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Maldives- ready for a change: Is Gayoom ready?

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Paper 1135                                                     04.10.2004

by Sucharita Sidhanta

“The proposition I intend to favour in electing the President, is to allow more people than one candidate to contest in the secret ballot stage by the People’s Majlis. However, I don’t believe that direct Presidential election by the people from amongst more than one candidate is a proper method… allowing direct Presidential election by the people from more than one candidate will disrupt the long existing political and social harmony as well as peace and prosperity amongst the people of Maldives.”  Gayoom

Early History:

The early history of the Maldives is obscure. According to a Maldivian legend, a Sinhalese prince named Koi Male was stranded with his bride -- daughter of the king of Sri Lanka -- in a Maldivian lagoon and stayed on to rule as the first sultan.

Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development influenced by sailors from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean littorals. Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast -- present-day Kerala state in India -- harassed the islands. In the 16th century. The Portuguese subjugated and ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73) before being driven away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azam.

Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt at a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was re-imposed. Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another 3 years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name.

Politics of the Maldives

A 1968 referendum approved the constitution making Maldives a republic with executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The constitution was amended in 1970, 1972, 1975 and 1997 and is again under revision.

Ibrahim Nasir, Prime Minister under the pre-1968 sultanate, became President and held office from 1968 to 1978. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was elected President in 1978 and re-elected in 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998 and 2003. The president heads the executive branch and appoints the cabinet. Nominated to a 5-year term by a secret ballot of the Majlis (Parliament), the President is confirmed by a national referendum.

The unicameral Majlis is composed of 48 members serving 5-year terms. Two members from each atoll and Male' are elected directly by universal suffrage. Eight are appointed by the President.  A special Majlis session began meeting in mid-2004 to review constitutional reform issues. Regularly scheduled Majlis elections are expected to take place in late 2004, although the exact date has not yet been announced..

The Maldivian legal system--derived mainly from traditional Islamic law--is administered by secular officials, a chief justice, and lesser judges on each of the 19 atolls, who are appointed by the president and function under the Ministry of Justice. There also is an attorney general. Each inhabited island within an atoll has a chief who is responsible for law and order. Every atoll chief, appointed by the president, functions as a district officer in the British South Asian tradition.

Maldives has no organised political parties. Candidates for elective office run as independents on the basis of personal qualifications. On November 8, 1988, Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries tried to overthrow the Maldivian Government. At President Gayoom's request, the Indian military suppressed the coup attempt within 24 hours.

In September 2003, following the death of an inmate, a brief prison riot broke out on an island near the capital Male.. Three other inmates were killed during the incident. In response to the killings of the inmates, brief rioting took place on the streets of Male.

 In February 2004, the government prevented an opposition rally from taking place. Several people were arrested but they were all reportedly released later. The government  has so far kept a tight rein on any expression of Islamic extremism.

Gayoom’s Long Tenure:

Gayoom has ruled the tiny island country for the greater part of its independent existence that came about in 1965 when Britain gave this Indian Ocean Island of her self-rule. He is all powerful, leaving no space for any organised opposition.  He is not only the president of the Republic of Maldives, he also holds the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and of the Police, Minister of Defence and National Security, Minister of Finance and Treasury and Governor of Maldives Monetary Authority. The President appoints the Cabinet and one-sixth of Parliament, and under the Constitution, he is given the "supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam". Not only these, he also has control over the judiciary, enjoying the power to appoint and dismiss judges, and to review and overturn decisions of the High Court.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is Asia's longest-serving leader, having governed the Maldives since 1978. The President has been reported as describing Maldives as a “unique democracy”. The more accurate description of the political situation in Maldives would be that the country is suffering under the rule of an autocrat.

Since the September 2003 civil riots in Male', which were sparked when a prison inmate was beaten to death by guards, the abysmal human rights record of the Government of the Maldives has increasingly came under the spotlight. Subject to growing international scrutiny, and faced with rising discontent within the population and growing political opposition overseas, President Gayoom responded by announcing in February 2004 his intention to introduce reforms.

Constitutional reforms and change of powers:

On June 9, 2004 during an informal meeting which he convened “to share some of his ideas on constitutional reforms”. He proposed to change the constitution to make a greater separation of powers, which includes the separation of the post of a President from a new post created for the Prime Minister, to strengthen the role of the Parliament and limit the term of the President (he is in sixth term). He wanted to limit it for two terms. That makes sense. (Even in established democracy like USA they go to through the practice partly because of the fear that one man ruling for too long could get too powerful, too dictatorial and too corrupt. He is in sixth term and he is all of the above).

