COLOMBO: The Maldives has the reputation of being the first country in South Asia to adopt a democratic form of government. In 1932, its hereditary Sultan, Shamsuddin, had promulgated a constitution in which the Sultan would be elected by a “Council of Advisors” comprising the elite of the society. But the Maldivian people have not been able to ensure the survival of democracy.
In the last 80 years, this country of 1,192 islands and 350,000 people, has witnessed a battle between the forces of democracy and those of authoritarianism in which the odds have been in favor of the latter.
The country’s rather revolutionary tryst with democracy in 1932 failed within two years. In 1934, Sultan Shamsuddin was deposed by Hassan Nurudddin, who made himself Sultan. But in 1943, Nuruddin was forced to abdicate because he could not find a solution to the problem of shortages created by World War II. Nuruddin’s successor, Sultan Abdul Majeed Didi, being too old, did not last long. He handed over all powers to his Prime Minister, Mohamad Amin Didi.
In 1953, the ambitious Amin Didi abolished the Sultanate, established a “republic” and became the first Pre-sident of the country. However, his rule from 1943 to 1953 was unpopular, and he was overthrown in 1954.
Apparently tired of democracy, the country reverted to the Sultanate, and “elected” Mohamad Farid Didi as the 94th Sultan as per the 1932 constitution. However, the people got tired of the Sultanate by the mid 1960s. In a referendum held on the issue in 1968, they voted for its abolition. After the abolition of the Sultanate, Ibrahim Nasir, who had been Prime Minister since 1957, was elected President.
But Nasir was a disaster as President. Unable to handle the economic crisis of the 1970s, and not knowing how to tactfully handle the growing social and political unrest, Nasir started harassing the opposition, which led to his opponents hatching plots to overthrow him.
The man who replaced Nasir was Abdul Gayoom, a university don who was then the Maldivian Ambassador at the UN. Gayoom gave an extraordinary thrust to tourism, which turned the Maldives into a country with a per capita Gross National Income of USD 5750 by 2010. But he was utterly undemocratic, packing the Peoples’ Majlis (parliament) with his relations and cronies. Gayoom’s scant respect for democratic rights led to the formation of the Maldivian Democratic Party. The MDP’s relentless struggle against repression eventually made Gayoom promulgate a new reform package in 2004. He decreed multi-party elections and a two-term limit for the President.But when people tried to use the new found freedom, Gayoom would set the National Security Service (NSS) against them. The NSS brutally broke up an opposition rally on August 13, 2004.
However, widespread international criticism of his repressive regime made Gayoom announce a fully democratic constitution in 2008. In the Presidential election held under the 2008 constitution, MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed won, getting 54 per cent of the popular vote, and Gayoom quit gracefully.
But Nasheed had to battle with a parliament which was in the hands of the opposition, including Gayoom’s party. Tension between the President and the parliament heightened when Nasheed started ruling arbitrarily and non-transparently. It is alleged that Nasheed never made public the terms under which he gave the Indian company GMR, the contract to construct an international airport at Male.
Nasheed blatantly imposed his will on the judiciary. He detained opposition MP Abdulla Yameen, and refused to produce him in court, flouting a court order to do so. Amnesty International complained that there was no proper definition of crime in the Maldives, with the result, trials were not fair. Recently, the military arrested the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamad.
Nasheed felt alienated from the bureaucracy, military, police and the judiciary, because he suspected that many officers were Gayoom’s agents as they had been appointed during the latter’s rule. Nasheed’s secularism did not go down well with the emerging Islamic fundamentalist groups.
Agitations became the order of the day. The ding dong battle ended on February 7 with Nasheed’s resignation “at gun point.” He handed over power to Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Maniku.
President Waheed has come out with the idea of forming a “National Government” to restore peace and bring about orderly change. According to diplomatic circles, the international community is in favour of such a government if it will restore stability and help sustain democracy.