A Maldivian Political Impasse
The Maldives is perhaps the only country in the world where almost every citizen is a Muslim. In fact, its constitution says that a non-muslim cannot become a citizen, contest elections or hold a political office. Despite this, it is nothing short of shocking that the Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan being a fellow member in SAARC, did not play any role in resolving the recent political impasse and it was left to India to send its foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai, as an intermediary who eventually succeeded in bringing about a compromise. Don’t be surprised then when the Maldivians look to India rather than Pakistan as their friend in the future?
The Maldives has been in tumult since February 7, when Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, stepped down as a result of a coup by the security forces which the latter deny. He was replaced by his deputy, Mohammad Waheed Hassan. The two sides, represented by Nasheed and Hassan, have apparently agreed to hold elections within this year. Hassan was otherwise planning to organize an election in October 2013 in a country of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean that is best known for its luxurious beach resorts.
Nasheed’s exit led to a tense standoff, with his supporters clashing with the police. President Hassan instead asked Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party to join a unity government, which he refused and instead constantly demanded fresh elections.
It is nothing short of ironic that the Maldives was the first country in South Asia to adopt a democratic form of government. The Maldives’ hereditary Sultan, Shamsuddin, introduced a constitution on December 22, 1932, under which the Sultan was to be “elected” by a “Council of Advisers” comprising the elite of the country.
Despite this early start, the Maldivians to date have not been able to ensure the survival of democracy, despite their periodic struggles. This country of 330,000 people has, over the past 80 years, witnessed a battle between the forces of democracy and those of authoritarianism, in which the odds have favored the latter.
The Sultans kept deposing each other till January 1, 1953, when one Amin Didi abolished the Sultanate, established a republic and became the first president of the country. Amin’s rule however was short lived as he was overthrown in 1954. The country reverted to the Sultanate. However, by the mid-1960s, people got tired of the Sultanate. In a referendum held on the issue in 1968, they voted for its abolition.
On November 11, 1968, one Ibrahim Nasir was elected as the president to replace the sultan. In 1978, he was replaced by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a university lecturer who was then the Maldivian Ambassador at the UN. Gayoom gave an extraordinary thrust to tourism, which turned the Maldives into a country with a per capita Gross National Income of $5750 by 2010. Gayoom, however, was no democrat. He packed the Peoples’ Majlis (parliament) with his relatives and cronies; he always was the lone candidate in the elections.
Nasheed in the meantime formed the Maldivian Democratic Party, operating from Colombo in Sri Lanka. The 1990s saw Nasheed going in and out of jail. Gayoom eventually relented to the pressure and promised multi-party elections and a two-term limit for the president in 2004. On August 7, 2008, he introduced a new constitution under which the presidential elections were held on October 10, 2008. Nasheed got 54 percent of the popular vote and won. Mercifully, Gayoom quit gracefully.
The Maldives’ problems however continued when Gayoom’s Dhevehi Rayyathunge Party won a slim majority in the parliament in 2009, which led to a continuous conflict between the executive and the legislature. It is believed that this constant tug of war riled up Nasheed’s political opponents, culminating in his downfall and the recent impasse.