Colombo, December 3 (Counterpoint): The Maldivian Presidential election is to be held in November 2023. Even though two years are still left, the country is already in an election mode.
In the run up to the poll, a number of issues are engaging the peoples’ attention. Prominent among these are: a suggestion to switch over to the parliamentary system from the current Presidential system; the suitability of the political style of the various prospective candidates; relations with rival powers India and China; and the country’s Islamic foundations and Islamic radicalism.
Presidential vs Parliamentary
The Speaker of the Maldivian parliament and former President Mohamed Nasheed has been advocating the Westminster-style of government for long. He has, in the past year, revived the demand.
In 2007, a referendum was held on this issue and the Maldivians had overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Presidential system. Then, as now, Nasheed stood for the parliamentary system. The 2008 constitution ushered in a Presidential system with the President being directly elected by a country-wide electorate and parliamentarians being elected from territorial constituencies.
However, supporters of the parliamentary system, who are mainly in Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), say that the mood has changed after experiencing the Presidential system since 2008. There a yearning for change, they say. Recently, Nasheed told the TV program ‘Ask the Speaker’ that a “constitutional referendum” will be held prior to the October 2023 Presidential election.
“What I really think is that, after 2023, the governance system will not continue as a Presidential system. I believe that Maldives will run more efficiently in a parliamentary system. Having a parliament that is answerable to the citizens will be the most advantageous for citizens, and will boost the rate of development,” he said.
One of Nasheed’s arguments in favor of the Westminster system is that it suits “coalition politics”. Coalitions, he points out, are inescapable in Maldivian politics with its multiplicity of parties and factions. And coalitions work better in a parliamentary system. Additionally, governance would not depend so much on one person, the directly elected President. In a Presidential system, whether the country is run democratically, efficiently and decisively or not, depends too much on one person, the President. But in the parliamentary system, power will be distributed between the Prime Minister, the cabinet, his parliamentary party and parliament as a whole. Individual MPs will have greater powers to work for their constituencies if they have a share in power. Presidential elections are also expensive by virtue of the fact that the candidates have to cover the entire country.
Further, government formation and capturing power will be easier in a parliamentary system. Even people who do not have mass appeal can hope to be Prime Minister if they have some MPs and are able to sew up a coalition and head it. It is said that former President Abdulla Yameen, who is not a mass leader and who is also tainted for being jailed for alleged money laundering, can still hope to be Prime Minister using his limited stock of goodwill and a limited number of MPs if he forms a big enough coalition.
Following his return from overseas after medical treatment for the injuries sustained in the terror attack against him on May 6, Nasheed met President Ibrahim Solih to discuss the issue of constitutional change. But Solih has been dodging. He has indicated an interest in a second term as President having experienced the grandeur of the office of President. However, pro-change MDP activists still hope that he will agree to a referendum if the party moots it.
Possible Split in MDP
Be that as it may, the general apprehension is that the MDP could split, either on the issue of switching over to the parliamentary system or on policy and the leadership style. Nasheed wants the Solih government to be more concrete and decisive whether on democratization, Islamic radicalism, or the policy vis-à-vis China. Solih on the other hand, prefers a soft stance and is guided by his coalition partners instead of leading the pack.
Nasheed would like the Maldives to make a clean break with China which he and his followers allege has been burdening the Maldives with mega projects with jacked up prices (with a provision for bribing local politicians). His followers believe that ties with India should be strengthened as projects financed by it are transparent. They also prefer Western-style democracy to China’s dictatorial model.
When Indian diplomats were viciously attacked in a section of the Maldivian media as part of the “India Out” movement, India issued a note verbale after which the Maldivian Foreign Ministry advised the media to respect foreign diplomats. But neither President Solih nor Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid lent their voice to the condemnation.
While Nasheed has been wanting the Solih government to expose Chinese projects negotiated by President Yameen, Solih told The Hindu in an interview in January: “China is a close and valued partner to the Maldives. We welcome their participating in the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative, and appreciate that we have been able to positively engage with them to renegotiate the terms of ongoing development assistance and economic projects, in a manner mutually beneficial to both countries, and consistent with our friendly relations.”
True to style, Solih lauded India’s help too, saying: “We appreciate the proactive role that India has taken in economic relief efforts and providing financial assistance to the Maldives, as well as for its continued development assistance. The Maldives makes no apologies for our positive engagement with our largest neighbor, and one of our closest international partners, India. We note that we are happy to take forward several of the development cooperation projects signed between the Government of India and the preceding Administration of the Maldives. We welcome constructive criticism of our foreign policy, as well as other aspects of our governance. Our international relationships are vital, especially so during a time of global crisis. Undermining relationships that are in the interest of the Maldives for the sake of demagoguery and cheap political points is irresponsible.”
Nasheed would want the Solih government to come down hard on Islamic radicalism through appropriate legislation and also get the police, the investigative agencies and the judiciary to be more vigilant and diligent in tracking down and punishing the radicals. But Solih has been wanting in these matters. Investigation into the May 6 assassination bid revealed the inefficiency of the regime. It had failed to provide Nasheed security, and the conspiracy behind the attack was not unraveled. “The system is as steeped in corruption as it was before,” an MDP activist said.
With the Supreme Court releasing former President Abdulla Yameen from the US$ 1 million corruption and money laundering case, Yameen is back in the political arena. He was enthusiastically welcomed back by his colleagues in the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM). His half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) are currently in a coalition with him, but could split if Yameen plumbs for a change to the parliamentary system or forms a coalition with Nasheed. As pointed out earlier, in his present state, Yameen stands to gain by a switch over to the parliamentary system.
China and India
China and India are major dividers in Maldivian politics. While Nasheed is totally set against China and its projects, Solih is neutral though with a formal tilt towards India. Recently, the Solih government entered into a deal with a Chinese company Sino Soar Technologies to supply solar power to 12 islands. Sino Soar had been previously removed from an ADB sanctioned project to set up solar plants in three islands off North Sri Lanka at the instance of India which said that the project was a security risk to India.
However, to be fair to Solih, he has given infrastructural projects to India too. Maldives has signed an agreement with Mumbai-based company AFCONS for the construction of the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP). This involves the construction of a 6.74-km-long bridge and causeway that will connect capital Male with the neighboring islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi. The project is funded by an Indian grant of US$100 million, with a line of credit of US$400 million. In contrast, the Chinese-built Sinamalé Bridge connecting Malé with the islands of Hulhulé and Hulhumalé is 1.39 km long.
Yameen, of course, is blatantly anti-India and manifestly pro-China. On its part, China had backed him to the hilt to the chagrin of Nasheed, India and the US. The “India Out” movement is backed by Yameen’s PPM. The PPM, which enjoys a degree of support in the media, has been suspicious about India’s military interests in the Maldives. It has given voice to the allegation that India is seeking military bases. The stationing of Indian military personnel to fly and maintain aircraft meant for surveillance and rescue operations had been an issue during Yameen’s Presidency.
China has been lying low since Yameen was defeated in 2018. It has tried to work with the Solih regime. Significantly, it has not trumpeted the completion of several high-rise residential buildings in Huluhumale, apparently to avoid embarrassing the Solih government.