Political polarisation along religious lines, along with India-China competition for influence in the Indian Ocean, have brought the nascent democracy in the Maldives to the verge of death.
The Presidential Palace is currently occupied by Mohamed Waheed, who is alleged to have seized office "at gunpoint".
The latest blow to democracy in the South Asian archipelago came last Monday when the Supreme Court annulled the results of the first round of the recent presidential election and called a fresh ballot on Oct 20. Earlier, it had indefinitely postponed the runoff election that had been scheduled for Sept 28.
The developments came amid predictions of victory for former president Mohamed Nasheed, a liberal Muslim who is credited with bringing democracy to the string of 1,190 islands by defeating in 2008 longtime dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a graduate in Islamic jurisprudence from Egypt’s Al Azhar University.
Nasheed, who heads the Maldivian Democratic Party, emerged as the front-runner in the first round with 45.45% of the vote. In the runoff, he was to compete with Abdulla Yameen, Gayoom’s brother who had received just 25.35% of the vote.
At stake was the future of a nation that has been at a crossroads since the dawn of democracy five years ago. The polls represented a clash between conservative forces seeking to retain restrictions on individual civil freedoms to preserve the country’s unique Islamic identity and liberal voices for democracy and more liberties.
President Mohamed Nasheed and his wife arrive at the April 2010 SAARC Summit in Bhutan
While Nasheed unseated Gayoom — who sought to marginalise his opponents using religion — in the 2008 election, most of the latter’s policies remain in place thanks to the infiltration of his protégés into the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the military and the police. Moreover, Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) continues to have a majority in parliament.
As Gayoom’s legacy, the Maldivian constitution does not allow a non-Muslim to be a citizen, and laws ban promotion or dissemination of any material or opinion that contradicts Islam. Like Saudi Arabia, the country prides itself on the claim that 100% of its population is Muslim.
Nasheed’s efforts to bring change were met not just with resistance, but also with aggressive political attacks. The vendetta began in June 2010, when the Gayoom-dominated parliament sought to impeach the then-education minister, Musthafa Lufthy, who had recommended that Islam and the national Dhivehi language be made optional, and not mandatory, in high schools.
Nasheed’s cabinet protested by resigning en masse. While the ministers eventually were reinstated, the clash has only grown since then. Nasheed now is regularly accused of being a friend of Israel and the “Christian West” and of undermining Islam.
The battle snowballed into an alleged coup last February to oust Nasheed. “I believe this to be a coup d’etat and suspect that my vice-president [Mohamed Waheed], who has since been sworn into office, helped to plan it,” Nasheed wrote in an article for the New York Times, about his claim that he had been forced to resign “at gunpoint.”
India and the West are friends with Nasheed, yet they chose to promptly recognise his successor, President Mohamed Waheed. It was an expedient move by the international community, which apparently feared that isolating Waheed could mean an invitation to China to gain dominance in the Maldives, which is located near vital sea lanes. The bulk of India’s international trade and communication are dependent on the Indian Ocean, which is also of strategic importance to Western nations.
However, India and the West soon realised that their continual support of President Waheed could be counterproductive, given his overtures to Beijing, including overtures to Chinese firms interested in infrastructure projects.
As well, Waheed’s style was not too different from that of Gayoom. Therefore, China, which cares little about human rights violations by its allies, was a natural choice for Waheed.
It was perhaps this realisation that led to the calls — though not so strong — by the international community for a fresh presidential election. Waheed heeded, but not until months before the end of his tenure. He may have known that he could handle international pressure by playing the China card.
The election was stalled after Nasheed swept the first round — to the surprise of Gayoom’s supporters — on Sept 7.
Qasim Ibrahim, a presidential candidate of the Jumhooree Party (JP) that is allied to the Adhaalath Party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, rushed to the Supreme Court, alleging electoral fraud. One of the wealthiest businessmen in the country, Ibrahim had obtained only 24.07% of votes and had no reason to believe he could be president.
The case apparently was a pretext for involving the highest court in the interest of all presidential candidates but Nasheed. After all, it was an all-versus-one election.
The collision between the judiciary and Nasheed is not a new development. The coup last year followed the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed, the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, by Nasheed’s administration for blocking an investigation into allegations of corruption against Gayoom. Nasheed was reacting to attempts by Gayoom supporters in the judiciary and the bureaucracy to make it difficult for him to function as president.
The Election Commission originally chose not to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling, quoting Article 111 of the constitution, which states that a runoff must be held within 21 days of the first round of voting. However, the commission had no option but to eventually fall in line with the court after its office was surrounded by special operations police the day before it planned to go ahead with the runoff on Sept 28. Election officials also allegedly received death threats.
Opinions are deeply divided. Some Maldivians say the constitution has the supreme authority, while others cite the Judicature Act saying that all state institutions are subject to rulings of the courts. But what one believes depends on which side of the debate one is on.
That debate focuses on what the country needs: democracy and the freedoms that come with it, or preservation of its Islamic identity even if it costs people their individual rights — although it’s not a zero-sum game as being projected by the conservative forces.
The citizens’ votes in the first round of the polls clearly pointed to a desire for democracy. But a popular demand matters only in a democracy, which is perhaps dying in the Maldives.
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