Maldives: A controversial change of government

J J Robinson

The sudden replacement in February of the internationally celebrated President Mohamed Nasheed by his vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, has now been approved by a Commission of National Inquiry, but the accompanying controversy seems unlikely to end until it is put before the electorate.

“Be courageous. We will not back down an inch. Today, the change [in power] in the Maldives is what Allah has willed. This did not happen because of one or two people coming out into the streets. Nobody had been waiting for this. Nobody even saw this day. This change came because Allah willed to protect Islam and the decent Maldivian norms.”

This statement by the new president of the Maldives, Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan, at his first public rally three weeks after the controversial transfer of power in early February, caught his listeners off guard.

Vice-president under former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration, Dr Waheed succeeded to the top job after protesting police and military officers sided with opposition demonstrators and demanded the incumbent’s resignation on the morning of 7 February. Rather than resort to lethal force, Nasheed complied with the demand and resigned, but later alleged this had been under duress and that Waheed had seized power in a coup d’état.

When Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – by far the largest in the country – marched in protest on 8 February, it was met with a brutal police crackdown, reminiscent of the country’s 30 years of dictatorship under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

If the Maldives had seemed to be on its way to becoming a model Islamic democracy under Nasheed – himself a former political prisoner – the involvement in Nasheed’s downfall of Gayoom’s ‘star force’ riot police seemed an ominous portent for other Arab Spring nations. “The lesson is we didn’t deal with Gayoom. That’s the obvious lesson. And my romantic ideas of how to deal with a dictator were wrong,” Nasheed said in an interview a month after his resignation.

It was a striking reversal of his magnanimity following the 2008 election, in which he smoothly came to power as part of a broad coalition of Gayoom’s opponents. However, ousting Gayoom was the only shared policy of the coalition’s assortment of resort tycoons, religious fundamentalists and political opportunists. Nasheed’s MDP was one of only two parties to even have a manifesto. The other was Waheed’s party, the intellectual and technocratic Gaumee Itthihaad, which, with a meagre 2,600 members, received just 518 votes in the subsequent parliamentary election – 0.31 percent of the vote.

After taking power, Waheed’s use of Islamic rhetoric whenever he spoke in Dhivehi, the local language, was significant because, under the country’s 2008 constitution, all Maldivian citizens are mandatorily Sunni Muslims. Many rights, such as freedom of expression, come with the blanket caveat, “subject to the tenets of Islam”. This places great authority in whoever claims to interpret those tenets. The religious Adhaalath Party, despite its poor electoral performance and lack of parliamentary representation, nonetheless commands considerable political weight and now controls the Islamic Affairs ministry and the Friday sermons.

By late 2011, the Maldivian economy was showing upward movement. Tourist arrivals were booming and the government had introduced universal health insurance to much public acclaim. But Nasheed’s perceived liberalism served to unite the MDP’s jilted coalition partners – who had fallen out over three years of assorted disagreements – against him, in much the same way they had against Gayoom.

On 23 December 2011, the combined opposition held a mass rally demanding, among other things, the closure of massage parlours and a state apology from Nasheed for allowing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to condemn the Maldives’s practice of flogging women for having extramarital sex. The unlikely alliance led to some surreal scenes, including the country’s single largest importer of pork and alcohol standing on the sea wall and declaring to an audience of thousands that there was “no such thing as moderate Islam”.

Nasheed called their bluff, temporarily issuing an order to close all massage parlours across the country and demanding the Supreme Court decisively state whether the Maldives could import pork and alcohol without violating the nation’s shariah-based constitution. It refused to do so.

If the subversion of religion for the purpose of political opportunism was fuel for the events of February, Nasheed’s arrest of Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed on 16 January 2012 was the spark the opposition was looking for.

Nasheed’s government had accused Judge Abdulla of holding up cases involving opposition figures, barring media from corruption trials, releasing suspects in serious criminal cases without a hearing, and in one instance, arbitrarily releasing a murder suspect who went on to kill another victim. Further allegations included active undermining of cases involving drug-trafficking suspects, disregarding decisions of higher courts and ordering an underage sexual assault victim to re-enact her attack in the courtroom in front of the perpetrator.

The Civil Court had in September granted Judge Abdulla an injunction from further investigation by the judicial watchdog, the Judicial Services Commission (JSC). He initially overruled his own arrest by police, who called in the military to take him into custody. Disregarding Supreme Court orders to release the judge, Nasheed called for international assistance to reform the judiciary, and dug in his heels to wait out the opposition-led protests.

The move, which prompted international concern and condemnation, was the culmination of a judicial crisis that had had its beginnings in August 2010. The new constitution required parliament to establish the professional and ethical criteria for the bench prior to its reappointment. Dismissing this requirement, however, the JSC reappointed the former autocracy’s rubberstamping judiciary in its entirety.

Aishath Velezinee, Nasheed’s appointed representative to the JSC, has observed that 60 percent of judges and magistrates had less than grade 7 education, while 30 percent had actual criminal records. He has also said that the assumption that Abdulla Mohamed was constitutionally appointed was a “false premise, a political creation which ignores all evidence refuting it”.

In a bid to cement his legitimacy, Waheed appointed a three-member panel – including Gayoom’s former defence minister – to investigate the circumstances of his succession. After Commonwealth intervention and its appointment of Special Envoy Sir Donald McKinnon, the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) was expanded to include a representative for Nasheed and, at the request of the government, a retired Singaporean judge, G. P. Selvam.

Released in late August, the CNI report found no evidence to support Nasheed’s claims that he was ousted in a coup d’état, that his resignation was under duress, or that police or military had even mutinied. “There appears nothing contestable in constitutional terms under the generic notion of a ‘coup d’état’ that is alleged to have occurred – quite to the contrary, in fact,” the report maintained, restoring legitimacy to the government and scuttling the MDP’s protest call for early elections.

“Until the time of his resignation, President Nasheed possessed of many powers under the constitution that he could have utilised, including the lawful use of force. He chose not to. That decision may be classified as praiseworthy, but he cannot now contend that because he made those choices, that he was ‘forced’ into resigning because of what others were doing around him,” stated the report.

New state minister for foreign affairs, Dunya Maumoon – who is also Gayoom’s daughter – subsequently called for the Maldives to be removed from the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), warning that the country would otherwise likely leave the Commonwealth. The government has pressed charges against Nasheed for allegedly having liquor bottles in the presidential residence, inciting violence and, along with the country’s top generals, illegally detaining Judge Abdulla. The case has been sent to court. A conviction would disqualify Nasheed from standing in the next elections, effectively disenfranchising the country’s largest political party.

“As the Arab Spring continues its inevitable march across the Islamic world, the Maldives could have been an example of where the international community stood up for Muslim democrats, by forcing a coup regime to hold early elections and restore democracy,” wrote Nasheed in a recent column for The Huffington Post. As discussions must now take place over the timing of the next elections, the extent to which the new administration of President Waheed Hassan is genuinely committed to the democratic path will soon become clearer.

About the author:

J J Robinson is Editor of Minivan News, the main English-language news service in the Maldives


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