Political Crisis in Maldives and Options for India
Dr. N Manoharan

In a surprising turn of events, even for many of Maldivians, Mohamad Nasheed, the first democratically-elected head of the state of Maldives, resigned on 07 February 2012 in the wake of anti-government protests and police mutiny. Although Mohamad Waheed Hassan Manik, who has been elevated as President (from Vice Presidentship), insists that it was “not a coup”, Nasheed claims that he was threatened with a “bloodbath” if he refused to step down. In his address to the nation soon after his resignation, Nasheed stated, “I don't want to hurt any Maldivian. I feel my staying on in power will only increase the problems, and it will hurt our citizens. So the best option available to me is to step down.” A military showdown has indeed been averted, but the political crisis is far from over, anytime ready to take violent form.

The arrest of Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed on charges of “misconduct and favouring opposition figures” might have acted as a final spark for Mohamad Nasheed’s downfall, but the anti-Nasheed storm has been gathering for nearly a year. Nasheed began well in October 2008 after ending the three-decade long Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s rule in the country’s first free elections that was hailed as “heralding a new era of democracy and progressive politics”. At the global level, Nasheed intensely campaigned against climate change and even held a cabinet meeting under water to highlight the dangers of rising sea levels. To coordinate environmental policy among a group of about 30 countries most affected by climate change, he established the Climate Vulnerable Forum. Domestically, he pushed aggressively for reforms in political, social and economic arenas.

In the political field he concentrated on freedom, independence of judiciary and anti-corruption to make Maldives as “the most promising young democracies in the region.” But the Majlis – Maldives’ parliament – dominated by the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) (party of Nasheed’s predecessor Abdul Gayoom) and its allies did not offer requisite cooperation resulting in frequent political and constitutional deadlocks. The well-entrenched conservative bureaucracy could not move fast enough with Nasheed’s pace and expectations. Resentments started brewing. In the economic front, when Nasheed took over, public expenditure was at a peak of 64 percent of Maldivian GDP and about 70 percent of Government revenue was being spent on public sector wages. The global economic recession at around the same time had a severe impact on Maldives, whose economy is heavily depended on tourism. The president was left with no option but to embark on major fiscal and economic reforms overseen by the International Monitory Fund (IMF). The structural reforms involved curtailing of state spending, while freeing the private sector to be the engine of growth, in addition to devaluation of rufiyaa. This did not go well with the public sector employees, who constitute 10 percent of the population. Unemployment and high inflation damaged Nasheed’s popular standing as well. Yet, he determinedly pushed forward the reforms “to liberate the economy”. In the social arena, some of the measures taken by President Nasheed like making Islamic and Divehi as optional subjects in school (instead of compulsory), mandatory registration of all madrasas, and allowing Israeli tourists in the country received the ire of religious conservatives. They attacked and stamped his regime as “un-Islamic”.

Instead of going on full throttle from the day one, Nasheed could have adopted a gradual approach appreciating the true nature of system. Apparently, he has not been very skilful in handling the internal power politics. Moreover, Gayoom’s loyalists have been entrenched in key institutions, especially in the judiciary. Instead of winning them over, Nasheed went on in confrontational mode that backfired. He also ignored building support constituencies among the common man even while he was able to cultivate some friends in the international community. Despite good intentions, political and diplomatic naivety of the “Obama of East” brought him to the level of having only two choices: order a bloody military crackdown on the opposition protestors and police dissidents or step down. He chose the latter, perhaps because even military switched sides.

The new President Waheed Hassan has appealed to all political parties, including Islamic radicals, to come together to consolidate democracy and form a “multi-party national unity government”. It will be called the National Government of Maldives. He has limited options but to do so to have a decent majority in the Majlis to run the government smoothly for the remaining period of about 20 months. Except Nasheed’s Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), all other parties of the country have agreed to be part of the government. Of the total 77 seats in the Maldivan Majlis Nasheed’s MDP has 32 members (26 are its own, 6 are either independents or from minor parties), while the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) has 34 seats and backing of some independents. Even if the MDP does not come on board, Waheed should be in a position to run the government. But the new coalition will have problems if Nasheed rallies his supporters to get back “justice” through protest politics. The former president has decided to do just that.

India has so far remained neutral by maintaining that it “is an internal matter of the Maldives, to be resolved by the Maldivians.” But in 1988, New Delhi promptly dispatched its forces (‘Operation Cactus’) to foil a coup attempt that was aimed at deposing the then President Gayoom. Since the nature of present crisis is considered more of political than a security one, India politely refused Nasheed’s invitation for intervention. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in fact, has sent a note to the new President Waheed mentioning, as a “close and friendly neighbour”, India will, “as always, continue to support the Maldivian people’s efforts to build a stable, peaceful and prosperous country.” At the same time, New Delhi has to keep a close watch on the situation in the island.

Given the strategic location of the Maldives, its peace and stability is crucial not only for India, but also for the entire region. India needs to ensure that Maldives does not become a haven either for Islamic militant groups or for sea pirates. There are already concerns about Lashkar-e-Toiba’s foothold in the southern parts of the archipelago through its charitable front organisation, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq ever since 2004 tsunami. Making use of the volatile situation, forces inimical to Indian interests may try to gain foothold in the archipelago. Keeping these into consideration, India should exert enough economic, diplomatic and political leverage behind the scenes to bring all contending parties of the country to negotiating table to thrash out a consensus political formula. Peace and stability in Maldives remains the core concern. India has already conveyed to the new regime that no harm should come to the former president or to any member of his government. The deposed president and his party should be allowed to contest in the next elections scheduled in 2013 and leave it to the people of the country to decide. Retribution will hinder reconciliation, which is a need of the hour. India, along with like-minded countries and groupings like UK, US, EU, UN and SAARC, should consolidate democracy in the atoll state so that it remains a permanent feature of Maldivian political life. It is, especially, in India’s interests if democracy and peace thrives in its neighbourhood.


Published Date : 13th February 2012

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