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A democracy do-over in the Maldives

Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, former Maldives ambassador to the US, examines the reasons for the anger, despair, disillusionment and hope surrounding the newly launched United Maldives Opposition.



Emotions are running high among the political chattering classes in the Maldives as the newly formed United Maldives Opposition (UMO) came into being. There is hope and even some excitement as past rivals came together, shedding their differences, in search of the ‘greater good’. There is anger and despair, even disillusionment and cynicism with the new leadership. There are the idealists, who never fail to see the rainbow. There are the realists who know the rainbow is not real. And then, of course, there are the rationalists, who are always willing to give every effort a chance.

As may be expected, the debate is most intense among the die-hard supporters of the Maldivian Democratic Party who have borne the brunt of the highs and lows of the democratic transition experience in the Maldives. Some argue UMO to be an inspired political move that would galvanize hitherto political rivals into a one united group, posing a clear and credible threat to the dictatorial ambitions of President Abdulla Yameen. Others see the move as yet another cynical and a fatally doomed political exercise, deserving of only contempt, destined to bring even more disenchantment to the long suffering people of the Maldives, whose dreams of democracy keep on getting stolen.

In the serendipitous exile of so many prominent yet disillusioned Maldives politicians in one place, safely out of reach of President Yameen’s regime, it is only natural that they would be drawn together like moths to a flame. Although UMO is said to be led by former Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, there is no doubt amongst any that the inspiration and force behind the group is former President Mohamed Nasheed, who seems to have opted for a more behind the scenes role for the time being. But it is difficult to conclude that President Nasheed would ever position himself to play second fiddle to VP Jameel or any other Maldivian politician for that matter. While President Nasheed may appear to have won over most of the party ‘establishment’, to support the new initiative, his success in convincing a large portion of the MDP grassroots supporters about the ‘big picture’ of UMO remains an uphill task, a work still in progress.

Leadership Angst

The fact that the newly formed UMO is being led by the former Vice President Jameel has been a hard pill to swallow for many MDP-ians. This is hardly surprising, given the vitriolic statements Jameel had made against the MDP, especially its leader, former President Mohamed Nasheed. Many are still unwilling to forgive or forget his infamous declaration “will not hand over power, even if elected!” that he gutturally screamed at a PPM rally in the run-up to the 2013 election. Nor are they willing to overlook the key role he played in bringing down the democratically elected government of President Nasheed in 2012. Having sided with the MDP and joined the broad coalition formed by then candidate Mohamed Nasheed to bring down the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2008, Jameel lost no time in trying to discredit President Nasheed and his government, even while serving as one of his cabinet ministers. Since then and up until the day he fell foul with Yameen, Jameel had been one of the fiercest critics of and a sharply felt thorn in the side of MDP in and out of government.

Then there are the two of the three ‘Advisers’ of the UMO – Col. (rtd.) Mohamed Nazim and Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of the Adhaalath Party. Both men had figured prominently in the events that led to the alleged ‘coup’ against President Nasheed, forcing his resignation on 7 February 2012. Those bitter memories are still being refreshed in our minds and hearts frequently through the many images and video clips constantly beamed into our sitting rooms by the local television stations. How could they stand as ‘equal’ to President Nasheed, on whom they brought so much hardship and sacrifice, undeserved and unfair, many in the MDP continue to ask.

That both these leaders who once stood shoulder to shoulder with President Yameen in catapulting him to the presidency in 2013 are today serving long jail sentences as terrorists, their convictions stage managed through a series of blatantly unjust, if not comical trials, is considered by some to be ‘ironic justice’. To be fair, it should be remembered that Sheikh Imran had teamed up with MDP in challenging President Yameen, even long before his arrest.

Perhaps even more scathingly felt has been the presence of Vice President Ahmed Adeeb’s representative in the guise of his spouse on the podium of the UMO, sitting as an equal to any other. His many transgressions against the MDP and his methodical dismantling of the democratic rights of the people during his days of unrivalled power through means foul and fraudulent are still fresh in the minds of many.

Moreover, one wonders whether Jameel would ever forget that his downfall was almost single handedly choreographed by his successor, Adeeb, with the willful connivance of President Yameen. Nor could there be much love lost between Nazim and Adeeb, their bitter rivalry in the cabinet and the disastrous downfall of Nazim caused by none other than Adeeb. This is common knowledge amongst the public.

Such then is the leadership that has vowed to protect and promote the mantle of democracy in the Maldives for the future generations. Not everyone is convinced about their political worth or sincerity to the cause of democracy and establishing justice in the Maldives.

Coalitions & the Shadow Cabinet

Another criticism that is being leveled against the UMO has been the announcement of a ‘shadow cabinet’, this time more by the regime supporters aimed at ridiculing the new opposition initiative. Interestingly enough, the criticism appear to be rooted in the theoretical underpinnings of the concept, claiming that ‘shadow cabinets’ are a feature of the Westminster system and not a part of the presidential style of government existing in the Maldives. Be that as it may, what is clearly undeniable in the political reality of today’s Maldives is that the ‘checks and balances’ that is supposed to be integral to the presidential system have been made redundant by President Yameen through a series of political and even legally questionable moves.

