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Onset of Multiparty Democracy in Maldives

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 03, 2005

    June 2, 2005 will go down as a red lettered day in the history of Maldives. On this day, the Maldivian parliament voted to allow multi-party democracy for the first time in the tiny atoll nation that has been ruled by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom since 1978. The parliament unanimously approved a resolution to allow political parties to seek recognition and contest elections, ending the no-party system in the nation. The motion was moved on the basis of a request from President Gayoom to review its earlier decision not to allow political parties in the country. The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) termed this to be a revolution and stated that they looked forward to an exciting political future. However, the passing of the resolution was not without its own attendant drama. On the morning of the parliamentary debate, the authorities arrested four key dissidents on allegations of plotting to disrupt the proceedings in Parliament, raising fears that the government may scuttle the proposed reforms again. The four were released immediately after the vote.

    The fact that the government allowed Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohamed Nasheed – popularly called as Anni – to return to Male on April 30 had indicated the government’s commitment to the establishment of multiparty democracy. Though the government had vacillated in the past on the question of democratic reforms, it soon realised that the establishment of multiparty democracy was an idea whose time had come. For its part, the MDP has been quick to claim credit for the development and stated that it was due to its pressure that the resolution was passed. Earlier in May President Gayoom, when he arrived for a meeting at the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, was confronted by protesters including volunteers from ‘Friends of Maldives,’ a group based in Salisbury. The protestors shouted slogans about the need for improved human rights and an end to torture and political oppression in the Maldives.

    The past two years have been tumultuous; political dissent has been building up and often found expression in sudden bursts of violence. 2004 was an especially landmark year for the Maldives. The smallest state of South Asia was not only hit by tsunami that derailed the fastest growing economy in the region, but it also faced many political tremors. Political dissent, which had surfaced in late 2003, continued to change the political landscape. In the face of protests from the opposition, President Gayoom declared a state of emergency in August 2004, arresting many pro-democracy activists and using tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters who rallied in a rare show of dissent in the capital Male, which houses approximately one third of the island nation’s population. The tsunami that struck Maldives diffused to some extent the animus that had been generated between the supporters and opponents of President Gayoom. The elections that took place on January 2005, clearly demonstrated that a significant section of society was opposed to the policies of the government and was clamouring for a multiparty democracy. Faced with international pressure and demands from dissidents in exile, President Gayoom promised democratic reforms after these elections. It would however be useful to recollect the salient developments that took place in the nation during the last two years, which ultimately led to the introduction of multiparty elections.

    The democracy movement in Maldives has its genesis in the events of September 2003 when the death of a detainee in Maafushi Island prison provoked rioting, which was brutally suppressed by the security forces resulting in the death of three more inmates. Consequent unrest led to widespread protests against the government in the capital, the first ever during President Gayoom’s tenure of over 25 years. A number of government buildings were attacked. Large numbers of demonstrators were arrested and an investigation was ordered into the deaths of the prisoners. The police commissioner and the Deputy Head of the National security Service (NSS), Brigadier Adam Zahir, was removed.

    President Gayoom was re-elected by the Majlis for a sixth five-year term in September 2003 and was ratified in a national referendum receiving 90.3 per cent of the votes. In November 2003 President Gayoom dismissed from cabinet the Attorney General Dr Mohamed Munavvar and the Minister of Planning and National Development Ibrahim Hussain Zaki. The two were allegedly removed for supporting reformers attempting to register a political party. In November 2003 MDP, which had been prevented from registering as a political party in Maldives, was established abroad by London and Colombo based dissidents. Some clerics also extended support to this group. In February, 2004 activists of MDP were arrested in Male to prevent a planned march by opposition activists.

