N Sathiya Moorthy www.orfonline.org 8 August 2017
With the course of politics reaching a point-of-no-return, and the near-decade-long experience with the ‘pro-democracy’ Constitution of 2008 not ensuring cure for the nation’s ‘autocracy’ ills, there may be an urgent need for reviewing the same without further loss of time. How it should be gone about could become yet-another-point of contention, but the need for an open-ended national discourse bereft of personality-centric approaches could provide a way-out, in the interim at the very least.
The problem with the present Constitution is two-fold, if not more. One, the divided political Opposition to then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in office for 30 years, drafted a Constitution believing that he would ensure a fake victory in a multi-party democracy. Hence, they provided for ‘safety-valves’ by ensuring greater parliamentary oversight than might have been required. When Gayoom played along for most parts, and also lost the presidential polls, the shoe ended up being worn in the wrong foot.
This was also the second part of the problem. Having become President, MDP’s Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed faced a Parliament where he did not have a majority but a House that had superior powers than the Executive. He would not play along. Instead, in the name of democracy, and as the sole saviour of democracy in the country, both President Nasheed and his MDP, provoked Parliament enough, and paid a heavy price for it. Though there were enough listeners to their cry of ‘foul-play’ outside the country, inside Maldives they lost ground possibly faster than inside Parliament, or People’s Majlis.
Today, when incumbent President Abdulla Yameen is ruling the roost and is toughening the political climate for the four-party Opposition to function in a democratic way, there is little that the latter could do other than cry ‘foul’ continually.
Today, a situation has arisen when Yameen’s re-election by November 2018 is taken for granted, also because he has ensured that no serious contender could throw the hat into the ring. This should exclude the likes of Presidents Nasheed and Gayoom, and also Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim – all of them jointly opposed to Yameen. All three have been disqualified under the law, through the proper course, and in connivance with the Yameen leadership, one way or the other.
The question thus arises as the course for Maldives to follow if it had to restore democracy, and if so what kind of democracy would suit the nation, given the experience of the past years. Though claiming to be institutions-centric, the Maldivian experimentation with democracy has remained individual-centric.
It was/is unavoidable still, if one were to consider that the spirit of democracy is centred on popular elections, and whoever wins such an election would gain an upper-hand. It’s unfortunate that it’s in the Maldivian DNA for leaders to be ‘autocratic’ in ways more than in any other democracy, old or new, Islamic or not.
The question before the nation is how to take Maldives away from such ‘autocratic’ instincts of party leaders, and hence Government leaders.
One way is for the existing crop of leaders to reform themselves. It is easier said than done. The other way is to pass on the mantle, and deliberately so, to GenNext through a system that is more representative and more informed, with institutional mechanisms that are as much democratic as are supposed to be and intended to be. It has to be part-voluntary, part-compulsory, mandated by new laws, which could end up becoming anti-democratic to begin with.
Under the existing scheme, ‘Independent Institutions’ like the Supreme Court, Election Commission and the anti-corruption watch-dog all came under severe strain, the process started by none other than the first ‘democracy’ President in Mohammed Nasheed. If for instance, the Yameen leadership is now being unilaterally criticised for summoning the army to secure Parliament from protesting Opposition MPs, it is also true that the Nasheed presidency did not (want to) create a separate Marshals scheme for the People’s Majlis, almost for the same reason.
The list is endless, but it’s all in the past, yet continuing into the present and threatening the Maldivian democratic future, if any left. The nation, starting with the Government, should consider convening an all-party conference to discuss and debate constitutional correctives and political initiatives that would ensure restoration of democracy – or institutionalisation of democracy almost from the scratch, to be precise.
The need for a review of the pro-democracy constitutional scheme was indeed felt during the interregnum that followed the (‘forced’) exit of President Nasheed in February 2012 and fresh polls, when due in late 2013. Forgotten is the initial work done by the All-Party Conference, with Ahmed Mujtaba as the convenor, and UNDP experts facilitating the talks that never really took off.
At every turn, every political party, starting with the MDP, in turn claiming to be the most democracy-seeking party in the country, put spokes in the work, as and when it did not suit the party’s unilateral intentions and undivided goal of having Nasheed back in power, wily-nily.
Efforts by visiting Indian Foreign Secretary of the time, Ranjan Mathai, to help the all-party talks revived met with resistance from ‘minor parties’ that played truant, in turn.
As if by conspiracy of convenience, did the MDP and the ‘minor parties’ sent in responsible leaders to represent them at the talks. Thus for any effort of the kind to succeed now, it has to be preceded by iron-clad guarantees that all political parties need a solution to the present deadlock, and that they are serious and sincere about it, with open-ended aims and goals. That is a tall order in present-day Maldives.
It would be tempting under the circumstances for the Yameen leadership to try and revive the farcical all-party talks that it had initiated at one time. Starting off as a genuine effort at least in form, soon it degenerated to anything but that as the Government insisted on one-on-one negotiations with individual parties rather than keep it all-party, as initially promised.
Worse still, the original chair, then Home Minister, Umar Naseer, is now out of the Government. His successor, incumbent Fisheries Minister, Dr Mohammed Shainee, is seen even less impartial than the predecessor, who is back in the Opposition, aspiring to be their common presidential candidate in 2018.
In present-day Maldives, any self-respecting person with the required qualifications of heart and head would shy away from becoming the chair/ convenor of any future all-party initiative of the kind. If nothing else, they are all well aware of the ease with which rival parties ended up scuttling the genuine efforts of the convenors in the past, and yet end up blaming the latter for the failure of the all-party talks to make any headway at any point in time.
The alternative could well be for the present Parliament to convert itself into a Constituent Assembly, or Special Majlis, as had happened ahead of the finalisation of the 2008 Constitution.
JP’s Gasim Ibrahim was then accepted as the Chairperson of the Special Majlis but today there is again a shortage of an all-acceptable persona to don the mantle.
The Government by having got six MPs out of 10 ‘defectors’ disqualified by the Election Commission, there would be additional unwillingness on the part of the combined Opposition to take that route, at least until fresh elections are held for those vacant constituencies. Should the Opposition win a majority, if not all vacant seats, then the Yameen leadership might lost whatever enthusiasm that it might have had for a fresh look at the Constitution, now or later.
Where from here is the immediate question. It might suit the Opposition to keep criticising Yameen by the hour and by the day, and lead the nation to fresh presidential polls in November 2018 – and then, continue crying foul, with no one being any wiser about taking the next logical step to a political solution. It would suit the Yameen leadership fine, as the situation on the ground would not have changed.
Yet, the Government could be faced with fresh problems if it were to lose all six parliamentary by-polls and the Opposition gains an upper-hand inside the House, to be able to challenge the Yameen leadership. The real probability of Speaker Abdulla Maseeh losing in a no-trust vote, followed by the possibility of Yameen too facing an impeachment motion, requiring two-thirds majority could make the leadership sit up and take notice.
But by then, the Opposition could have tasted victory and changed tacks even more. This is thus the time for Maldives and Maldivians to act, in and for a political order that conforms to Maldivian political tastes and preferences but with democracy as the driving force and goal – where individuals are a means to an end and not an end in their own self-serving selves.