Commentary: Maldives in Turmoil- Political Conflict Intensifies | Vivekananda International Foundation
Commentary: Maldives in Turmoil- Political Conflict Intensifies
Akash Sahu, Young Professional, VIF

A Political Turmoil

The island nation in the Indian Ocean is suddenly facing serious political turmoil on account of the sharp turn of events beginning Thursday on 1st February, 2018, when the Supreme Court of Maldives pronounced a verdict, directing the release of nine political prisoners, including former President Nashed, held under detention by President Abdullah Yameen government. The Court held that their trials and detention were unjust and politically motivated. The highest judicial establishment of the country also directed the reinstatement of the 12 Members of the People’s Majlis, i.e. the Parliament of Maldives, who were removed from office by the present regime.

The Court’s decision came days after the opposition leaders, including former presidents Mohammed Nasheed (currently in exile in the UK) and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had petitioned to the Supreme Court for suspension of the current President Yameen and to order investigations into the charges of corruption against him. The situation become tense as the President refused to comply with the court directive while opposition supporters hit the street of Male protesting against the government and celebrating the verdict of the court. There was public outrage and clashes with the police forces outside the house of Abdulla Saeed, the Chief Justice.

In a series of damage control measures, the Police Chief was sacked by the administration as he decided to implement the court verdict. To prevent the issue from being raised in the People’s Majlis (Parliament) it was decided to put off its session due to commence on Feb 6, 2018. It was further directed that the Attorney General (AG) will be issuing orders on matters arising out of the court verdict. The AG quickly clarified that the Government has initiated a process to review the cases against the political prisoners.

The former president Nasheed, who has been relentlessly carrying out the opposition campaign against Yameen’s authoritarian rule, spoke to the press, hailing the court judgment and said that he would contest the elections due in latter part of the year. Amidst fears that Yameen might even take recourse to declaration of state of emergency in the country to save himself, political opposition warned that non-compliance of the court order might lead to more violence and unrest in the country.

Where do things Stand Constitutionally?

The verdict is problematic for the present government in a variety of ways. For starters, it brings Nasheed back in the political game with the charges against him established as false. Further, quashing of the presidential action of removing 12 MPs by the court would immediately change the composition of the Parliament. In a house of 85 MPs, their return would result in opposition securing a majority, fall of the present government and even moves to impeach the President. Constitution of Maldives (Chapter three: People’ Majlis, No. 100), states that President shall cease to hold office if a resolution moved in the House gets a two-thirds majority of the total membership of the Parliament. It also states that courts shall decide on the validity of office of a parliamentarian under No. 74 of the same Chapter. President Yameen faces a threat of impeachment if the Parliament comes to session. The Government has currently shut down the Parliament and contrary to releasing the political prisoners as per the directions of the Court, it has arrested two more members of the House from the opposition.

The AG spoke to the press where he said that the Court has no jurisdiction to remove the President. Going by the book, it is true that the Court has no direct power to remove the President; it can only review the status of a presidential candidate or review the decision of People’s Majlis to impeach the President.

Regarding opposition concern that to retain power Yameen might declare a state of emergency, it may be noted that the Constitution does empower the President to do so under Chapter nine, No. 253, in case of threat to national security. This declaration, however, shall have to be ratified by the Parliament and can be initially imposed only for 30 days. Extension of the state of emergency shall be subject to ratification by Parliament after 30 days. But in the current scenario, the President has taken measure to prevent the Parliament to convene.

The Security Establishment

The President seems to be relying heavily on the security forces by directing them to completely clamp down on resistance of the protesters. Tear gas shells and batons have been used by the forces against the agitating public. The military has surrounded the Parliament and riot police is guarding the Republic Square and important government offices, which are sites of public protest.

Dismissal of Ahamed Areef, the Police Chief, within two days of unrest, as he proposed to abide by the decision of the Court, was followed by his deputy, Ahmed Saudhee, being appointed as his successor; but he too was removed without assigning any reason. Now, the Deputy Police Commissioner, Abdulla Nawaz, has been appointed the interim Police Chief. These developments give a sense that the Yameen regime is struggling with the loyalty of its security forces. In this context it may be noted that under Chapter nine, No. 239; point (b) of the Constitution, ‘the security forces shall be subject to the authority of the People’s Majlis’. Under No. 243, point (b), President is the commander of military forces of the state but his authorization can be revoked any time by the People’s Majlis. Having lost the majority in the Majlis, these provisions of the Constitution make it vital for the president to prevent the Majlis from convening, for his shear survival.

International Reaction

The verdict has been welcomed by several international entities like the EU, UN Human Rights office, Governments of UK, US and India: "In the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of the Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex Court". The US ambassador to Maldives also urged the establishment to respect the ruling.

Fate of Upcoming Elections

President Yameen had indicated earlier that the election to the office of President, due to be conducted in October this year, could be moved ahead by several months. There can be a lot of reasons behind such a move that bear a direct influence on his political future. In that event it is not yet clear whether Nasheed will be able to contest the elections. It may be recalled that the last presidential elections in 2013 was not without controversy. The annulment of the September poll followed by acute deadline, voter registration problems and subsequent postponement of elections from October 19 to November 7, 2013, are covered in a comprehensive account by Azra Naseem of Himal South Asian; where she has also documented the activities of Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) during that time. Repeated attempts were then made to interfere in the election process. The results of the election favoured Yameen who won by a narrow margin; his vote share was 51.39% as opposed to his rival Mohammed Nasheed’s share of 48.61%.

The Election Commission of Maldives will again face a challenge to conduct free and fair elections in the coming months. The nation’s struggle in transition to stable democracy seems to be again under question.

India’s role in the context of the current developments will be vital, particularly if President Yameen decides to dig his heels in, as it is being widely speculated, by resorting to declaration of state of emergency. This was explicitly stated by Eva Abdulla, Member of Parliament belonging to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party. According to a report by ANI, she said, “There is an absolute breakdown of law and order in the country”. She expressed concern about the growing unrest and mentioned about the police having used pepper spray and tear gas on the public. She added, "We need our neighbours, especially India, to do all that it can to impress upon the Government of Maldives to implement the Supreme Court ruling." For the present, India may prefer to move cautiously as it can be discerned from the Ministry of External Affairs’ press release, stating that it ‘would closely monitor the evolving situation in Maldives’.

Sources:

• Al Jazeera News, Protests in Maldives amid pressure to release prisoners, Zahina Rashid, 3rd Feb, 2018.
• Associated press, Ex-Maldives president vows to run for office after prisoners freed, 2nd Feb, 2018.
• Associated Press, Exiled Ex-Maldives Leader Will Seek Presidency Again, Mohamed Sharuhaan and Jayampathy Palipane.
• Associated Press, Maldives president says he's willing to hold early election, Mohamed Shahuraan, 3rd Feb, 2018.
• Al Jazeera, Maldives army seals off parliament, arrests MPs, 4th Feb, 2018.
• ANI, Maldives police 'uses pepper spray' against Chief Justice supporters, 4th Feb, 2018.
http://www.presidencymaldives.gov.mv/Documents/ConstitutionOfMaldives.pdf

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)


Image Source: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/02/02/world/politics-diplomacy-world/trouble-paradise-clashes-erupt-maldives-court-orders-jailed-politicians-freed/#.WnqBKefhXIU

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