Democracy in the Maldives: Fact or Fiction?
- Fathimath Shimla
Columnist, Minivan News, Maldives
The Maldives held
parliamentary elections on 22 January 2005. The elections were
an important test for the Maldives’ septuagenarian President,
Maumoon Gayoom, who - although had promised democratic reform
- continues to be in power even after 27 years.
The British Foreign Minister had commented that the elections would be “the test” of the sincerity of a President who was severely criticised by the international community in September 2004 following the brutal crack-down on a peaceful pro-democratic rally in the capital, Male.
The elections went ahead but they were not elections that many would consider to be free and fair: political parties were banned; media was put under state control; public election speeches by candidates were forbidden; all election material was censored by the government; and the President simply appointed eight out of the fifty seats in the parliament and also the speaker, who is responsible for setting the parliamentary agenda.
The Commonwealth Secretariat had sent in an Expert Team (CET) to monitor the elections. Their report stopped short of using the words ‘free and fair’, and their findings were clear: “In conclusion, the CET believes that in the absence of a multi-party democracy, fundamental freedoms and separation of powers guaranteed by the Constitution and undermined by secondary legislation, Maldives would continue to have a democratic deficit.”
In such a system
it was surprising to see that the democratic movement, headed
by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – which operates from
exile – did so well. The MDP in its mandate called for liberal
democracy, a separation of powers, the rule of law and respect
for human rights.
were unable to stand on the MDP ticket, the party ‘endorsed’ candidates
for the 42 elected seats a month prior to the voting. Eighteen
of thosecandidates won – gaining some 43% of the elected seats
in parliament. Party-endorsed candidates also won over fifty percent
of the popular vote in a system which heavily disenfranchises
urban areas – the MDP’s core support bases.
The European Union
after the election observed “These elections are a clear sign
that the population of the Maldives is in favour of democratic
reforms. They showed indeed the existence of a large public support
in the Maldives for the reformers and confirmed that the Maldivian
Democratic Party is to be considered as a genuine political movement.”
The MDP said that it could have doubled its number of seats had
more democratic conditions prevailed.
With the economy
of the Maldives dependent on European tourists and on international
aid following the Tsunami crisis, Gayoom can’t afford to ignore
the views of the international community. The pressure from both
within the country and from outside for democratic change is becoming
Gayoom has played
his moves right. As the election results were being made public,
the President’s Office repeated its commitment to reform. “Multi-party
democracy within a year” ran the headlines, but many remain sceptical.
This isn’t the first time Gayoom has said he’ll liberalise the
political system but has gone ahead and done just the opposite.
Last July, in
the wake of an unprecedented anti-government riot in the capital
in late 2003, Gayoom announced a series of reform measures that
were meant to transform his essentially dictatorial system into
a flourishing democracy. The President said he was going to allow
opposition political parties to voice their opinions, create a
Supreme Court and the office of a Prime Minister. He encouraged
the public to go forth and debate the sorts of changes they wanted
Five weeks later,
hundreds of those who went forth and held debates – the main topic
of which seemed to be the desirability of Gayoom’s resignation
- were arrested and according to reports of Amnesty International,
tortured by Gayoom’s security services.
As the National
Democratic Institute (NDI) who went to the Maldives shortly
after the arrests last year at the invitation of the government
and the United Nations said in their report: The
majority of the interviewees feel that the government lacks credibility
with respect to reform. They ask how can the government be serious
about reform, if in a history of 25 years it has failed miserably
to bring about any semblance of democracy, if it invites people
to discuss reform, and then detains those who are critical of
it. Bold action will be required by the government to build confidence
in any reform process.
is one of the growing number of well-educated and increasingly
frustrated Maldivians trying to hold the President to his word.
For the last six months she has made innumerable attempts to establish
the first ever human rights non-governmental organisations in
the Maldives. The ride has been far from smooth.
First they told
me I couldnt register the NGO because I had a criminal record
but I have none. Then they said they couldnt register the
NGO because a co-founder had a criminal record but after investigating
I found out that they were referring to a traffic offence from
three years ago. Now I am being told that the NGO cant be
registered because the name, Human Rights Maldives,
in the Maldives, like political parties, remain banned, the media
is still state-controlled and the country remains under an uneasy
state of fear and growing anger.
points out in his defense that his reform proposals are currently
sitting with the Peoples Special Majlis (constituent parliament)
for debate and ratification but even this process, opposition
figures fear are plain cosmetic.
reform is being carried out in a very undemocratic manner
says Mohamed Nasheed, the newly elected Chairperson of the Maldivian
Democratic Party and former Amnesty International Prisoner of
Conscience. An undemocratic President is simply drafting
a new constitution in his office and asking the parliament to
rubber-stamp it. How can the parliament seriously debate the changes
and counter the views of the President when political parties
are banned? How can the public engage with the process when nobody
is explaining the changes to them or asking them for their opinions?
How can this process be regarded as transparent, inclusive or
democratic? he continues.
Critics also say
that on a closer look many of the proposed changes are far from
democratic although they sound nice. One proposed change is to
create the position of a Prime Minister and Head of the Judiciary.
one reads the small print, what the President is proposing is
that he would be able to appoint and dismiss the Head of the Government
and the Judiciary on the advice of the Parliament.
However, the term advice in a Maldavian context simply
means a debate in parliament in which no vote is recorded and,
presumably, the President interprets the outcome. People point
out that the so-called democratic reform proposals are nothing
more than a well-packaged consolidation of the Presidents
There is also
a fear that reforms lack an overarching agenda, a roadmap to democracy.
Although expert advice is being provided by organisations such
as the Commonwealth and the UN, it is being done only on highly
restricted technical issues. There has been no independent assessment
of the overarching process of reform, possibly allowing Gayoom
to blame a failure to reform in future on a technical incompetence.
The election results,
the independent assessments such as the NDI and CET report and
the 15,000-strong pro-democracy rally last year all point to a
country that is crying out for democracy. As the Commonwealth
continues to search for its relevance in the 21st Century, helping
the Maldives draft a genuine roadmap to democracy would be a relevant
Minivan news is
an independent news channel for the Maldives which operates outside
of the country. Visit it at www.minivannews.com.