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Maldives: Beleaguered Democracy

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 27, 2010

    Multi-party democracy in Maldives is facing a major crisis after less than two years of its establishment. A bitter political struggle has emerged between the president and opposition-led national parliament since June. This has resulted in several street demonstrations in Male, in which scores of policemen and civilians have been injured. A situation of political deadlock exists, which may not be good for the nascent democracy in Maldives.

    The seeds of the present impasse go back to the 2009 parliamentary election when the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) led by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom managed to get a simple majority in parliament with the help of the People’s Alliance (PA) and some independents. President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has 28 MPs and the support of four independent MPs in the 77-member Parliament.

    Under the Maldives' system of government, the president handpicks his cabinet and each nomination must be approved by parliament. Parliament also has the power to remove a minister through a no-confidence vote. Though DRP gained control of the legislature it fell short of a two-thirds majority that it would need to impeach the president. At the same time, Nasheed cannot dismiss the assembly until it completes its full five-year term. The outcome has been a political deadlock.

    Some of the opposition parties have not been happy with the education minister for his liberal views. To remove him from his post, the opposition-controlled parliament planned to bring a no-confidence motion against him. The cabinet however pre-empted the move by resigning en masse on 29 June. This decision also triggered a political crisis and left the country without any government for two weeks. The government claimed that opposition MPs were not allowing the executive to function properly and making it impossible for ministers to discharge their constitutional duties. On the same day police arrested three key opposition MPs for allegedly offering cash to bribe parliamentarians to vote against the government. This move worsened the crisis.

    Some key members of the opposition were also creating trouble for the government because they were not happy with its decision to privatize Male airport. These MPs, who are actually business tycoons, benefitted from the earlier system. Hasan Sayeed, leader of another opposition party Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) was allegedly receiving huge legal fees from two MPs, Yameen and Gasim. Hence, his party was also opposing the government’s decision to privatize Male airport.

    President Nasheed has attributed the ongoing political crisis to the constitution adopted on August 7, 2008, which is based on a presidential system of governance though it has also vested wider powers with Parliament, aimed at maintaining tenecessary checks and balances. This system becomes problematic in case parliament is controlled by the opposition as is the case in Maldives. It allows the opposition to obstruct the core functions of the executive, such as raising taxes and providing subsidies.

    Nasheed is of the view that only amending the constitution would bring political stability. He is also willing to change the political system into a parliamentary system and seek immediate re-election. Nasheed feels some laws passed in Parliament are making it difficult for him to play the role of the executive according to the constitution. He wants this to be rectified.

    To defuse the crisis in Maldives, the international community has offered mediation. US Ambassador Patricia Butenis and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa have mediated talks between the government and opposition parties. But the opposition leaders of Maldives feel that their mediation has already failed. The Commonwealth and the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) too have offered to mediate. President Nasheed believes that no amount of foreign mediation can solve the country’s internal political crisis. He has suggested the option of a Maldivian Repporteur acceptable to all parties, to take up the role of a peace envoy. This Maldivian Repporteur could be even a senior civil servant of Maldives.

    Meanwhile, the government and opposition in Maldives have started a dialogue to ease tension on the advice of United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake. Blake also felt that the current political unrest in the country could only be solved through dialogue and compromise. To facilitate talks, Nasheed has released opposition leader Yameen. In an attempt to reach out to the opposition, Nasheed has congratulated the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party on the fifth anniversary of its formation. He also expressed confidence that the DRP will cooperate with the government in its efforts to find an amicable solution to the current political impasse.

    Unfortunately, not everyone in Maldives is looking for a solution to the political crisis. A section of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MPs have declared that they will forward a no-confidence motion against President Nasheed to parliament for violating the constitution. Nasheed also seems to be prepared for all outcomes. The government is considering a referendum to decide on a system of governance, if negotiations fail. The government thinks that there is a need to define clear cut boundaries on the system of the governance.

    Political instability in Maldives is not in the interest of India. The Indian government should encourage Maldivian-led mediation to defuse the political crisis in the Indian Ocean archipelago. Over the years, religious extremists have been gaining ground in Maldives. A political vacuum could be used by them to harm Maldivian democracy. Nasheed's popularity at home has waned, as he struggles to deliver the political and economic reforms he had promised, in the face of parliamentary resistance. More importantly, the peaceful transition to multi-party democracy that was taking place under President Nasheed has come under a cloud as a result of the present political crisis in Maldives.