Monday, November 24, 2008

Transition to Multiparty Democracy

There is widespread optimism as a pro-democracy activist is elected president in the Maldives.

After a prolonged 30-year rule by former president Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives elected prominent opposition leader Mohammad Nasheed (“Anni”) in the country’s first truly democratic presidential elections. Nasheed won the run-off presidential elections by capturing 54% of the votes.

Gayoom’s iron-fisted rule, marred by corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and stifling of any political dissent had remained unchallenged until these elections. Nasheed was at the receiving end of Gayoom’s actions against political dissidents in the country. An activist who had been sentenced to prison 23 times, was 18 months in solitary confinement and underwent torture in prison, Nasheed had founded his opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) overseas in Sri Lanka only in 2003. This was in the aftermath of a civil demonstration in the capital Male against Gayoom, which resulted in riots and unrest.

Generous political help followed from international actors as Nasheed was given refuge in the United Kingdom, where he and his party colleagues built up support for their “cause” – ushering in genuine democracy in Maldives. After his return to the Maldives, Nasheed consolidated his support base by engaging in campaigning across the nation’s islands. Facing continual unrest due to anger against his rule, and relentless demonstrations for a democratic Maldives, Gayoom tried to use repressive measures to stem the discontent against his regime. But, adverse international opinion mounted after the international community’s involvement in tsunami relief in 2004.

All this pressure eventually forced Gayoom to accept a relatively peaceful transition to political pluralism which paved the way for the recognition of the MDP as an opposition party in 2005. Later, Gayoom had to allow the enactment of a new democratic constitution in August 2008 and schedule presidential elections in October 2008. Parliamentary elections are also slated for February 2009.

The new democratic constitution, for the first time, brought about a separation of powers in the Maldives, with the powers of the judiciary statutorily demarcated from those of the head of state. The constitution gives importance to the tenets of Islam which is the State religion, while at the same time guaranteeing a regime of rights and freedoms, apart from the separation of powers as between institutions such as the Majlis (parliament), the presidency and the judiciary. Under popular pressure, Gayoom’s otherwise autocratic political legacy gave way to permitting a transition to a constitutional, democratic republic.

Mohammad Nasheed inherits a Maldives whose economy has been relatively prosperous in terms of per capita income, largely due to high returns from tourism and foreign investment. But, this record is marred by high levels of inequality and youth unemployment buttressing crime. Nasheed’s immediate challenge remains mitigating the negative impact of the global financial crisis on the economy which is over-reliant on tourism and its associated sectors. He had campaigned on a platform of diversification of the economy beyond tourism and fishing, and this would be a priority task for his government. The other challenge that president Nasheed faces is the effect of global warming on the Maldives. Practically the entire population of the country, living in its chain of atolls, is threatened by the rise of sea water level.

The transition to multiparty democracy and the election of Mohammad Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, to the post of president, one who has shown no rancour against his former tormentors and political rivals, should facilitate the task of addressing the many challenges facing the country.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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