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Maldives in Constitutional Crisis: Deep chasms facing President Waheed - can he bridge them?

Male’, Maldives.
Maldives strongman Nasheed resigned today amidst widespread civic jubilation reminiscent of Arab springs. Police disobedience in the face of unconstitutional orders were the final straw which broke Nasheed’s iron grip on the country after weeks on civic riots. As Vice President Dr. Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik was sworn in today as the 5th President of the Maldives, Maldivians remain deeply concerned about their future.

President Waheed’s first official statement as President was that the Constitution of the country is supreme, and that all powers of the state would be exercised in accordance with the Constitution. He then pledged the democratic separation of powers and the protection of the rights of the people. President Waheed noted the hardships suffered by the population in the past three years, and called for national unity to restore democracy and democratic processes.

By these very short key statements, President Waheed showed his people that he had grasped the root causes of the widespread civic opposition to Nasheed. Namely, Nasheed’s hijacking of the Parliament, intimidation of and interference in the Judiciary, violation of civil liberties and freedoms, and the increasing poverty due to mismanagement of the economy.

While Dr. Waheed’s address to the nation may have alleviated concerns about his understanding of the country and its needs, political analysts remain skeptical about whether even an experienced administrator such as Dr. Waheed would be able to guide the divided Maldivian population into a smooth transition back into democracy.

Six primary reasons give rise to such skepticism. The first and foremost being the deep division and hatred fostered between the ardent supporters of ex-Presidents Nasheed and Gayoom. Nasheed’s pre-election strategies of personal attacks, slandering and hate mongering against Gayoom, his family and key leaders sowed the seeds of ongoing deep seated animosity and mistrust between the two groups.

In addition, during Nasheed’s short reign, he followed the same hate mongering strategy coupled with a witch hunt against Gayoom and his family. This strategy is likely to rebound against Nasheed now, in the light of his several criminal violations while President, including rampant corruption and cronyism in his regime. It is highly unlikely that Gayoom’s supporters will stand by quietly if any one were to try and hide Nasheed’s criminal activities without following due legal process.

The second primary reason is that, even if they may have violated all laws and Islamic tenets as alleged by the opposition, Nasheed’s MDP government was a legally elected government, albeit in coalition with several others. MDP, from its formation, is a radical militant party whose roots are in street violence, violation of the rule of law and direct action, like the JVP in Sri Lanka. Its three years in government did not change that very basic characteristic of the party. Its demise today was also rooted in the same issues, disrespect for the rule of law and street violence.

Although Nasheed may not have had a choice to stay as President today when confronted by the security forces, it is unlikely that MDP will quietly accept a position in opposition to its coalition partner, Dr. Waheed’s Gaumee Itthihad Party (GIP). Further, MDP control the majority in Parliament with 34 seats, and hence, can obstruct Dr. Waheed’s government at will. Indeed, Dr. Waheed will have to give MDP its legitimate space in his proposed national unity government before he can bring in any other party.

At the same time, historical experience shows that, any Cabinet with an MDP membership will follow the same pattern as current Parliamentary Committees, with lawlessness and obstruction the common practice. Given this historical pattern, Dr. Waheed will have a difficult time convincing any other political party to accept MDP participation in a national unity government. Yet, not including it, would give opportunity to MDP’s militant elements to further radicalize it and move even further it down the spectrum of democracy.

A third obstacle, as the common Maldivian and the well heeled political critic alike point out, are the high flown ambitions of top politicians today and the bitter rivalries between them. All 5 top contenders, Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, Jumhooree Party Leader Gasim Ibrahim, Dhivehi Qaumee Party Leader Dr. Hassan Saeed and Umar Naseer and Abdulla Yaameen of the People’s Progressive Party, all have histories of bitter rivalry and discord amongst themselves.

Except Umar Naseer, all were members of Gayoom’s cabinet at one time or other, with long histories of political sparring and conflict. Additionally, all have histories of reneging on political coalitions or agreements, eg. the short life and bitter fate of the coalition between Yaameen’s PA and Nasheed’s MDP for the public referendum on type of governance system; the fate of the national unity alliance between MDP/GIP/IDP/JP/GP/SLP; and the fate of the agreement between Gayoom and Thasmeen Ali.

Even if these politicians were to set aside their bitter rivalries to work unitedly for the common good, there is still the single most popular individual in the country, ex-President Gayoom, waiting in the wings for his curtain call. Gayoom has purposefully left open the question of his candidacy for 2013, embroiling his fledgling party PPM in internal discord and suspicion. However popular Gayoom maybe, opposition to his reinstatement as President is widespread and strong amongst the country’s young and educated voter base. Any re-election bid by Gayoom would cause civic discord and strife that the Maldives can well do without. Gayoom’s stoic silence on the subject is already creating this discord amongst his closes political advisors and members.

A fourth obstacle is the fact, that Nasheed and MDP total mismanagement of the transition to the wider democracy under the 2004 Reform Program, have created a mistrust amongst the public for political parties and their elected officials. Many feel that the multi-party system of democracy has failed in the country. And many feel that it cannot provide a lasting solution in a small country such as the Maldives.

A fifth key issue is that, Dr. Waheed will need to immediately balance the country’s strong Islamic base against the international commitments required by his foreign supporters and local tourism industry. Nasheed’s anti-Islamist policies, his installation of monuments with anti-Islamic carvings, foreign relations with Israel and so on, have created a coalescing opposite movement of educated youngsters under the Islamic flag. This movement, led by the Adhaalath Party, will also need to be held in check by mainstreaming their participation in policy making.

The final issue is that, Dr. Waheed himself will contest the 2013 elections. Giving cabinet space to his political opponents in the next year, puts in jeopardy his bid for a full first term as President of Maldives. At present, Dr. Waheed commands nowhere near the populist following that Gayoom, Nasheed, Gasim and Dr. Hassan Saeed do. Additionaly, QIP is a small weak party which has not gained any political experience due to its submergence within the tentacles of the MDP until this afternoon. Hence, Dr. Waheed will need to use his 18 months as President widely to launch his bid for 2013 and to showcase his credentials for the job.

Time is short for Dr. Waheed to make decisions on the status of MDP in his government, on the structure of any unity government and how Ministerial posts would be distributed, and concrete social and economic policies and strategies to rescue the country’s economy and people. Parliament is set for reconvening by end February, the first session at which President Waheed must give his State of the Union address.

President Waheed would boost voter confidence in his capabilities and his popularity immensely were he to be able to bridge the deep chasms above prior to the opening of the Parliament next month. Can he, is the question on every Maldivian mind today.

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