Fate in Balance

Written by Huzaima Bukhari & Dr. Ikramul Haq  •  Region  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

The September 2013 elections in the Maldives will make or break the country which has already been struggling to embrace democracy for a long time.

“Fairness at a minimum requires a level playing field. Thus, the existing culture of misuse of public resources by the incumbency to their electoral advantage must stop”

-- Pre-election Report by Transparency Maldives

 “Our society is generally very moderate. That’s why they elected me. That’s why they want to elect me again. [The Islamists] contested us in a parliamentary election and did not get a single seat. They contested us in local council elections and did not get a single seat. But after the coup they have three cabinet ministers”

-- Maldivian ex-President Mohamed Nasheed

Despite uncertainty, a growing influence of radical elements and interference from foreign powers, the Maldivians are determined to choose a President in the forthcoming elections, to be held on 7 September 2013. These elections promise much hope. Yet the realization of this hope hinges on holding free and fair elections of which arise serious question marks.

A detailed pre-election report released by Transparency Maldives says, “assuring” freedom for the upcoming elections requires sustaining an electoral environment for voters to freely choose a president without fear, intimidation, and undue influence, but through the opportunities to fully exercise freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs of the United Nations, during his recent three day visit to the Maldives, encouraged all stakeholders to ensure conditions for free, fair, inclusive, credible and non-violent elections. Multi-party presidential elections were held in the Maldives for the first time in 2008, ending 30 years of one-party rule. Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected in those polls, resigned in February 2012 in contested circumstances and was succeeded by his former deputy, Waheed Hassan. The Government under Waheed set up a ‘National Commission of Inquiry’ to probe the events leading to the regime change. The report released last August contradicted Nasheed’s claim of a coup conducted against him. However the report, and later Nasheed’s arrest and trial cast a dark shadow on the impartiality of the judiciary and the holding of free and fair elections in the tiny island. The UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, found during her visit to the country in February this year that “judicial officials are not sufficiently independent from external pressures and interferences.”

In February 2013, in the wake of continued political turmoil, Nasheed took refuge in the Indian High Commission for about two weeks after a court ordered his arrest for failing to appear to face charges of abuse of power. As a result of a deal brokered by India, Nasheed left the Indian sanctuary on 23 February 2013 – was arrested and brought to court to face trial a fortnight later on 6 March 2013.  If convicted, Nasheed faces disqualification from the presidential polls, which will further give credibility to his allegation that the trial against him is “politically motivated.”

Apart from the myriad of internal political tussles and polarization plaguing the Maldives, foreign states are perpetually interfering in domestic politics. India and the United States share concern about the growing Chinese influence in the region. In 2011, China announced setting up its embassy in Male amid growing military and economic ties. Western democracies are also worried about the growing influence of Salafist parties such as the Adhaalath Party, coinciding with the rising radicalization of the island nation. This became evident when a bomb attack in Male wounded 12 Western tourists in September 2007 followed by a suicide attack in May 2009 on the headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Lahore by Ali Jaleel, a Maldivian member of Al-Qaeda. Close on the heels of that attack, Pakistani troops arrested nine Al-Qaeda operatives at a training camp in South Waziristan in 2010, all of whom turned out to be Maldivian citizens. This explains why USA, EU, India, China and other South Asian nations are voicing loud support for elections in the Maldives.

The U.S., EU and India are pressurizing the Waheed government not to bar Nasheed from contesting the September elections as it would further polarise and radicalise the nation. India has already taken a strong stance towards the Maldivian government by cancelling a $500 million contract awarded to a consortium led by Indian firm GMR to modernize and operate Male’s international airport. The growing anti-Indian sentiments promoted by Islamist parties such as the Adhaalath Party, allied to Waheed’s Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP), is a real cause of concern for New Delhi. The U.S. has provided $2.5 million “for participation in democracy”, but analysts claim that the real aim is to promote moderate elements. Both the U.S. and EU consider Nasheed’s participation imperative to free and fair elections -- the former president predicts the country will be plunged into violence and political turmoil if he is prevented from standing in elections. Nasheed, a human rights campaigner, gained global attention for his activism on the issue of global warming during his tenure in office. He held a cabinet meeting underwater in diving gear to dramatise the threat posed to the low-lying Maldives by rising sea levels.

The uncertain scenario of elections in the Maldives is aptly explained by Transparency Maldives observing that “democracy consolidation is impossible under a context where legitimacy [of the government] is contested by a substantial segment of the population. Thus, key to successfully addressing the ongoing legitimating crisis is holding elections in which candidates of all major political parties are free to contest”. Time will only tell whether this materializes or the Maldives plunges into further political turmoil. 

Huzaima Bukhari & Dr. Ikramul Haq are partners in the law firm Huzaima & Ikram (member Taxand) and Adjunct Professors at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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