Politics of vendetta tarnishes Maldives’ young democracy

Politics of vendetta tarnishes Maldives’ young democracy

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Maldives, the strategically vital South Asian archipelago straddling the crucial sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, is silently enduring deep political turmoil in recent times due to the usurpation of right to peaceful assembly, free expression and fair judicial trials. Unfortunately, democracy is in a state of flux in Maldives, with omnipresent authoritarianism blocking bottom-up political participation in nation-building, irrespective of party affiliations. Harassment, framing and politically motivated detention of opposition leaders, throttling democratic dissent and attempting to tinker with the constitution and constitutionally empowered institutions mark an alarming democratic backsliding under incumbent President Ibrahim Solih – a believer in upholding democracy’s true spirit apparently.

Ghassan Maumoon, parliamentarian and deputy leader of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), could not hide his disappointment at the state of affairs in his country while communicating with me. “We embarked on our historic agenda of democracy, human rights and reforms back in 2003. Much of the constitutional and institutional reforms implemented over the past 16 years are being systematically undone,” laments Ghassan. He explained how in the run-up to and during the 2019 parliamentary elections the PPM and its coalition partner People's National Congress (PNC) were denied constitutionally guaranteed state-funds through strategic manipulation of the Election Commission, even though the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of Solih and people’s Majlis (Parliament) Speaker Mohamed Nasheed received over 10 million MVR in poll financing. This effectively weakened the PPM-PNC campaign, as they were left with little resources to canvass for their candidates in the dispersed atolls.

It seems, stealing victory unethically is Solih’s forte, as his administration is busy hounding Mohamed Muizzu – an opposition Mayoral aspirant from Male – in order to imprison him on trumped-up charges before the delayed Local Council polls are held. With two-thirds majority in Parliament, MDP has embarked on a systematic consolidation of absolute power – by interfering in the judiciary, influencing rights institutions and ombudsman bodies, and misappropriating public funds with all impunity. Solih even pushed for adopting a parliamentary system if the President was not vested with additional executive powers.

With two-thirds majority in Parliament, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party has embarked on a systematic consolidation of absolute power by interfering in the judiciary, influencing rights institutions and ombudsman bodies, and misappropriating public funds with all impunity

Seema Sengupta

“The system of government was determined in 2007 through a public referendum, as part of the drafting of the current constitution, and the executive has no constitutional or legal authority to make any alteration, notwithstanding MDP’s parliamentary super-majority,” asserted PNC Vice President Hussain Shareef, who felt the real motive was to empower Nasheed with extra-constitutional privileges.

Alarmingly, Nasheed is using the Majlis as a cover to wield absolute control over the judiciary, apart from subtly exploiting the judicial service commission – packed with his protégés – to appoint like-minded registrars for manipulating judicial processes. Ghassan believes, deliberate incapacitation of the judicial administration department has led to systematic purge of judges everywhere, including Supreme and High Courts, and those unwilling to tow Nasheed’s diktat are faced with humiliation, disciplinary action and impeachment by Parliament. Indeed, Solih’s promise of justice and equality has evaporated within two years of his Presidentship, or else Presidential Commission and Parliament could not have been misused selectively to corner former Presidents – the incarcerated Abdulla Yameen and Mohamed Waheed Hassan, respectively.

With rampant nepotism becoming the norm, and as Maldives remains gripped by a severe democracy-deficit, former President Waheed expressed his anguish to me over the blatant use of parliamentary committees to parallelly investigate criminal cases, like the recent rape of a Kenyan expatriate on a tourist yacht, allegedly involving the spouse of a MDP parliamentarian, or compelling trafficked Bangladeshi expatriate to work without wages for several months in a company owned by a MDP lawmaker.

“Nasheed is now being criticized widely for undermining separation of powers, despite claiming to be a champion of democratic liberalism,” says the former Maldivian President, who also disapproved of the way certain powers associated with police functioning were transferred to Parliament. A perturbed Waheed denounced unequivocally the ruling MDP’s vicious modus operandi of using televised hearings to create public hatred and animosity against political opponents, experiencing unsubstantiated accusations and manipulated trials. He also points out that gross mismanagement of the economy forced global financial analysts Fitch and Moody’s to reverse their positive outlook on Maldives.

Waheed warns of an unprecedented period of hardship ahead, with real GDP expected to decline by 13 percent. Add to the woe, US dollar shortage and currency printing, to offset economic recession and sizable out-of-court compensation, draining liquidity from the system. Besides, exhaustion of credit limits from international financial institutions makes matters worse, because depleted national reserves will compel Maldives to remain dependent on overseas borrowing. Despite the despondency, the ex-President continues to nurture a vision of his country’s governance structure revolving around an ideal multi-party democracy, nourished by strong political forces where opposition political movements will work closely with the commoners to hold the government accountable for its actions. Waheed feels democratic values and traditions can be translated into practice on the ground more effectively when people, including their leaders, respect the rule of law. He also advocates education reform to instill transformational mindset and strengthen the march towards freedom, equality and justice, while highlighting the importance of infusing democratic ideals and principles of good governance in daily administration.

- Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.

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