By N Sathiya Moorthy
Now that the CoNI report and the controversy that it was tasked to sort out is behind, it is time Maldives as a nation and Maldivians as a people should pick up the pieces and rearranging the zig-saw puzzle that stares stark at the nation in full bloom. It should be so in the case of the nation’s divided polity, which needs to appreciate the ground realities, not only in terms of such division inherent to the nature of the nation’s democratic politics. They should also understand the problems facing the nation, in terms of empowerment/institution-building as is understood respectively by the Government parties on the one hand and the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on the other, and the economic and other issues that anyone of them, or all of them would be facing in the years to come, whoever is in power and whichever parties end up forming a ruling coalition at any given point in time.
Maldives’ hybrid Constitution, at the drafting and passage stages, addressed the immediate issues pertaining to democracy and balance-of-power between the Executive and Legislature, with no substantive interest shown by the political class in conferring greater legitimacy and purpose in independent institutions like the Judiciary, Election Commission and a host of others than what was obvious. It owed to the inherent circumstances under which the new Constitution was framed. Yet, the consequent lacuna in the thought-process after democracy had been installed became the bone of contention, almost from the word go.
The Judiciary, for instance, became the whipping-boy, in the absence of adequate knowledge and understanding of the ground realities on this score. If empowerment thus relates to conferring that greater legitimacy on the Judiciary without limiting it to just words, it also required certain information, education, and transformation. At birth, the new scheme provided seven long years for aiding and effecting the required transformation, otherwise called ‘judicial reforms’ but not many seemed to have the patience to wait for the conclusion of the set time-limit and the accompanying alterations to take shape, imbibed and imbued in turn. The gap between expectations and experience was wide, and this was also not addressed. The same could be said of other independent institutions.
It was all about democracy and modernisation of governmental processes in a democratic scheme without offending the sensibilities and sensitivities of a nation with its long politico-religious and socio-economic history. Going beyond these matters of institutionalisation of the new constitutional scheme, there was the pertinent issue of infusing economic stability, if only over a period. It also had developmental restrictions and fiscal shortcomings over the short and medium terms. There were also questions pertaining to encouragement for overseas investments, which is one way – and possibly the only way – for Maldives to address its economic recovery.
Such processes have proved successful elsewhere, but local conditions may need to be addressed and local sentiments taken into account. Yet, it cannot be delayed, and certainly not denied. By going into ‘denial mode’ all over again, the nation’s polity would only be pushing Maldives into a past from which the nation made a democratic push forward over the past few decades. It cannot be allowed to even stagnate, but that is what has happened over the past decade in particular, owing to reasons that are traditional and inherent to such a growth pattern to begin with.
A new generation born into the benefits of earlier improvements in living standards and their socio-economic conditions does not relate to the painful past of their previous generation. Stagnation and status quo are not for them. They want to move on with their lives, and the forward movement of their nation and the society. Non-acknowledgement of this fact, and inaction on this score, was among the causes for the societal disturbances and consequent political unrest that ushered in democracy in the first place. In a democracy, which is what Maldives is, the expectations from the ruling class are even more. The penaly for non-compliance is even more, and periodic – as dictated by the electoral processes.
It is in this context, the India-aided Roadmap Talks, initiated by President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, assumes greater significance than is understood and acknowledged. Barring the MDP’s demand for early elections to the presidency in the context of the circumstances attending on President Mohammed Nasheed’s resignation on February 7, every other agenda-point related to medium and long-term requirements of nation-building. At the cross-roads now, Maldives cannot but address these issues in a cooperative way and arrives at a consensus approach.
Whatever the need and circumstances at birth, history has now conferred the nation and its polity with a consultative process that owed its origins to President Nasheed’s resignation. The CoNI Report addressed only some of the issues pertaining to the last point on the Roadmap agenda, namely early polls. Other issues of greater relevance and long-term consequences remain unaddressed. If the Government parties are not too keen on advancing the presidential polls ahead of the July-October window that they have under the Constitution, the nation’s polity could use the time until then to address the issues concerned.
While Parliament might still be the right forum to address these issues, considering the reality of the situation, where some of the major political players are not members there, but still call the shots within their parties and at times outside, the all-party dialogue process would have a greater purpose than is acknowledged. For instance, President Waheed, the incumbent, and his two predecessors, namely, Presidents Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, are not members of Parliament. There may be experts whose aid the Dialogue could benefit from. There again, Parliament may not be the repository of all required wisdom in such technical matters.
It is in this background that the recent MDP decision to withdraw from the Leaders’ Dialogue needs to be viewed. So should be the reluctance of the Government in acceding to the MDP’s suggestion for reviving the idea of a ‘national unity government’ with the party being able to join it even at this hour. It was President Waheed’s suggestion immediately after taking over, and under what was seen as stressful and at times controversial circumstances. Post-CoNI Report, it has greater relevance than when made. It can serve greater purpose now than earlier.
It is equally sad that All-Party Talks Moderator Ahamed Mujthaba has thrown up his hands in sheer frustration and quit his post. Fair enough. Post-CoNI, the All-Party Talks was converted into a ‘Leaders’ Dialogue’, with the full understanding that party representatives with decision-making powers alone would be asked to participate. The MDP representative initially welcomed it, but it has since withdrawn, citing a decision of the party’s executive. Other partners to the Dialogue were already partners in Government, too, and they did not require an external agency to get on with what the political administration was anyway expected to do. Or, so went the argument. Mujthaba quit, but not in haste.
The problem arises from the unwillingness of the political stake-holders that all of them have a role to play in the emerging scenario and consequently in nation-building – more so, in effecting a semblance of continuance with every change of government that democracy entails. Given the shock and awe democracy has inspired in the nation over the past three or four years, the current phase is a sit-back time for the nation to take stock before moving forward. The nation is also in a more receptive, reflective and contemplative mood than anytime over the past months and years. It cannot afford to lose this opportunity.
For the right atmosphere to be created for such a dialogue and national reconciliation coupled with a political consensus on a way forward for existing issues of institutionalisation and recurring problems of economy, Maldives has to begin at the beginning. Independent of charges and counter-charges, of a criminal nature in particular, the immunity available to past Presidents should apply uniformly, so that parties and leaders do not still have to live in the past, or have to defend their decisions and actions while in office. Where the nation has learnt from the democratic developments of the past years, it can look at options for the future, including legal and punitive actions. At the end of the day, democracy is a dynamic process, and it will be more so in the case of Maldives, which wants to do – and will have to do – all at once. Errors and correctives are also part of greater democratisation.
The initiative for all this still rests with the Government and President Waheed. The responsibility of responsiveness lies with the MDP leadership, which feels cornered but whose relevance cannot be wished away, nonetheless. Yet, it too needs to readjust itself to the changing realities, where issues of democracy as seen by the MDP alone cannot take either the party or the nation forward after a point. The nation has proved that democracy and democratic values have come to stay – though it may still have different meanings for different people. That is also the beauty and purpose of democracy. But then, democracy, however interpreted and instilled even belatedly in a nation’s conscience, is a tool to greater ends, not an end in itself.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)