He wants to change the manner in which the President is elected so that he is either directly elected by the people or by voting on candidates endorsed by the Majlis, divesting the President of any role in the judiciary and creating a supreme court as the highest court of appeal.  He also wants to remove the gender bar but there are some religious groups who do not women in any political activity.

The President has already made some changes to his cabinet.

The changes were:

·        Mr. Ibrahim Hussain Maniku as the Minister of Youth Development and Sports;

·         Mr. Ahmed Abdulla as the Minister of Information, Arts and Culture;

·         Ms Aneesa Ahmed as the Minister of Health; and,

·         Ms Zaahiya Zareer as the Minister of Gender, Family Development and Social Security.

Is Gayoom sincere?

Gayoom claimed that the proposals he presented on 9th June were those made on previous occasions, which the Majlis refused to pass. He also stressed that the Majlis refused to accept direct Presidential elections with multiple candidates. This is hard to believe. If Gayoom really wanted changes he could have gone ahead and convinced the Majlis.

The proposed reforms made are very interesting. For example, the changes suggested would in good measure curtail the president’s power, in that, he would not be able to appoint the eight members of the parliament that the current constitution empowers him to. It would also allow freedom of association, which in itself is significant since although the current constitution allows political parties, Maldives is in fact a one party state.

Many greeted the proposals with enthusiasm. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed their firm support for the President’s democratic reform proposals of 9th June. Others only too aware of the past experience, were skeptical. The President himself has admitted that the recent proposals were part of an “ongoing process” which had been initiated in the 1980s. But there may be some difficulties for this transition because democracy itself is something new for the country and its people.

There are people who do not believe that multi-part system can work.  Elements opposed to the regime believe that it will be impossible to pursue democratic reforms in the Maldives whilst pro-democracy supporters, including many MPs, remain in prison.

His critics question the right of the Maldives president to amend the constitution, which they claim is the exclusive preserve of the special Majlis (Upper House), whose function and composition is also stated in the Maldives' constitution. The power to make and amend the Constitution of the Maldives shall be vested in the People's Special Majlis, according to Article 92 of the constitution.

But Maldivians' skepticism arises more from what Gayoom's brothers are doing to ensure that his reform measures are not implemented. There are reports that one of his brothers has threatened practically all the heads of the atolls and the islands that unless they get people to write to the president asking not to introduce the party system, they will not only lose their jobs, they might also end up with suspension and long prison sentences. He has publicly called upon the people of Maldives to reject the very amendments his elder brother Gayoom has proposed in his speech on June 9, including pluralistic democracy and separation of powers. Another of his brothers proudly claims that, "we the Kaaminee clan owns this country and there is nothing anyone can do about it -- we have the power to do whatever we want!"

The winds of change have come upon what some describe as the paradise island of the Indian Ocean. By all indications President Gayoom is not blind to the recent developments. The sooner the people of Maldives become master of their own fate and captain of their own destiny, the developments that are claimed to have taken place may help the system in Maldives to be more egalitarian than what it is now.

Changes in Maldives will come about eventually in spite the Kaaminee clan's claims to the law of primogeniture. Can Gayoom be trusted to give up his powers?

Past experience has shown that those waiting for President Gayoom to deliver on his promises for reform need not hold their breath. Predictably, the President refuses to loosen his grip on power and is demonstrating the drastic measures that he will take to ensure that the pro-democracy movement does not take hold.

The international community and India in particular must look beyond the President’s insincere promises, and apply sustained pressure to ensure the implementation of the genuine democratic reform that the people of the Maldives are now demanding.  

A letter written to his brother in which he specifically suggested that direct Presidential election was not a proper method and might lead to public disunity and will get rid of the traditional, social and political harmony amongst the people of the Maldives should be taken note despite all Gayoom’s pretensions to loosen the system. The truth is that if the  people had more choice as to who will be the president of the Maldives, it would then have  helped to strength the democratic institutions of the Maldives.

This proof is sufficient to express our apprehension that Gayoom’s only intention has always been to stay in power at any cost rather than bringing democratic reform by way of a more accountable and transparent form of government. Some of the longest serving members of the Parliament of the Maldives state that most of the proposals for amendments suggested in the 9th June speech were rejected by none but Gayoom himself. Amongst this was the proposal of direct election.

This is clear evidence that Gayoom is up to something now and cannot be entrusted with any more public service, especially to bring about political reforms to Maldives.