Four years after democracy, Maldives at crossroads again

  • Chief Judge in detention, political leaders arrested, media gagged, high-rate of corruption
  • Opposition says the country’s democracy march on reverse gear
By Ameen Izzadeen

Machiavelli's first maxim for the prince is that he should know to protect power by hook or by crook. President Mohamed (Anni) Nasheed of the Maldives seems to have learnt this art of survival in politics fast, drawing opposition criticism that he is derailing democracy and behaving like a dictator.
As he continues the fourth year in office, he not only faces growing dissent and daily nightly protests but also possible defeat at the presidential election to be held before October next year. His chances appear to be bleak with not only the economy but also the country's ranking in the Transparency International's corruption index taking a nosedive.

Mr. Nasheed was elected to office in October 2008 after a hard-fought presidential battle against former President Mamoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled this Indian Ocean archipelago for more than 30 years. In the first round, Mr. Gayoom emerged victorious with 40 percent of the votes as against Mr. Nasheed's 25 percent. However in the runoff, Mr. Gayoom could muster only 45 percent of the votes while Nasheed backed by other opposition candidates won 53 percent.

Maldivian opposition leaders say if elections are held today, Mr. Nasheed is unlikely to get even the 25 percent he got at the 2008 elections because he is becoming unpopular as each day passes.
In the 2009 parliamentary elections, Mr. Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), failed to win an absolute majority while it also took a beating at the local council polls.

December 23 day of protest: More than 100,000 people -- one third of the Maldive’s population -- took part in countrywide demonstrations against Nasheed

Opposition activists say the defeat that is staring him in the face at the presidential poll has made him panic and adopt desperate measures to suppress political dissent and media criticism.

As a result, they say, the country's democracy march has been put on reverse gear four years after it all started. The situation is worse than what it was under Mr. Gayoom's so-called non-party democracy with political opponents and media activists being targeted and the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court illegally kept under detention.

Opposition activists say Mr. Nasheed's behaviour is a living testimony to the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

With the crisis deepening, on Friday Dhiyana Saeed, Secretary General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, resigned her post after the government criticized her for taking part in a news conference convened by the country's lawyers to show displeasure at the arrest of the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court.

The judge is being detained at a military camp despite a higher court ruling that he be released.

Mohamed Hussein Shareef Mundhu, chief spokesman of Gayoom's new party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), says the Special Forces stormed the judge's house, dragged him like a common criminal and bundled him into a vehicle that took him to an unknown destination. The involvement of the military, instead of the police, in the arrest added more muscle to the opposition charge that Mr. Nasheed is abusing his power. The government has responded saying it could use the military if national security is under threat.

However the government is yet to explain how Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed became a national security threat, Mr. Mundhu says.

The PPM chief spokesman and party top runger, Dr. Mohamed Saud, were in Colombo this week to meet Colombo-based diplomats and explain their side of the story. Also in Colombo for a similar mission was a delegation of the Divehi Qaumee Party (DQP) whose deputy leader Dr. Mohamed Jameel was arrested and re-arrested this week in what is seen as clash between the Judiciary and the Executive. On both occasions, the court ordered the police to release Dr. Jameel for lack of evidence.
However, the government says Dr. Jameel was arrested because he was spreading rumours that the administration was being financed by Jews and Christian evangelists. Mr. Nasheed's supporters also charge that the DQP is fanning Islamic extremism in the country. But the opposition says such claims are aimed at winning the sympathy of the West or mitigating whatever criticism that may come from West-based human rights groups.

The birth of democracy in the Maldives in 2008 after three-decades of one-man rule was no easy delivery. It was a forceps delivery. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political activists who demanded democracy had been rounded up by the then government led by Mr. Gayoom. Among them was Mr. Nasheed. He was imprisoned on a number of occasions for demanding multi-party democracy and opposing Mr. Gayoom's sham democracy. Amnesty International in 1991 declared Mr. Nasheed a Prisoner of Conscience. Mr. Nasheed together with several other opposition activists continued the struggle till Mr. Gayoom yielded to Western pressure and agreed to draft a new constitution and allow multi-party democracy.

A daily scene: An opposition activist being arrested

With the Western governments, human rights organisations and the Maldivian opposition led by Mr. Nasheed maintaining their pressure, the new constitution bloomed as a powerful document with effective checks and balances. It ensures the independence of the judiciary and provides for the setting up of independent commissions for elections, police, judiciary, public service, human rights and the broadcast media.

Mr. Mundhu says the government is trying to undermine the independence of all these institutions so that it could remain in power. As part of this exercise, he says the government is gagging the private media and misusing the state media. This week, the country's Telecommunication Minister summoned the chairman of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), an independent regulatory body of broadcast media, and urged him to cancel the licences of the two opposition-run popular private TV stations - VTV and DhiTV.

Mr. Mundhu says the government's popular mantra in dealing with the media and the opposition is "Thiheneh Nubunereyne", meaning "You can't say that".

The PPM's Dr. Saud says the government is also unpopular because its economic policies have gone awry. He says Mr. Nasheed has sold profit-making ventures to foreign companies which are sending Maldivian companies into bankruptcy while his decision to devalue the rufiyaa has hit the locals badly although it has benefited tourists.

Mr. Mundhu and Dr. Saud cite the hand over of the management of the Male international airport to the New Delhi-based GMR as an example.

"The Maldives attract more than one million tourists every year and the airport is being used by millions of others also. What the state got from this 25-year management deal is a mere 78 million dollars. Many Maldivians believe the deal smacks of corruption," Mr. Mundhu says adding that the government is yet to make the agreement public.

He says the Maldives was ranked 115th in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index in 2008, the year in which Mr. Nasheed came to office. But in the 2011 index, the country was ranked 134th.
The conflict between Mr. Nasheed's MDP and the opposition also has its roots in the Majlis elections of 2009. The Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) which was then led by Mr. Gayoom won 28 seats while Mr. Nasheed's MDP could win only 26 seats in the 77-member legislature. However, Mr. Nasheed managed to win the support of MPs from small parties to get important bills passed. In 2010, the entire Maldivian cabinet resigned in frustration after it failed to win the endorsement of the opposition-controlled Majlis (parliament).

As the crisis deepens, taking an increasingly violent turn, Mr. Nasheed has cancelled a scheduled visit to Malaysia where he was to address the International Conference on the Global Movement of Moderates.

On Friday, Youth Affairs Minister Hassan Latheef's house and a car belonging to Civil Service Commission's president, Mohamed Fahmy were damaged. The government blamed opposition protesters.

Also on Friday, as many as 31 opposition politicians were arrested after violent clashes between demonstrators and the police.

Mr. Mundhu says peaceful protesters were attacked by hardcore criminals who are being released under the government's 'Second Opportunity Programme".

"We have evidence to prove the protesters were set upon by the criminals released from jail."
Mr. Mundhu says their protests are largely peaceful. He claims that some 100,000 people - one third of the country's population - took part in countrywide protests on December 23. "If the people had so wished, they could have toppled the government. But they want a change of government through a democratic process," Mr. Mundhu says.

The next countrywide protest will take place on February 24 despite Mr. Nasheed's determined bid to crush it, the opposition says.

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Four years after democracy, Maldives at crossroads again


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