentary sessions, meanwhile, were not conducted because opposition members refused to proceed while Yamin was in detention. The rules of parliament state that even if an MP is arrested lawfully she or he must be brought to parliament sessions and committee meetings. When the speaker of the parliament, Abdulla Shahid, wrote to the defence forces requesting that Yamin be brought to the assembly, they openly refused and wrote to the speaker twice to inform him that MP Yamin would neither be brought to the sessions, nor released from detention ´for his own protection and peace of the country´. In a press release on 22 July, Shahid stated that the parliament sessions would resume on 1 August.
On 7 July, a week before Yamin’s arrest, the president reinstated the 13 ministers who had resigned from the cabinet. He said that the government had investigated the reasons for the ministers’ resignation and the Maldives police had taken appropriate action. Article 129 (a) of the Constitution states that the president shall appoint the cabinet of ministers and assign them duties and functions. Article 129 (d) states that the president has to submit the names of these appointees to the People’s Majlis (Parliament) within seven days for their consent. In accordance with this, President Nasheed sent the names of cabinet members to the People’s Majlis. The president, his ministers, and MDP Mps, however, have consistently advocated that cabinet ministers only require the parliament’s ´consent´, not ´approval´.
Mediating a compromise
The current political climate in the Maldives has prompted the international community to offer mediation. On 8 July, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the Maldives to mediate talks between opposition parties and the ruling MDP. The two groups agreed to constitute a six-member parliamentary committee comprising three members from the government and three from the opposition to commence and carry forward a dialogue addressing pressing issues such as the procedure of appointment of the cabinet of ministers and the smooth functioning of the legislative process. UN Chief Ban ki Moon has also appealed to ‘all political parties to restrain those who promote violence and confrontation, and resolve their differences through dialogue´. He stressed that political rivalries should not be allowed to ´jeopardise the significant gains the country has registered in democratic reforms.’
Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, also arrived in Maldives to urge all parties to make an effort to end political tensions. MP Abdulla Yamin was released from ‘protective custody’ by the Armed Forces on 23 July, hours after Blake told journalists that he should be either charged or released.
Following this, President Nasheed said that the government was open to dialogue with the opposition to create ‘immediate and long-term solutions’. The opposition said that they are willing to talk as well. President Nasheed also suggested that the Constitution should be amended to avoid a political deadlock in future. If political parties want to maintain the current presidential system, it should be a ´full presidential system´, Nasheed said, adding that in the absence of this, he was willing to contest fresh elections under a new parliamentary system, ´if that is what people want´.
If democracy in the Maldives is to thrive, the atolls need to find a way out of this tangle and resolve the tussle between the executive and legislature. Rule of law and constitutional rights must be respected by the executive and the legislature to achieve national unity, harmony and social cohesion. Abiding by strict separation of powers – with the legislature, executive and judiciary not crossing the boundaries of their powers, even while maintaining a system of checks and balances – is an important aspect of any solution. The country must not be divided into two elite groups trying to fulfil their political ambitions while excluding grassroots actors.
There is an urgent need to initiate constructive dialogue and discussions between the government and the opposition concerning the current state of affairs and to realise the dangers of social upheaval and political violence; and identify ways to rectify clashes through peaceful means while maintaining the spirit of the Constitution. The current political challenges bedevilling the country should not erode the democratic reforms that the Maldives have benefited from in the recent past.
~ Kulshoom Ali works with Democracy House in the Maldives.