    Elections were held in May 2004 for a People’s Special Majlis (constitutional assembly) with the purpose of amending the constitution. Voters chose 42 members out of 120 independent candidates, as political parties are not recognised. The President nominated another eight members to the council. The People’s Special Majlis also included members of the People’s Majlis and the Council of Ministers. In early June President Gayoom announced his agenda for constitutional reforms, which would allow political parties, limiting the term of the President to two five-year tenures, more powers for the Parliament, creating the post of Prime Minister and separating the judiciary, legislature and executive. He also suggested that women should be allowed to stand for the presidency and agreed to renounce the right to appoint eight members of the People’s Majlis. The People’s Special Majlis, which was sworn in on 15 June and convened on 19 July, was immediately suspended as 24 members walked out and raised anti government slogans. The dissidents continued to carry out protest marches and meetings unchallenged till early August 2004.

    On August 11, 2004, a Wahabi cleric Farid was arrested on charges of unauthorised preaching. Some of his supporters followed him from the court to the NSS headquarters. MDP leaders and Islamic fundamentalists soon joined them, and together they organized a vigil outside the NSS headquarters for the release of the political prisoners. Despite repeated appeals to disperse, the crowd continued to swell and speeches became more anti-government. By the night of August 12, 2004, the crowd had soared to about 4000, which is more than five per cent of the population of Male and had started demanding removal of hardliner ministers and the resignation of the President. It is alleged by the government that some clerics at the meeting called the tourist resorts as unIslamic and demanded their closure. The attempt by the crowd to storm the NSS headquarters led to the stabbing of some policemen and the arrest of 200 anti government activists. The Government termed the demonstrations as a ‘coup attempt’ and imposed an indefinite state of emergency on August 13, 2004. Armoured Personnel Carriers were deployed and telephone and Internet services were temporarily suspended. The opposition MDP accused the government of ‘ruthlessly suppressing dissent’. An EU fact finding team invited by the President expressed concern about the continuing detention without charges of the alleged protestors and the ongoing state of emergency. By early September most people had been released while about 60 continued in detention, which included the former Attorny-General Dr Mohamed Munavvar and some members of the People’s Special Majlis. On September 1, 2004 amidst international criticism for suppression of the August demonstrations, President Gayoom relinquished the Defence and Finance portfolios.

    In December 2004, Gayoom’s government charged four dissidents — including former planning minister Ibrahim Zaki — with coup for attempting to overthrow the president. A conviction could mean a life sentence for all four accused. The Majlis elections scheduled on non-party basis were postponed initially to December 2004 and when the tsunami hit the islands to January 22, 2005. The special Majlis, which had been tasked to develop a new constitution, has virtually remained in suspended animation since its inauguration on July 19, 2004.

    In the January elections held on non-party basis, 70 per cent of the 156,766 eligible voters cast their votes. All the 20 atolls and the capital Male elected two legislators each. MDP claimed that it won 18 of the 42 seats, with pro-government candidates winning 22 and independents two. But the government claims that at least 30 candidates are pro-government, and only eight are pro-MDP. The figures cannot be reconciled because all candidates officially ran as independents, although most voters know their political leanings. The election of a large number of opposition candidates especially from Male has increased the pressure on President Gayoom. The fact that the opposition members represent the constituencies with most number of electorates and in terms of electorates represented the combined opposition members probably represent more electorates than the government members, put the President in a tight spot.

    In the past, reforms and the promised transition to multiparty democracy had progressed slowly in fits and starts. As the existing political system favours the status quo, the opposition had tried to depict President Gayoom as a despot, who was not willing change lest he loses power. But with the passage of the parliamentary resolution clearing the way for multiparty democracy, he has proved them wrong. Three political parties including the ruling party have been accorded the pre-registration status and are expected to be recognized as political parties by end August. The parties are the MDP led by Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives Peoples Party of Gayoom supporters and Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) led by former police sergeant Umar Naseer. By clearing the way for multiparty democracy, Gayoom has shown that he was always committed to reforms and the establishment of multiparty democracy was now an irreversible process. He has stated that he expected the reform process to be completed this year so that the country could begin 2006 with a new constitution.