Choice before Maldives: How to save democracy

By Ameen Izzadeen
It’s all happening again amidst a strong sense of déjà vu. Hasn’t the Maldives gone through similar crises before? Yes it has. Twice before; once when the country’s first President Mohamed Amin Didi was overthrown while he was in Sri Lanka in 1953. The second occasion was when mercenaries who were members of a Tamil separatist group People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam were hired by a Maldivian businessman to overthrow President Mamoon Abdul Gayoom in 1988.
However, the present crisis that has divided the people of the Indian Ocean archipelago of 350,000 people right down the middle is more akin to the overthrow of Mohamed Amin, who was credited with ending the monarchy.
A product of St. Joseph’s College, Colombo, Amin became the Maldives’ first President in January 1953. But within months he faced a rebellion. While Amin was in Sri Lanka for medical treatment, his vice president Ibrahim Didi took over the government. Unaware that he had been overthrown, he arrived in Male only to be arrested, tried and banished to a remote island.
The comparison between Amin and the just ousted President, Mohamed Nasheed, is striking. The uprising in both cases, though popular, was politically motivated. In both cases, the Vice President became the beneficiary with the people remaining divided.
Nasheed on Wednesday said he was asked to resign at gunpoint and accused Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Maniku of having a hand in the coup, although the opposition says the president was overthrown in a popular uprising which had the support of the armed forces.
Also on Wednesday, Nasheed’s supporters clashed with police during demonstrations in the capital Male and a few outlying islands. The demonstrations underscored the support the ousted president still enjoys. However, the support Nasheed enjoys was not strong enough to overcome the wave of opposition he faced during seven weeks of public protests. Neither is it enough to rattle those who are eager to put him on trial for acting unlawfully and for being corrupt.
In fact, his popularity rating has never been more than 25 percent. At the October 2008 presidential election – the first under a multi-party system – he had to fight hard to beat the then incumbent Mamoon Abdul Gayoom. In the first round, he received only 25 percent of the votes as against Gayoom’s 40 percent. It was only with the support of other defeated candidates that Nasheed beat Gayoom in the second round.
However, Nasheed’s popularity began to wane when he showed signs of authoritarianism in governance, disappointing many at home and abroad. Opposition sources say if elections are held today, Nasheed is unlikely to get even the 25 percent that he got in 2008. Allegations of corruption and abuse of power are plenty.
One such allegation that besets his government centres on the deal to hand over the management of the Male International Airport to the New Delhi-based GMR. The 25-year deal fetched a mere 78 million dollars for the country. The opposition demanded that the agreement with the GMR be made public but Nasheed never did. The opposition says the country that was ranked 115th in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index in 2008 fell to the 134th place last year.
Besides the allegations of abuse of power and large-scale corruption, especially in privatization deals, his undoing was the arrest of a senior judge and his detention in defiance of court orders.
The Maldivians were shocked when they saw on their televisions scenes of the military raiding the residence of the country’s Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed and dragging him, like a common criminal, into a waiting vehicle. Nasheed’s refusal to abide by a higher court order to release the judge only brought more crowds to the nightly protests. Among them was Dhiyana Saeed, the Secretary General of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.
In his defence, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) officials said the president was only strengthening democracy by flushing out political judges and political bureaucrats from state institutions. They argued that most of the judges and top government officials were loyal to former president Gayoom and therefore they were a hindrance to the government’s efforts aimed at broadbasing democracy and developing the country.
Even if one were to assume that these claims were true, Nasheed, who was dubbed by his supporters the Mandela of the Maldives for the few years he spent in jail, was doing the right thing in the wrong way. If a judge is corrupt or seen to be politically motivated, the constitutional process should be adopted to remove or impeach him instead of arresting him on implausible charges that he was a threat to national security.
His critics said Nasheed was getting tough because he was desperate to win next year’s presidential election. He made the state television his party television although the reform process he and other political leaders pledged to uphold called for the setting up of an independent body to ensure the independence of the state media and prevent any misuse by the party in power.
Such measures of over-exercising the presidential powers he, perhaps, felt were necessary because his party did not enjoy a majority in parliament, which is controlled by a coalition of opposition parties including Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives, his former party Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party and the Islamist Adalath party.
Adding to Nasheed’s problems were charges that he was pandering to the dictates of the Western evangelists and Israel. Countering the charge, Nasheed claimed that Islamic extremists were trying to discredit the government. On Tuesday, protesters raided the presidential palace and brought out crates of liquor to support their claim that Nasheed had little respect for Islam. Nasheed, however, claimed that the bottles of liquor were part of an Islamists plot to discredit him.
With the vice president now seeking to form a unity government, the man who will be benefiting the most from the rebellion is Gayoom, who is thinking of re-entering active politics once again. However, what is at stake is democracy, which the Maldivian people have won after making great sacrifices. Both Gayoom and Nasheed made their contributions to bring about democracy to the Maldives; Nasheed aggressively and Gayoom cautiously. The priority for the Maldivians is not whether they have a government by Nasheed or Gayoom, but how to save democracy.
(This article originally appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on February 10, 2012)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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