Maldives: Towards Democratic Reform and Peace

Alok Bansal

Not long ago, on June 2, 2005, the Maldivian parliament voted to allow multi-party democracy for the first time in the tiny atoll nation that has been ruled by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom since 1978. The parliament unanimously approved a resolution to allow political parties to seek recognition and contest elections, ending the no-party system in the nation. The motion was moved on the basis of a request from the President Gayoom, to review its earlier decision not to allow political parties in the country. Although political parties in Maldives had previously been banned, there had been no official proscription on political activity so far.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) termed this to be a revolution and stated that they looked forward to an exciting political future. However, the passing of resolution was not without its own attendant drama. The authorities arrested four key dissidents on allegations of plotting to disrupt the parliamentary debate, on the morning of parliamentary debate, raising fears that the government may again scuttle the proposed reforms. The four were released immediately after the vote.

The fact that the government had allowed MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed to return to capital Male on April 30 had clearly indicated the impending decision. Though the government had vacillated in the past on the question of democratic reforms, it realised soon that the multiparty democracy was an idea whose time had come. Although MDP has been quick to claim credit for the latest development and have stated that it was due to their pressure that the resolution was passed. President Gayoom himself had come under increasing pressure, with human rights groups accusing him of running an autocratic regime and lately, sporadic anti government violence, which more or less forced Gayoom to outline a timetable for reforms at the beginning of this year. Later in May, President Gayoom had to confront protesters including volunteers from ‘Friends of Maldives’, a group based in Salisbury, when he arrived for a meeting at the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva. The protestors demanded improved human rights and an end to torture and political oppression in the Maldives.

Arguably, the political dissent which had surfaced in late 2003, continued to change the political landscape in this tiny Indian Ocean nation. In May 2004 elections were held for a People’s Special Majlis (constitutional assembly) with the purpose of amending the constitution. In early June President Gayoom announced his agenda for constitutional reforms, which included political parties, limiting the term of the President to two five-year tenures, more powers for the Parliament, creating the post of Prime Minister and separating the judiciary, legislature and executive. However, the People’s Special Majlis, which was sworn in on 15 June and convened on 19 July, was immediately suspended as 24 members walked out and raised anti government slogans. In the face of protests from the opposition, President Gayoom in August 2004 declared a state of emergency and arrested many pro-democracy activists, who rallied in a rare show of dissent in capital Male, which houses approximately one third of the island nation’s population. Faced with international pressure and demands from dissidents in exile, President Gayoom promised democratic reforms after the elections.

When tsunami hit the island nation, it not only put brakes on the fastest growing economy in the region, but also on the electioneering for the polls to Majlis which were scheduled on December 31, 2004. The elections that ultimately took place in January 2005, clearly indicated that a significant section of the society was opposed to the policies of the government and was clamouring for multiparty democracy. MDP claimed that it won 18 of the 42 seats, with pro-government candidates winning 22 and independents two. But the government claims that at least 30 candidates are pro-government, and only eight are pro-MDP. The figures cannot be reconciled because all candidates officially ran as independents. The election of large number of opposition candidates especially from Male had increased the pressure on President Gayoom and probably led to the introduction of multiparty democracy.

Consequent to the passing of resolution MDP became the first political party to be registered after completing the enlistment of 3000 members, to fulfil the requirement of registration as a political party. At the time of writing, other parties awaiting registration are Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party of President Gayoom, Islamic Democratic Party, a moderate Islamic party of former policeman Umar Naseer, Maldives Labour Party and the Adhaalaath Party led by religious scholar Sheikh Hussain Rasheed Ahamed. Most of these parties are likely to fulfil the criteria in due course and will provide the options for governance to the citizens of Maldives.

The Gayoom regime has maintained friendly ties with India and has expressed gratitude for the assistance rendered to quell the attempted coup in 1987. MDP also appears to be favourably disposed towards India, but the other political parties are unknown entities and some of them especially the Islamic outfits may not be favourably disposed towards India. Off late China has also exhibited interest in acquiring bases in the islands. It is imperative for India to watch the developments carefully as Maldives is strategically located and not to forget, that it housed a British air base in Gan Island in the past.

Author Note
Alok Bansal is New Delhi based defence and security analyst