By N Sathiya Moorthy
Partying time may soon be over for a bunch of minor political parties in Maldives, if the unanimous decision of Parliament’s Committee on Independent Commissions is anything to go by. According to the committee’s decision, political parties will require a minimum of 5,000 verifiable members to be recognised by the nation’s Election Commission as such. They would have to have double that number if they intend seeking Government funding under the law.
At present, political parties need to have 3,000 registered members for recognition under the law. The Constitution has also earmarked one per cent of the nation’s GDP for election funding, to be distributed in proportion to the number of registered members of individual parties. Though fewer than a few thousand voters are there in each of the 77 parliamentray constituencies, electioneering is a costly affair in the archipelago, thanks to the high cost of commuting between the widely-spread islands of the Indian Ocean archipelago. The nation has directly-elected Executive President of the US model, but with a 50-per cent-plus one vote-share for election. Where none of the candidates make it in the first round, the top two move on to a second, run-off round.
All this makes the electoral campaigns costly and competitive for political parties. What more, political parties would have to fund other elections under the new scheme, for the 77-member Parliament and the decentralised local councils for the seven newly carved-out Provinces and island-councils, too. Given the infancy of the new scheme, it has become necessary for the national leadership of all the parties to be seen as campaigning even for by-elections to local councils, as this would also be an occasion for presidential and parliamentary hopefuls to reach out to the electorate at that level. State funding thus helped lessen the financial pressure on individual political parties. Media reports quoting parliamentary committee Chairman and Kulhudhuffushi-Dhekunu MP Mohamed Nasheed, a namesake of former MDP President, said that considering the nation’s population-size only parties with 10,000 members could be considered to be politically influential. They could be given State funding, to promote ideas, he said, indicating that the discussion in the committee on this particular issue was lengthy and exhaustive. As and when Parliament passes the committee’s proposal into legislation, parties with less than 5,000 registered members at present would be given six months to enroll more. Those enrolling with the Election Commission after the current proposal comes into force will be given three months for the purpose. “Parties that fail to have 5,000 members within this period will be abolished,” he was quoted further as saying.
Three identifiable groups
Political parties in Maldives can be classified under three identifiable categories at present. At the top are the three major parties with substantial membership and parliamentary presence. Topping the list overall is the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of former President Mohammed Nasheed, followeed by his predecessor Maumoon Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and the latter’s earlier find, namely, the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), headed by Thasmeen Ali. In a nation with a population less than 400,000, the MDP claims close to 50,000 members. After the vertical split, the DRP and the PPM are yet to prove their split figures, though the latter is believed to be the stronger of the two.
Then there are three other political parties with parliamentary presence, but are not in the same league as the earlier three. Among them, the People’s Alliance, founded by Gayoom’s half-brother and former Finance Minister Abdulla Yameen, has formed a common parliamentray grouping with the PPM with the latter as its leader. The Jumhooree Party (JP), or the Republican Party is headed by another former Finance Minister Gasim Ibrahim. The Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP), whose leader, Dr Hassan Saeed, was, and is a Special Advisor to Presidents Nasheed and incumbent Waheed Hassan Manik, also has a limited parliamentary presence. However, neither the membership of the JP and the DQP, nor their parliamentary representation, obtained through the May 2009 elections now reflect, the 15-plus and 16-plus per cent vote-shares registered by Gasim Ibrahim and Hassan Saeed in the first round of presidential polls in 2008.
The last grouping of political parties in the country comprise those that are enrolled with the Election Commission with the existing 3,000-member requirement and may or may not be active – but do not have any parliamentary representation. Included in the list of eight parties, ironically, is the Gaumee Ihthihaadh Party (GIP) of President Waheed, and the religion-centric Adhalaath Party (AP), or the Justice Party. While the AP is more vociferous than most political parties in the country, barring possibly the MDP, the party recorded probably less than one per cent vote-share in the presidential polls of 2008 and could not win a single seat in the parliamentary elections only a few months later. However, the AP did manage to win a little more than a handful of seats in the local council elections, conducted under a new law for regional governance, in March 2010. Interestingly, both the AP and the GIP – the later did not contest either the parliamentary elections or the local government polls – have ministerial representation in the Governments of Presidents Nasheed, and now Waheed. The GIP, as whose founder President Waheed was the alliance partner of the MDP for the presidential polls, and became Vice-President as Candidate Nasheed’s running-mate, did not register with the Election Commisison until after it had become too late for the 2008 polls. It did not field any candidates in the later-day elections. Both the AP and the GIP have another thing in common. Continuing as allies of the Government, they saw their ministerial representatives deserting the parent party and joining the MDP, and continue in the Government under their new identities.
