Political instability continues in the Maldives

A master at inspirational speeches Nasheed promised much to his people but little materialised
By Ibrahim Saeed

MALE, February 12 - The aftermath of the resignation of the young and energetic president after just three years in office is far from being rosy. The political environment of the Maldives is experiencing events that are unprecedented. Although the change looks larger than life, the new constitution undeniably paved the way for a reasonably smooth transition of power. Within hours of president Mohamed Nasheed’s resignation, the vice president Dr. Mohamed Waheed Hassan was sworn-in as the country’s fifth president this week.

In a televised news conference Mr. Nasheed announced his resignation with a calm and relaxed voice and said that it would be best for the country if he resigned. In stark contrast he then went back to the streets to tell his supporters that he was forced to resign at gunpoint - something the Maldives Defence Force and Maldives Police Service vehemently deny.

Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed (C) greets people after Friday prayers in Male on February 10. A UN special envoy arrived February 10 for talks with the new administration in the Maldives, as former President Mohamed Nasheed demanded fresh elections after being ousted in what he called a coup d'etat. AFP

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives and the Police Integrity Commission have condemned the excessive force and brutality used in dispersing the crowd. The video footage of the February 9 demonstration showed police beating the protesters and using pepper spray and tear gas. President Nasheed was also seen being pushed by uniformed officers. The caretaker president of MDP and MP Reeko Moosa Manik was badly injured and was taken to Colombo the following day.

President Nasheed has always demonstrated his ability to deliver inspirational speeches peppered with promises that people like to hear about - building bridges, sewerage systems, modern housing for everyone, providing a public transportation network and the like. The Nasheed administration was not able to achieve much in these areas during the three years in office although some construction work can be seen progressing slowly in Male’, but now he wants the new President to adhere to the core values of the MDP and to implement the development programmes and the party manifesto.

A brand new medical insurance programme was introduced at the turn of the New Year 2012 and taxation laws have been enacted. The newly introduced GST of 2.5% came at a point the Rufiya was devalued for the first time in 10 years by 20% against the US dollar. The government continued to promise removal of import duty which came into effect in conjunction with a further increase in GST to 6%.

These changes saw the resignation of several financial experts from top positions and resulted in the appointment of inexperienced newcomers to key positions in the areas of economics and finance.
Government was accused of printing money, devaluing the currency, formation of a top-heavy government, creation of numerous state owned companies and appointment of MDP activists to top positions of the government. Their activities were seen by experts as detrimental to the sustenance of the economy of the country which relies solely on the tourism dollar. The bill that the government had to pay continued to become ever more burdensome by the month. The experts began to warn that any decline in tourist arrival by whatever reason could plunge the country into poverty. The government appeared to be ignoring facts and showing the public a picture the people liked to see.

While the civil servants’ paycheck arrived with delays of several days each month, the government officials happily kept on promising new things. One day it may be a project for improving sports facilities across the country worth MVR400 million while the other day it may be a promise to build a bridge between Male’ and the Airport.

Nasheed became known for his concern on the international stage for the possibility of Maldivians becoming environmental hostages one day. His famous plea to buy land for doomsday became a global talking point. The name Maldives soon became synonymous with global warming and sea level rise. Within no time, the honeymoon paradise lost its appeal as the most promising location for investment for hoteliers.

Nasheed spoke to international media on several sensitive topics including international terrorism and inadvertently linked Maldives to 2008 Mumbai attack. According to political analysts Nasheed often failed to understand the negatives and unwanted attention such statements could draw and as a result the image of a peaceful country that the Maldives once enjoyed has now been tarnished.

Nasheed’s government has been vocal about the Arab-Israeli conflict. While showing to be unbiased and nonaligned his government has been often accused of taking sides with Israel. Plans for starting scheduled flights by Israeli airline and seeking technical and medical assistance from Israel have been fiercely criticized by the opposition.

The hardest and the biggest decision that the Nasheed administration made was that of giving out the management of the main airport to an Indian company called GMR. The government had to make use of several loopholes in existing laws to finally sign the agreement. The government asked the board of the Maldives Airports Company to resign when it refused to sign the lease agreement. A new chairman was then appointed to the board of directors and proceeded with signing the agreement within hours.

The agreement allows GMR to operate the airport for 25 years. GMR soon faced several legal issues when it decided to introduce an airport development tax. The Maldives Civil Court ruled that the development tax was illegal. President Nasheed claimed to be the champion of assuring the right for freedom of speech in the Maldives. But in deed made Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed a target for the government because he consistently ruled against the arrest of the opposition Gaumee Party vice president Dr. Mohamed Jameel. In the name of judicial reform, Nasheed ordered the military to arrest Judge Abdulla Mohamed. All the independent institutions, the Supreme Court and the vice president called for the unconditional and immediate release of Abdulla. Nasheed insisted that Abdulla’s detention was in the best interest of the people and refused to either release him or let his family or the general public know what followed next.

The laws of the Maldives prohibit arbitrary arrests and detention of anyone in custody without charge for more than 24 hours. Neither the president nor his Attorney General was able to explain exactly why Abdulla was being detained. The spokesman for the president continued to tell public that Abdulla was a traitor and a danger to the public and would not be allowed to hang around free. There was no legal charge brought against the senior Criminal Court Judge Mr. Abdulla Mohamed. That triggered his ultimate exit from the presidency.

The situation remains volatile as the MDP hardliners took to the streets and started setting government buildings and police facilities on fire in Male and in the islands. President Nasheed called new president Waheed to step down. Also Nasheed is calling for the speaker of the parliament to take over as a caretaker president and to hold elections in two months.

A new election would cost the taxpayers MVR300 million (US$ 19.5 million). Any election involving the general public is estimated to cost the aforesaid amount and the people have voted in three rounds of elections since 2008.

The legitimacy of the newly formed government has been questioned by Nasheed and his party and it is likely that a case will be filed against President Waheed in the Supreme Court who will finally rule on the legitimacy of the new government. In the meanwhile several countries including Britain, America and India have accepted and promised support for the new government.

* The writer was an associate Editor of The Voice published in the Maldives.

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