The Maldives’ rocky road to democracy needs more genuine support from regional powers, Indrani Talukdar writes.
The Maldives has witnessed instability since the formation of its first democratically elected government in 2008. The instability stems from political, governance, security, and foreign policy related issues. Recent events highlight that the fledgeling democracy needs both better leadership and the support of regional powers if it is to survive and thrive.
The country’s recent foray into democracy, after three decades of authoritarian rule under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, has not been an easy transition. The main difficulty lies in the relationship between the President and the People’s Majlis (the Maldives’ parliament), a body that was dominated by other political parties influenced by ex-president Gayoom. This tension has impeded the country’s positive growth. The Majlis obstructed reforms President Mohamed Naseed had wanted to implement and in 2012 he resigned due to domestic problems, which were separate from the economic ones.
The 2013 presidential election was problematic and controversial, with the country having to vote three times in the space of two months. The first poll led to legal and political wrangling over the outcome which saw the Supreme Court annulling the election results over concerns the voter register rolls were flawed, containing fake names and dead people. A re-run of the election was held on 9 November, but as no candidate achieved the necessary majority support, a further run-off election was held in which incumbent President Abdulla Yameen ended up being re-elected.
Subsequently, in 2014 laws were enacted to consolidate the president’s power over the Parliament and independent institutions, particularly the judiciary. In 2015 the government embarked on a great centralisation of power. Other problems also emerged during this period, including party switching for personal gain in the parliament, increased media control, uneven economic development, and growing radicalisation. The sudden arrest of the vice-president in October 2015 in the name of ‘high treason’ for his alleged involvement in a blast that occurred on a boat carrying the President and his family in September pushed the country into instability. The government’s ensuing declaration of a state of emergency, coupled with allegations of human rights violations, has raised concerns among the international community.
The United States, Europe and Australia have all expressed concern and criticised the Maldives’ Government. A committee of the Commonwealth Ministerial Advisory Group (CMAG) was held to assess the situation in the country. This September the CMAG will assess the country’s progress report on the reforms it recommended for the country.
India, however, has maintained a cautious approach in its response to the internal developments in the Maldives since the country’s transition to democracy. This attitude is rooted in India’s foreign policy tenet of non-intervention in the internal affairs of another country. Notably, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 ‘Indian Ocean Tour’, did not include a visit to the Maldives. But in April 2016, the Maldivian President visited India and the two countries signed a defence pact in which India agreed to train Maldivian defence personnel and supply critical equipment. However, to position itself as a responsible nation, India has simultaneously aligned itself with CMAG’s appraisal of the country’s situation and recommended remedial measures.
The Maldives’ government is trying to win the support of its important neighbours such as India, Pakistan and China. The government has pointed out that its foreign policy aims to achieve non-interference in the country’s domestic affairs by any external power. This is an indirect signal to the CMAG.
Meanwhile, India finds itself in a difficult position as it has to keep a balanced relationship both with the international community and its neighbours. India has a great stake in the stability of the Maldives because of its impact on the former’s national security, both internally and externally. The Maldives’ growing relationship with China and India, along with the drug menace and increasing radicalisation it faces, are not conducive signals for India’s growth and security.
Similarly, the allegation made by former Maldivian President Naseed about the country being a training camp for ISIS is not positive for India, a country which has grand strategies in the Indian Ocean and beyond. New Delhi wants to expand its cooperation through linking the Indian Ocean with the Chabahar Port in Iran by way of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). The security of its neighbours from terrorism and radicalisation is important to India achieving non-obstructed growth domestically and in a region whose increasing impact will be felt around the world.
Currently, the Maldives is facing a raft of challenges that could turn an already bad situation into something much worse. The country should not regress back to the dictatorial period of governance from its past, and it must also stamp out Islamic radicalisation from the island chain. Without greater wisdom, the Maldivian Government’s aim to make the country economically resilient will fail. A prudent government is one which will not play with religious extremism or any kind of radicalisation, as sufficient examples all around the world such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan etc. have shown. Other powerful countries should genuinely help the Maldives to resolve its crises rather than trying to further their own national interest by either remaining silent or further igniting the situation.