Towards full democracy

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. -

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. -

ON June 3, the Maldives took yet another critical step in its path towards constitutional reform. Its Parliament decided to open up the political system for the registration of the parties, pointing to a change in the ground rules for political engagement. Before June 3, political parties were not permitted as was evident from an opinion given by the Attorney-General and a decision by the People's Majlis (Parliament) to disallow the formation of political parties, both in 2001. After the June 3 decision, pre-registration of parties has commenced with three seeking registration.

The atoll-nation, which is spread across 1,192 islands in the Indian Ocean, has always been ruled by a single person - be he a king, a Sultan or a President. One unique political attribute of the Maldives is that it was never conquered by colonial powers and hence was never colonised in the fullest sense of the term. At varying phases it did have a European influence - for a period in the 16th century when the Portuguese had a limited leverage over governance and subsequently as a British protectorate during the colonial era.

Leadership by a strong man has been one underlying argument that had directed the Maldivian politics down the ages. Hence, the latest decision by the People's Majlis marks a basic change in the structure of the polity. The first attempt to form a political party in the Maldives was made in the 1950s - to form the Maldivian Progressive Party. Currently a grouping called the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), with most of its members living outside the Maldives, has been calling for the formal acceptance of political parties. When such an attempt was made in 2001 by the MDP, the Attorney-General, Mohamed Munavvar, noted that the "Constitution of the Republic of Maldives is not drafted with a view to accommodating a party system of government."

The subsequent change is also a continuation of the reform moves announced by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom a year ago. On June 9, 2004, Gayoom announced an Agenda for Constitutional Reform, aimed at changing the governance system. Some key reform areas were changes in the manner in which the President is elected and the creation of the office of Prime Minister.

The Reform Agenda outlined by Gayoom specifically mentioned under the sub-head Fundamental Rights the following: "To provide for the right to form and carry out the activities of political parties in accordance with the law." However, sceptics continued to maintain that the moves towards multi-party democracy would either remain a nonstarter or be a victim of "delaying tactics".

WITH the June 3 move, pre-registration is currently under way. The Home Ministry, on June 5, approved the "pre-registration" of three political parties, marking the nation's first formal moves towards a multi-party system.

The three parties are the Dhivehi Raiyithunge Party (DRP), which translates as the Maldivian People's Party (MPP), the Dhivehi Raiyithunge Democratic Party, or Maldivian People's Democratic Party (MDP), and the Islamic Democratic Party. Full registration of the political parties would be done after the parties secure a minimum of 3,000 members within 60 days and get their respective constitutions approved by the membership, the Government's deputy spokesman said. "The process is now irreversible, the floodgates are open and we could see more parties seeking registration in the coming days," a political observer in Male told Frontline.

The DRP is led by President Gayoom, the MDP by Mohammed Nasheed, a historian, and the Islamic Democratic Party by Omar Naseer, a businessman. Gayoom, addressing a meeting of the DRP after the pre-registration process, pledged "full internal democracy" in drawing up the party programme and electing its leadership, the President's office said. The DRP, he said, extended "a hand of friendship" to all other parties. He also stressed the virtues of compromise, tolerance and political pluralism and highlighted the importance of moderation.

The founder-spokesperson of the MDP, Mohammed Latheef, who has been based in Colombo for the past few years, said his party was "cautiously optimistic" of the moves towards a multi-party system. The MDP, he said, would work on the twin platforms - human rights and good governance. "Once we are registered, we will elaborate on our economic and social policies, which would be formulated in a collective manner with wide-ranging discussions, including at the grassroots level," Latheef said.

GAYOOM has also said that the move by the People's Majlis to endorse his proposal to introduce a party system was "a great achievement" for his reform agenda. In a statement welcoming the decision, the President also termed it a "milestone in the country's political development, which will enable the political processes to advance in tandem with the socio-economic progress that the country has been achieving in recent decades". Political parties, he said, "are crucial to the effective functioning of a modern democracy and represent an indispensable mechanism for the people to exercise their rights and to give expression to political pluralism in the best interests of the nation". There are, however, nagging doubts among his critics if the process would continue on a path that brings in the multi-party system or if it would be subject to "procedural delays".

In an interview to The Hindu last year, Gayoom had expressed confidence that he would be able to push forward his reform agenda. The passage of time and the moves made by the Maldives on the economic front, it is argued, present no other option.

V.S. Sambandan
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