A cry for democracy

Published : Oct 08, 2004 00:00 IST

The crackdown on pro-democracy dissidents in the Maldives puts under peril the country's transition to full-fledged democracy, which will depend on the pace of reforms and the government's ability to convince its critics that it will deliver.

recently in Male

THE Maldives, a unique nation with its own variant of governance, is headed for politically challenging days. One of a select group of nations that were not under direct colonial rule, the Maldives was, at various points in its history, a sultanate, a republic and a British protectorate before it became a free nation. The continued sovereignty and absence of colonial institutions, coupled with its near geographical insularity, reflect in its state affairs.

Concentration of political power in a strong executive has been the hallmark of governance in the Maldives, which comprises 1,192 islets spread across 20 atolls and is home to 2.85-lakh Sunni Muslims who are in the top rungs in terms of development among South Asia's 1.3-billion people. Politically, however, the nation, which lives in 199 islets, does not have the basic building block of present-day democracies - a political party. Twenty-five years after accepting the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldivian now demands democracy.

Since last September, when prison riots brought the nation yet again under the international human rights spotlight, there are increasing signs of public dissent in Male, the 1.77 sq km capital with a population of just over 74,000. The common sentiment voiced on the streets of Male is: "We have undoubtedly gained on the economic front, but it is time for some form of basic political rights." This clamour for change is matched by a sense of political weariness and trepidation over the future.

Gayoom, who was re-elected President last year, has promised far-reaching reforms, but his opponents are sceptical about it. Legislative progress, too, has been halting. This June Gayoom announced a widely acclaimed reform agenda which provided for the creation of the post of Prime Minister and the separation of powers between the President and the Prime Minister in a changed Constitution. An elected Special Majlis (Constituent Assembly), which included the 50-member People's Majlis (Parliament), was sworn in on July 15. Subsequently matters took a turn for the worse, putting under peril the fragile transition path to full-fledged democracy.

The first meeting of the Special Majlis saw a walkout by pro-democracy dissidents demanding a secret ballot to elect the President (of the Constituent Assembly). The proceedings of the 108-member Special Majlis were stalled and the next sitting was scheduled for August 16. The uncertainty over the reforms was strengthened when a public protest in Male on August 13 culminated in a state of emergency being imposed on Male and nearby islands. Hundreds of protesters, including members of the People's Majlis and Special Majlis, were detained.

Over the next few days most of those detained were released, but the Members of Parliament and other Special Majlis members remained in jail. A prominent one among them was Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, the former Secretary-General of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) and a former Minister. Other prominent members who were arrested include Gasim Ibrahim, the biggest investor in resorts and the pro-democracy dissidents' choice for President of the Constituent Assembly, and Mohammed Munawwar, Ilyas Hussain, Ibrahim Ismail and Hussain Rasheed, all members of the Special Majlis.

In an interview to Frontline, Gayoom said the protesters were arrested "to safeguard public property". Pro-democracy activists disagree. "The entire reformist movement is in jail. They have not violated any law," asserts Latheef, a dissident activist based in Colombo. Pro-democracy activists want Gayoom to "adhere to the Constitution in letter and in spirit" and to "sincerely go ahead with the reforms". Meanwhile, sources close to the government said the government had agreed to withdraw the candidature of Law and Justice Minister Adam Zahir for the presidency and endorse that of Gasim Ibrahim if he was willing to push ahead with reforms.

Against this backdrop, the August 13 protests changed the complexion of the political situation in Male. According to several sources, the protests - held outside the headquarters of the National Security Service - were peaceful. But matters reportedly took a turn for the worse when the protests continued and a fundamentalist preacher, Ibrahim Fareed, addressed the gathering.

The government says his speech was inflammatory and cites a pamphlet he reportedly distributed, which hits out against "depriving men of their god-given exclusive right to divorce". Pro-democracy activists concede that Fareed's speech was "emotional" and disagree strongly with his views. Emphasising that they do not endorse fundamentalism, Latheef, who is a member of the Maldivian Democratic Party, said: "When there is a public platform, people with divergent views come and voice their grievances. We don't endorse Islamic extremism."

While the government's position is that the arrests were made to "to safeguard public property", Latheef maintains that "none of what the President says justifies such a clampdown and deprivation of fundamental rights".

The pro-government view is that it is all for reforms but its agenda is stalled by dissidents. According to this view, given the high stakes of governance involved, the dissidents want a change in the person running the country, not in the system itself.

At the popular level, one of the biggest apprehensions is about a change in the person without a change in the system. As the current pro-reformers were earlier members of Gayoom's government there is a sense of uncertainty over what lies ahead. The dominant perception is: "They could all be the same finally. We are still not sure." The clamour, shedding aside the personalities involved in the unfolding political dynamic, is for a change in the system of governance.

AS the nation, which gained its independence on July 26, 1965, and became a republic on November 11, 1968, takes its first steps towards a changed system of governance, President Gayoom is emphatic about pushing ahead with reforms. The present Constitution, in force since January 1, 1998, places extensive powers with the President. Unlike in other countries, in the Maldives the President is elected through a circuitous process. Presidential aspirants have to secure their mandate from Parliament, which puts forward one name to be endorsed or rejected at a public referendum. "Under such a system the incumbent can stay for ever," contend the pro-reform dissidents. Gayoom, now in his sixth five-year term, wants to change the election process and restrict the tenure to two terms of five years each.

While the top-heavy executive would have to be the starting point of the political overhaul of the Maldives, the restructuring should not end there. Separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, which ensures proper checks and balances, is absent at present. Institutions that are in place also require strengthening and empowerment. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) is a case in point. Established after last September's prison violence in which four persons were killed, the HRC functions under an executive decree. A draft law in this regard, which was presented to Parliament, has been referred to a committee.

The legal system, reflecting the centuries that the Maldives spent as a sultanate, inherently provides for a strong leader with executive powers. President Gayoom is emphatic in the interview that he is ruling through collective decisions. But his critics allege that it does not boil down to much as "most of those in power are his relatives".

The government disagrees with such criticism. "People are appointed to the Cabinet based on merit," chief government spokesman Ahmed Shaheed told Frontline. The charge of nepotism is also to be seen against the backdrop of a meritocracy that is in place. The absence of tertiary education in the Maldives has resulted in a modest, but increasing number of overseas-educated graduates, while close family ties in a small society are reflected in the proximity between education and the levers of power.

At a conceptual level, the early steps of a nation making a political transition have revived the development vs democracy debate. Gayoom held the view that these two "were not at cross purposes" and that one strengthened the other. The Maldives, he felt, was "now ready for change" reflecting the development-first thinking that has so far dominated Maldivian governance.

Constitutional and democratic formalism - where there is a disjoint between the letter and spirit of the law - is one of the apprehensions of those favouring real change. "Democracy," a senior Maldivian counselled, "has to be in letter and in spirit. Otherwise it is of no use."

Simply put, between a changed President and the present system and a changed system and the incumbent President, the popular choice - based on conversations on the streets of Male - is overwhelmingly in favour of the latter.

The ease with which the Maldives charts its promised transition to full-fledged democracy depends on the pace of reforms and the ability of the government to convince its critics that it will deliver on the promised political reforms.

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