By Mayuri Mukherjee
Coup rocks political stability in Maldives as Islamists gain strength
Be vigilant of what not only might happen in the Indian peninsula, in the islands but also of what may happen in the wider Indian Ocean,” then President of Maldives Mohamed Nasheed had warned cadet officers at the Sri Lanka Military Academy on December 27, 2011. His words rang true on Tuesday when mutinous factions within the police and the Army joined hands to remove him, the country’s first democratically elected President, from power.
Since Mr Nasheed announced his resignation on Tuesday evening, he has been held by the military at an undisclosed location, reportedly against his will, while his former Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, has positioned himself at the helm of affairs. He is expected to preside over a national unity Government until the end of the ongoing presidential term in 2013 after which general election are supposed to be held, although how free or fair they will be is anybody’s guess.
Maldives is a young democracy, barely four years old. The past three decades it was under the autocratic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled the country with an iron fist. Under his reign, Mr Nasheed, a journalist by profession emerged as the country’s best known dissident. A staunch rights activist and champion of democracy and civil liberties, he tirelessly campaigned to end dictatorial rule in Maldives. His activism led to his being imprisoned 16 times; he even spent eight months in solitary confinement undergoing immense physical and mental torture. Eventually, his campaign brought global attention to Mr Gayoom’s abusive regime. Growing international pressure ultimately forced the Maldivian strongman to allow free and fair elections in 2008, in sharp contrast to the electoral shams he had overseen over the past decades.
Mr Nasheed emerged victorious in the 2008 general election and took office on November 11 with a huge popular mandate. From day one, he was committed to taking his fight against autocracy to its logical conclusion by establishing a strong democratic framework in his country. But his transition from activist to President, no matter how well-meaning, was far from smooth. Mr Gayoom was gone but his party was still active and elements from the old regime remained deeply entrenched in the system — be it in Parliament, within the police or the Army — and fighting them off proved impossible.
Along with the Islamists, the old guard was determined to thwart the Nasheed Government’s every effort to reform and restructure the country’s socio-political institutions, and sadly, it seems to have succeeded. The situation was made worse in part by the fact that Mr Nasheed despite his popularity and goodwill, did not have a majority in the Maldivian Parliament, known as Majlis. He was, therefore, heavily dependent on the Opposition to pass any major reform or legislation. And while he did have the support of some Opposition parties at the start of his tenure, much of that eroded in the course of the next few years as Mr Nasheed embarked on a political campaign to weed out all elements of the old regime.
But given the kind of influence still wielded by Mr Gayoom and his supporters, this was a strategic mistake. With the Opposition becoming ever more critical of his rule, Mr Nasheed found it impossible to conduct even the daily business of governance. In recent times, the Majlis was in a complete deadlock as the Opposition refused to let it function. The most obvious fall out of such a political logjam was the corrosion of popular support. A governance deficit meant the prices of essential commodities soared while unemployment too was on the rise. Add to this the Islamists’ slander campaign against Mr Nasheed, and his presidency was ripe for a coup.
Indeed, for months before Tuesday’s virtual coup, the Islamists had been out on the streets attacking Mr Nasheed’s religious views and policies, such as his decision to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Unfortunately, the former President failed to bring these rabble-rousers under control as he dawdled between appeasement and punishment. For instance, the Government first gave in to the Islamists’ demand to ban spas across the country in December 2011, but overturned the decision at a later date.
The final straw, of course, came with the arrest of the Chief Justice of the criminal court. Like many other members of the judiciary who are believed to be in Mr Gayoom’s pockets, Justice Abdulla Mohamed had refused to prosecute members of the old regime and had been stalling cases of graft and rights abuses brought against them. His political bias was vitiating the system and making it impossible for Mr Nasheed to deliver on his promise of an independent judiciary. However, the judge’s arrest led to a constitutional crisis which prompted the Supreme Court to step in and order his release.
But as the Government ignored the order, Mr Nasheed’s critics were quick to accuse him of browbeating his opponents much like his predecessor. But the fact remains that he had been pushed to the wall and had to retaliate.
As the controversy raged on, the past three weeks saw street protests break out throughout the densely populated capital of Male. On Monday, the headquarters of Mr Nasheed’s Maldives Democratic Party came under attack and overnight, vandals captured the offices of the state television broadcaster MNBC. They also renamed it TV Maldives, as it was called during Mr Gayoom’s regime. The situation deteriorated on Tuesday when soldiers fired rubber bullets at revolting police officers and other demonstrators who had laid siege to the Maldives National Defence Force headquarters in Republic Square.
With the possibility of large-scale violence looming and the military holding a gun to his head, Mr Nasheed was faced with a choice to either crack down on the protesters or leave office. Ever the rights activist, Mr Nasheed announced his resignation on Tuesday evening saying that, “It will be better for the country, if I resign. I don’t want to run the country with an iron fist”. His departure speech is a testimony to the kind of leader he aspired to be and only serves to underline what a tremendous blow this has been to Maldives’ infant democracy. Thankfully, he seems determined to fight back as his call to President Waheed on Wednesday to resign stands proof.
Mr Nasheed had once said that Maldives has shown the world that, “You don’t have to bomb a Muslim country for regime change.” And indeed, the Indian Ocean archipelago could have been an apt precursor to the Arab Spring. That the old guard is gaining power in Maldives at a time when Islamist-back Governments are taking over across Arabia is perhaps a telling comment.
Nonetheless, it is still too early to comment on how the recent developments in Maldives will eventually play out. On its part, India whose relations with Maldives go back a long time, will do well to ensure that its neighbour’s democratic credentials are upheld and that the Islamists who have already reared their ugly head are not allowed to run amock.
India had come out in Mr Gayoom’s support back in 1988 when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had sent out military support to buttress the Maldivian dictator’s faltering regime. New Delhi should have stood by Mr Nasheed in his hour of crisis.
Source: The Pioneer, New Delhi