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Political Transition in Maldives

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 09, 2012

    The dramatic events which took place in Maldives on February 7, 2012 has led to the ‘involuntary’ resignation of the country’s democratically elected president. Although the political situation is likely to stabilise in the short-term with the elevation of Vice President Dr. Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik to the position of president, multi-party democracy established in the country after the 2008 elections has received a definite setback.

    Waheed has vowed to uphold the rule of law. He intends to form a government of national unity and has assured that presidential elections would be held in 2013 as planned. Justice Abdullah Mohamed, whose arrest triggered these developments, was released soon after the presidential change over.

    A section of people in Maldives as well as in the international community have described the resignation of Nasheed as a coup. In fact, the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) to which Nasheed belongs has alleged that the resignation had been engineered by "rogue elements" of the police and military, along with supporters of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. MDP also alleged that the opposition threatened the president with a bloodbath if he refused to resign. For his part, Nasheed stated in a televised address that he chose to resign to protect the public from further violence.

    Political uncertainty has been prevailing in Maldives for some time now. Nasheed’s problems began when his party failed to get a majority in the Maldivian parliament after the 2009 general elections. Nasheed wanted to relax strict Islamic laws to promote tourism, which is the largest foreign exchange earner for the country. However, his attempt to step-up facilities for tourism was defeated because of the assertion by the religious right and the judiciary. In the year 2010, Nasheed was forced to roll back his plan of allowing more multi-national companies from setting up resorts on unutilised islands.

    Nasheed had received the economic crisis as a legacy from former president Gayoom who had left the country on the verge of bankruptcy. Maldivians have been protesting against soaring prices. Last year, the country also faced a major dollar crunch. India has been helping Nasheed’s government with occasional financial support to tide over these problems.

    In the present political crisis Islamic radicals have also played an important role. There has been growing Islamic radicalism in Maldives. Islamic radicals have been trying to create problems for the government of Nasheed who represented the moderate stream in the country. Islamic radicals even demolished the monument constructed by Pakistan at Addu city on the occasion of the 17th SAARC summit in November. Showcasing Pakistan’s pluralistic heritage, the monument showed the different stages of cultural development in Pakistan from the Harappan and Buddhist past to its Islamic heritage before being proclaimed an Islamic Republic. However, inflamed religious passion in a section of the Maldivian population impelled them to destroy the monument.

    The Maldivian government was also forced to briefly close all hotel spas and health centres in resort hotels in December 2011 after the hard-line Islamist Adhaalath party claimed that these were fronts for prostitution. This decision was however reversed as the country critically depends on tourism.

    The hardliners also opposed Nasheed's restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel, his attempts to transform the school curriculum which was narrowly focussed on Islamic principles, and his defence of a 'modern' Islam that is open to other faiths. They also wanted the government to stop Israeli flights and tourists from coming to Maldives.

    The country plunged into a constitutional crisis when Nasheed ordered the arrest of the Chief Criminal Judge Abdulla Mohamed in a joint operation by the Police and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) on January 16. The judge had ordered the release of a government critic and opposition leader Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who, according to him, was illegally detained. The arrested person had allegedly defamed the government during a television interview in which he accused Nasheed's government of working against the state religion, Islam, with the support of Christians and Jews.

    There is no doubt that the judiciary in Maldives is in a mess. A large number of unqualified and incompetent people have come into the judiciary towards the end of Gayoom’s dictatorship. However, the public in general disapproved of the arrest of Judge Abdullah. The Supreme Court of Maldives passed an order for his immediate release, but it was ignored by the Nasheed government. This alienated some conscientious lawyers and led to the resignation of SAARC's first woman Secretary General, Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed. She joined the protestors along with her husband.

    It also created confusion in the country and rumours started circulating that Nasheed wanted to fill the judiciary with his men. Nasheed is an honest man but unfortunately he is not an astute politician. Due to the mishandling of the situation a political stand-off with religious overtones was transformed into an impasse between his government and the judiciary, which prompted many of his supporters to desert him. Nasheed’s mishandling of the situation precipitated the crisis resulting in his ouster.

    In recent times India has invested a great deal of political and economic capital in the Maldives. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Maldives for the SAARC summit, he also visited Male and signed a framework agreement with the Maldivian government. This includes joint efforts against piracy and joint patrolling of seas and aerial surveillance. The Indian Navy helps the MNDF in preventing piracy. And the Indian private sector GMR group is building a new airport in Male.

    For India, political uncertainty in Maldives is a cause for concern. Maldives is strategically located and sits astride important sea lanes of communication. Several external powers including China and Pakistan are looking to gain footholds in the country. They might use the prevailing political uncertainty to their advantage. It is in India’s interest that Maldives is able to tide over the present political crisis successfully and multi-party democracy survives in the country.