Monday, November 12, 2007

Maldives Needs Political Reforms

Maldives Needs Political Reforms
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Has any one thought how Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has is able to remain in power for more than twenty-five years? On the surface this may reflect his immense popularity but in realty that’s not the true picture. The subtleties of the functioning of the political system in Maldives are not widely known to the outside world. There is growing opposition to Gayoom in Maldives and he is accused being a dictator under the democratic garb.

Maldives has a unicameral Parliament called Majlis. It comprises of 50 members, 8 of whom are nominated by the President. In the last general election held in 2003, candidates ran as independents on the basis of the 'personal qualifications'. The personal qualification clause is a tricky thing. It’s not the educational degree or a person's standing in the society that counts as personal qualification but it’s the whims and fancies of the President that makes him eligible to merit for personal qualification. No wonder all those chosen by the President makes to the Parliament.

Constitutionally any person can contest the Presidential election but in practice selected nominee of the Majlis can only assume the high office. Since almost all the elected representatives are obliged to the President, they have little choice in nominating the presidential candidate. The so-called public presidential vote by 'secret ballot' is only a referendum on the candidate chosen by the Majlis. Technically the post of the President has to be confirmed by a national referendum but in practice it is the Majlis will that prevails.

So that’s the secret of President Gayoom making it to the every photo sessions of the SAARC summits. He holds the distinction of celebrating silver jubilee in office. He was initially elected as President of Maldives in 1978 and subsequently re-elected in 1983, 1988, 1993,1999 and 2003. It’s too early for comments he would be re-elected in 2008!

The President in Maldives is all-powerful. He heads the executive and is in charge of every thing in his country. The arbitrary powers of the president and his dictatorial style of functioning are now being questioned by the ordinary people and political discontentment is brewing in Maldives.

In March 2006, Gayoom in order to address the concerns of the people launched a road map for democratic reform in Maldives. He also promised to draft a new constitution ahead of the general elections in 2008. However, going by the pace of the work in the drafting of the constitution there are allegations that he is using the 29 members of the constituent assembly appointed by him to slow down the process of political reforms. The apprehension is Gayoom may not live up to his promises.

Gayoom’s regime by any standard of assessment cannot be described as a democratic system of governance. His regime does not comply with the international standards of freedom of expression and human rights and a sham government is ruling the country from a very long time.

There is no genuine freedom of expression to the people of Maldives. Even though the political parties are allowed to register since June 2005, they cannot carry out political activity without fear. People cannot assemble on the streets without incurring the wrath of the oppressive state.

This does not deter the people to come out and give vent to their anger. In fact political flare-ups have been taking place in Maldives for some time now. The latest was in May 2006, when a weeklong peaceful protest was held against Gayoom’s regime in Maale. The newly created Police Integrity Commission widely perceived to be an instrument of state repression brutally treated the pro-democracy activists. There was violence on the streets and nearly 200 protestors were detained, many of them still not released.

Gayoom’s regime is totally immune to comply with the rule of law. There is total defiance to comply with the international norms on human rights. There are many political prisoners languishing in jail for long time now. Some of them have been released after persuasion from some foreign countries but charges against them have not been withdrawn raising concern of their re arrest.

It is in this backdrop not every one in Maale is happy about India's arms supply to Maldives. Some fear that Gayoom may use Indian military assistance to silence his political opponents. Instances are being cited when Indian hardware was used to intimidate the peaceful protestors. The perception is that India wants to keep Gayoom in power by all means.

At the private level it’s being debated why Maldives is spending over 8 per cent of its GDP on military expenditure. A country that has no enemy to rank among highest per capita spenders on defense in the world is a colossal waste of its resources. Who is responsible for it? Well no marks for guessing.

These things cannot be written in the local media and no one can debate this in public. Press in Maldives is highly restricted. The state control radio and TV dominate the households. Gayoom's regime further plans to control it by bringing a "Freedom of the Press bill." Its allegedly contains broad and vaguely worded restriction on the media content. If comes into effect will be a serious set back for the establishment of a genuine democracy in Maldives.

That’s not all. There are other notable shortcomings of Gayoom’s regime. Drug addiction along with attendant crimes is a major problem in Maldives. The government has failed adequately treat the drug users and has made little arrangement to rehabilitate them. It has also been unable to stem the flow of drugs from abroad. In April 2006, over 1.6 tones of Hashis was discovered hidden under water in Maldives. According to many, the biggest failure of the Gayoom’s regime is his inability to combat the drug menace in Maldives.

Many ancillary problems related to drugs are on the rise in the island nation. The country is beginning to be hit by the problem HIV-AIDS. Many HIV patients from Maldives are coming to South Indian towns for treatment. There are also few reported cases of termination of unwanted pregnancies by Maldivian girls in south India’s private clinics. There is little doubt that the drug menace is seriously damaging the social fabric of the urban youth in Maldives.

If on one hand there are problems of westernization, on the other there are growing symptoms of religious fundamentalism striking roots in Maldives. Being hundred percent Muslim country and one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, Maldives is also sucked into global problems, particularly those facing the Islamic world. A constituency of religious radicalism is getting created in Maldives. This could be ascertained from the fact that some youth including young girls volunteered to fight for the Palestine cause and were found loitering in Colombo airport from where they were sent back home.

Gayaoom again has miserably failed on the issue of checking the growth religious radicalism. On the contrary, he has introduced parochial Madarsa system as seats of learning with aid from some Islamic countries. Many key cabinet ministers in Gayoom’s government are reportedly to have graduated from such Madarsas.

On economic front too Maldives is not doing any wonders. Given the tiny population and huge resources, Maldives could have easily matched any western European country in the standard of living of its people. However, many leading Maldivian entrepreneurs wary of political instability have opted to invest outside the country. The system of patronage has seriously undermined investors' confidence in Maldives. According to some estimate foreign exchange leakage is over 70 per cent in Maldives.

In sum a brutal and economically wasteful dictatorship is ruling Maldives for past twenty-five years. A fair and democratic election under multi party system alone could guarantee any rapid development of Maldives. As expectations are building up for regime change in Maldives, all eyes are set for 2008 general elections. It would be better if elections were held in Maldives earlier then the due date.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at

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