The Maldives has been in the news a lot recently following a change of government there. As a frequent visiter to the country I have been following its progress since 2008 when the Maldives held their first democratic elections. In a comment piece for the Guardian newspaper I have looked at why the former President, Mohamed Nasheed, resigned and what his options are now going forward.
The current political situation on the Maldives divides opinion. In a recent article on Comment is free, Mark Seddon posed an important question when he asked why David Cameron has not spoken up for his “new great friend” in politics, the ousted president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. He also provides the answer when he quotes Nasheed in one of his interviews as saying: “I could do what the old dictator, Gayoom, would have done, and put these people who are plotting to overthrow me under house arrest. But then that would completely defeat the object of the democratic revolution we have won.”
Unfortunately for both Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic party (MDP) that is exactly what he did do when he arrested the Maldives’s chief judge of the criminal court, Justice Abdulla Mohamed, on 16 January. Detained by the army on his orders, Nasheed then refused to release him despite protests from the supreme court in the Maldives, the European Union and the United Nations. Nasheed also denied him access to a lawyer and contact with his wife and children. Mohamed was only finally released over three weeks later when Nasheed resigned on 7 February.
Whatever the case against the judge, arresting him in this way was unforgivable, particularly given his previous status as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience under the former dictator President Gayoom. It also played directly into the hands of the opposition parties on the Maldives and was the catalyst for weeks of protests and violence, which eventually led to his own police force changing sides and joining the opposition. After that whatever the truth surrounding the accusations of a coup, his position had become untenable.
I too interviewed Nasheed, first when I went to the Maldives in 2008 to cover the country’s long and tortuous path to democracy. Speaking with him in his tiny cramped offices in the capital Male, I thought he was an impressive grassroots campaigner whose ability to lead his party and put large numbers of people onto the streets clearly made him a contender to be president. But I concluded that he was untested in high office and there was a great deal of difference between being an effective campaigner and being an effective president.
I then interviewed him again when I covered the country’s first democratic elections later that same year. Despite the ecstatic coverage that greeted his victory, the election was far from being a ringing endorsement for Nasheed. In fact, the outcome was very close and he was only able to beat Gayoom in the second round by putting together an alliance of all the opposition parties. In an ominous sign of the times to come, the coalition broke down soon after he entered office. Formidable politicians like the former attorney general, Hassan Saeed, who came third in the election with nearly 17% of the vote, was cast out into the wilderness.
The result was that the moderate parties like Saeed’s Dhivehi Qaumee party soon formed a working alliance with Gayoom’s former party, Dhivehi Rayyithunge and some of the smaller and more radical Islamic parties. Together they then won a small majority in the parliamentary elections in 2009 and the die was cast for a continuing battle of wills between the president and his parliament over a whole range of issues from ministerial appointments to the building of a new airport.
This culminated in June 2010 in Nasheed’s whole cabinet resigning en masse and taking to the streets after the parliament had passed a vote of no confidence. It was exactly those same opposition players that have now come together to form a unity government under the new president Mohamed Waheed Hassan. Wisely, Waheed has left a clutch of cabinet positions vacant in the hope that over the next week he can persuade some members of the Maldivian Democratic party to join him.
Nasheed now has a clear choice going forward. The UN, British, American and most recently Chinese governments have in recent days all recognised the new unity government and it is highly unlikely that the new president will resign or call fresh elections. There is also increasing evidence that the images of violent protests are beginning to affect the country’s tourist trade, which accounts for nearly 80% of its revenue. If this continues, it could prove disastrous for the Maldives’s economy.
In contemplating his next move, Nasheed would do well to remember Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Under the Maldives’s constitution there will be another presidential election in just over a year’s time. Nasheed should contest this and in the meantime work with the new unity government to bring peace back to the streets.
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