ON October 14, the Constituent Assembly (Special Majlis) of the Maldives resumed its sitting and elected a new President and Vice-President, signalling the formal commencement of the much-publicised, but equally troubled moves towards constitutional reforms (Frontline, October 8, 2004).
After the disrupted first inaugural sitting in July, seven of the 109 MPs, including Gasim Ibrahim, the main Opposition candidate for the presidency, had been detained and six MPs were absent from the day's proceedings. Of the 96 Special Majlis members present, 12 staged a walkout following differences over the method of electing the President. While the official view was that a mere show of hands was adequate, the protestors wanted the Speaker and Interim-President of the Assembly to hold a secret ballot.
The Majlis decided to choose the President by show of hands. According to chief government spokesman Ahmed Shaheed, 69 members voted in favour of an open vote. Predictably, the government's candidate for President, Abbas Ibrahim, a former Minister, won with 71 votes, and Gasim Ibrahim secured five. (Shaheen Hameed, a British-educated law graduate and the Vice-Chairman of the Law Commission, was elected uncontested as Vice-President.)
Describing the new team as "a blend of experience and youth", Ahmed Shaheed said: "We can now focus on the really important talks of ushering in the historic constitutional reforms that have been proposed, which promise to reshape and strengthen the entire fabric of democracy in the Maldives."
Opposition members, however, were quick to point out that the new members were close relatives of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom - Abbas Ibrahim is his brother-in-law and Shaheen Hameed is his nephew.
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) maintained that "even under such suppressed conditions, we can still count on the support of more than 30 MPs". This reflects the situation in Maldives where dissent runs high but there is no forum to reflect it. The MDP - which operates from Colombo as political parties are banned in the atoll-nation - is also looking at the larger political issue. It wants to make its position clear and hopes to make an impact on the manner in which the reforms unfold. "Proper procedures should be put in place and there should be a time-frame for the entire reforms to be completed," Mohammed Nasheed, a co-founder of the MDP, told Frontline. Now that the new President and Vice-President have assumed charge, the Opposition wants to ensure that there is no delay. "It should be possible to come out with a new Constitution in a matter of months. Once the President's draft is submitted to the Special Majlis, it should not take more than a month to debate and agree on a new Constitution," he said.
Another demand by the Opposition is that "there should be public fora to discuss and debate the reforms". Pointing out that Gayoom's proposals are "far-reaching", it wants the public meetings, debates and discussions to go on.
APOLITICAL opening up has also been reported from the Maldives, with visits by the Amnesty International in response to Gayoom's statement that the international human rights group was welcome to visit the country's jails. Teams from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Union also visited the country as it charts a new course towards constitutional and political reforms.V.S. Sambandan