‘Guided democracy’ or what?
At the conclusion of the 2009 parliamentary polls, as MDP leader, President Nasheed spoke about how the nation had voted for what was tantamount to a two-party system, and welcomed it as a step in the right direction. As he had pointed out, his MDP and the undivided DRP of the time had managed to win a substantial number of the total 77 seats in the People’s Majlis, or Parliament. Post-poll, defections across the board made the MDP the single largest party in Parliament, and it remains so despite losing two seats in by-elections held after President Nasheed’s resignation on February 7.
The ‘People’s Alliance (PA), which has formed a common parliamentary group with President Gayoom’s PPM since, had come third with seven seats in the 2009 polls. Its ambiguous identity as a separate political party when its founder is said to be an aspirant for the PPM’s presidential nominaiton, may cause the leadership to revisit its continued existence and separate identity. Other parties had either won less than a handful of seats each, or drawn a blank like the religion-centric AP. Their performance in the 2010 local council elections too was nothing much to go by.
Opinon is however divided over the wisdom of letting the current mushrooming of political parties to continue. While the PPM and DRP, for instance, seem to be sharing the MDP’s views, though their official position is not known, other parties may have a problem accepting the current course – for reasons of their own, and also in the larger cause of democracy. Indications are that the parliamentary committee having been represented by only those with legislative representation, those that are left out now may be considering the possibility of moving the courts against any new law regulating their continuance, if and when it came into force. At the end of the day, democracy is all about facilitating louder voice and larger poltiical space even for those left out of the mainstream, otherwise. Or, so goes the argument. However, democratic exception have been made in the legal sense of the term, where ‘reasonable restriction’ has been used as a valid judicial argument to delienate one from the other, ‘Men from the ‘boys’.
The question before the nation thus is this: whether, it should continue with what is inherent to the polity as a ‘coalition model’, as witnessed in the 2008 presidential polls, and beyond – though not to the same extent, or to encourage consolidation under identifiable electoral entities? In the medium-term, consolidation may hold the key to political stability at a crucial stage in the nation’s contemporary history of democratic transition. The trickle-down politico-electoral effect of democracy, particularly in the Third World South Asian neighbourhood, points to the inevitability of splits and splinters emerging, if only over a period, institutionalising the inevitability of coalition politics of one kind or the other.
The US, where a ‘third candidate’, Independent, Ross Perot, polled as high as 18.9 per cent of the popular-vote in the 1992 polls, seems to have handled it differently, since. Political commentators and leaders of the two mainline parties in the country, namely the Democrats and Republicans, called the ‘Ross Perot Effect’ an “aberration that will not be allowed to continue”. Subsequent presidential polls have proved as much, and the globally-televised public debates of presidential hopefuls, among others, are tailored to keep out ‘non-serious candidates’, thus making the world’s most powerful democracy also the ‘most guided’ of all democracies.
Apart from the judiciary, the Election Commission itself may have its views, but its relevance would be more political than legal. Technically, President Waheed too may consider returning any Bill passed by Parliament for regulating political party membership and State funding, for reconsideration. It would then remain to be seen if the Majlis would the stomach to revisit the Bill and return to the same conclusion, if the original conclusion itself is one of endorsing the committee’s current proposition. It may thus be too early to say which way Maldives would go, but the fact is that Maldivians have started thinking ahead in the matter – and there is an element of unanimity among the ‘Big Players’ for now, if one were to go by the media reports.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)