Many critics have been quick to disparage the concept of coalitions in the Maldives, recalling the past disappointments of coalition partners who came together in opposition but soon fell foul in governance. And yet, every Maldives political leader and their parties have entered into coalition agreements in fighting elections, ever since the 2008 constitution was promulgated.

Indeed, the lessons of past few elections in the Maldives point to a case where coalitions are useful in opposition to bring down the government, yet present a hindrance in governance to the elected president, who enjoys the benefits of the ‘winner take all’ system of government that exist under the present constitution.

So, why does it matter that the UOM has opted to announce a ‘shadow cabinet’?

Indeed, one might argue that this is quite in keeping with the Maldives style of ‘unique’ form of governance, where practice is often far removed from the principles committed to on paper. That the opposition has seen it fit to form a shadow cabinet is a declaration of their unity against the common oppressor who, having kidnapped the system, is now demanding too high a ransom from the people of Maldives.

UMO represents one loud collective ‘No’ to the abusive powers of an increasingly dictatorial president. Indeed, the ‘shadow cabinet’ is nothing more than a group of people who have been entrusted with and who have agreed to take on the task of keeping the government on toe, in ‘shadowing’ the government’s policies and actions in their respectively assigned areas.

This is not the ‘alternative government’ in waiting.

Whither Justice?

Passions have run high among the multitudes who have suffered under this regime, as they debated the justness of being led by the very people who they believe have been complicit in perpetrating injustice in the country. Political leaders like former VPs Jameel and Adeeb, former Defence Minister Nazim and Imran had worked hard enthusiastically and energetically in sowing the seeds of Yameen’s dictatorship. Their sole aim then had been to deny, by means fair or foul, the return to power of President Nasheed. Their harsh and unjust demonization of President Nasheed as an irreligious, anti-Islamic, power hungry character intent on delivering the ‘ Islamic Maldives’ to the ‘Christian West’ reeked of blatant bigotry and racism that remains hard to digest to this day for many of those who have been on the MDP’s ‘Voyage of Justice’ post 2012.

Yet, the undeniable facts of the day point to a changed political reality. The very forces that once sang paeans praising Yameen to the sky and beyond have today become his mortal enemies. They have been publicly humiliated, cunningly framed and unjustly convicted. Some have been forced into exile. They have experienced firsthand the unbridled wrath of an unhappy master and his merciless justice. The government they had sworn to uphold had turned against them, brandishing them as terrorists, offering them no hope or respite, and no political future within the status quo.

Just as President Nasheed had been subjected to innumerous ignominies by this regime, so have the likes of Jameel, Adeeb, Imran, Nazim and many more, come to suffer under President Yameen. The justice system that both VPs had so ferociously defended whilst in power has been laid bare for them to experience firsthand the many injustices our courts perpetrate consistently every day. They too have become victims of injustice perpetrated by a jealous state.

Under the circumstances, many are inclined to paint their new found motivation and commitment to restore democracy back to the Maldives as being driven by a personal agenda, even if couched in the language of nationalism. Another strongly felt concern by many members of the MDP has been that membership of UMO is being sought as a means to escape prosecution from transgressions committed while in office and obtain a grant of immunity from the future government.

The persecution of Maldives political leaders and activists has been rampant and culturally ingrained over many centuries. President Nasheed, during his term of office sought to change this historic reality and nurture an environment in which political leaders could lead dignified lives even after they left office. This was not a sentiment that was always welcomed by his supporters.

The search for justice has always been the ultimate goal of the democratic reform movement that ultimately became the MDP. Unfortunately, despite the 2008 constitutional provisions, the judicial process in the country remain mired in incompetency and judicial malpractice, all too ready to do the bidding of political masters.

It is this reality that UMO must aim to change. For it is only then that the leaders of UMO can hope that they will be accorded a free, fair and transparent trial for the serious charges they have been convicted of to date, or are currently facing in the malevolent courts that exist in the Maldives today. Their inclusion and participation in UMO does not, and indeed should not, guarantee immunity from past actions that may or may not have been criminal. But it does provide the best hope for them to receive a fair hearing, with independent judges freed from political interference. It is also the best hope of obtaining closure for the so many who have suffered in the name of democratic reform during the past few years.

It is all too clearly evident that this noblest of goals – justice – can only be achieved in an environment freed from Yameen’s dictatorial regime. Now, that is a goal even the angriest of MDP supporters should be able to relate to and appreciate.

Dare one hope that UMO may herald a new beginning in learning to co-exist peacefully with political rivals in times of electoral victory as well as after losing office?

Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed is the former ambassador of the Maldives to the United States

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