'India has understood Maldives' constitutional position'

The Inquirer

Maldives, a small island-nation in the Indian Ocean, made up of a cluster of around 200 archipelagos and 350,000 inhabitants, is in the midst of a serious political crisis after the resignation —some call it ouster — of the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed on February 7.

Vice president, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, took over as president and is heading a seven-party interim government.

Though the violence allegedly unleashed by Nasheed’s supporters following his resignation has been brought under control, the new government is still debating whether there should be immediate elections, as demanded by Nasheed, or at the end of 2013 as scheduled. Considering the strategic importance of Maldives and its proximity to Indian shores, New Delhi is playing a crucial role in nudging all parties to the dispute to resolve the issues amicably.

Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, the articulate home minister in the present government, who also served as minister of justice in the Abdul Gayoom government and civil aviation and communications minister in the Nasheed government, is currently in India, trying to get support for breaking the constitutional deadlock in his country. Jameel Ahmed, who studied at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies and obtained a PhD on criminal justice system, was in Bangalore on Sunday. He spoke to
Ramakrishna Upadhya of Deccan Herald on a range of issues. Excerpts:   

What really prompted president Nasheed’s resignation?

This was coming for a long time, because of the way he was managing the affairs of the nation. He had become highly autocratic and indulged in muzzling the judiciary, his political opponents and the media. Those who opposed his misrule were jailed. Among them was Abdul Gayoom’s brother, who is a leader of the opposition, and also the deputy leader of the parliament.

In a small country like ours, land is the most precious thing and Nasheed had started privatising the islands and handing them over to his partymen and supporters. The international airport is the pride of our nation, which he handed over to India’s GMR Group, even ignoring the cabinet. There was a lot of resentment building up against his rule and as the protests from political parties and the public increased, he had no option but to quit.

Is Nasheed under arrest?

He is a free man. He probably expected to be arrested, but we have not done so. He holds rallies in the capital Male and other places. Male has a population of about 90,000, and if he was really popular, he should have gathered a crowd of 8,000 to 9,000 every day. But he hardly gets 2,000 and the numbers are going down.

Does Waheed Hassan’s takeover as president have legal sanctity?

Under the presidential system we have adopted, we go for a pair -- the president and the vice president. Waheed Hassan got the same number of votes as Nasheed (when they stood for elections together in 2008). Under our constitution, when the president resigns, the vice president takes over for the reminder of the period.

So, when will fresh elections be held?

Nasheed’s supporters did not allow parliament to function when it opened on March 1.

There have been some talks among political parties and they have been halted because of the protests. The parliament is reconvening tomorrow (March 19) and hopefully, the House will be allowed to function. According to Article 124 of our constitution, if the president is changed mid-term, the new incumbent will stay for the rest of the term. A two-thirds majority is required for amending the constitution and holding early elections.

Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party wants early elections, but there is no legal framework for it. Before elections are held, the other parties want guarantees and safeguards that safe and secure elections are possible. First of all, the judiciary needs to be safeguarded as Nasheed’s government had played havoc with it. In 2009, he padlocked the judiciary (the courts) and set up a hand-picked committee in its place.

But ultimately it didn’t work. The judiciary is still not free as it has been terrorised over the last few years. Therefore, unless the judiciary is strengthened, meaningful elections are not possible.

What did Maldivians think of India’s support for its new president Waheed Hassan?

It was seen as a good and positive move. India understood our constitutional position that when the president resigns, the vice president takes over. India being a democratic country and our closest ally, it understands the system of governance better than any other...We are a Muslim country, which has laid a lot of stress on education. We have always upheld meritocracy...It’s in India’s interest too to strengthen our democratic governance and system. Otherwise, the other option is to go back to religious values that again is hard, considering what happened in Algieres and other West Asian countries.

What influence does China and Pakistan have on Maldives?

We are a small country, located in a strategic place in the Indian Ocean. We have to tread wisely and cautiously. Maldives understands that India is its closest neighbour. But it also cannot aliegnate others. That’s what our foreign policy is. We have good relations with countries across the world. China has supported our economy and infractructure development.

How far has the building of a Chinese base at Maro island progressed?

(Laughs) I don’t think there’s a Chinese base (in our country.)  There has always been this move, but I don’t think it is coming up.

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