We are fooling ourselves if we think that democracy is the only game in the Maldives because, given the events of the past three years it is fair to say that we are still a democracy in principle rather than in practice. The existing authoritarian and undemocratic enclaves prevalent within our socio-political system support this argument. By authoritarian enclaves I refer to the prevalent corruption, the lack of respect for the constitution and the rule of law, and the continuous stifling of our civil and political rights by the so-called political fanatics, ‘vanguards’ of democracy and religious scholars in the Maldives.
It is true, old habits die hard. After 30 years of repression and authoritarian rule we still continue to focus on personalities; our institutions are not independent of specific personalities and as a society we continue to limit each other’s political freedoms. We need to liberate ourselves from our traditional, personalised patronage politics. We need to liberate ourselves from the old habits.
To be democratic we need to understand that the rule of law precedes everything; civil liberties such as freedom of expression should be exercised with responsibility and as a society we need to make informed and responsible decisions in selecting and electing those who represent our voice.
President Waheed was right when he said on Hardtalk that ‘we have come to this point because we have not respected our constitution. We have not respected the rule of law. The last thing I want to do is to circumvent our constitution’. So when and where have we circumvented our constitution? Without going into the details of Gayyoom’s 30 year authoritarian regime, if we begin with the dawn of our democracy following the election of Mohamed Nasheed, when and where have the laws of the land been flouted? Where have we failed at democracy?
The rule of law was flouted when the Supreme Court was locked down under the order of Nasheed. The rule of law was flouted when a senior judge was ‘judgenapped’ and arrested. We failed at democracy when projects or investment opportunities were given to political party aides and cronies without declaration of ‘conflict of interest’ or without a fair bidding process. We failed at democracy as the number of family ties increased within the top brass of the state institutions. We failed at democracy as murderers, rapists and child molesters walk free. We failed at democracy when we failed to listen to public protests for 22 consecutive days, regardless of whether they were 200 people, a minority, or 100,000 people.
During Nasheed’s regime, the opposition too failed at democracy because they refused to accept the rules of the game of democracy. Over the past couple of years the opposition have been hell bent on creating parliamentary deadlocks which delayed the enactment of key legislations; used religious fervour to rile up anti-MDP sentiments and backed questionable characters to achieve their political goals. Democracy is not the only game in town if the losers of an election do not accept their defeat. If we see democracy under the axiom of a game, it will only continue to work if the losers in the game want to play/try again within the same institutional framework under which they lost.
Our constitutional sins reached a new level on 7th February 2012. The constitution of our country was punched in the face when our democratically elected leader was ousted in a coup. If Nasheed was such a failure, his removal should have been by the rule of law, by the people and by the ballot. Whether by the fate of circumstances, by Nasheed’s own making or by advanced planning the removal of an elected President by force, has set a very dangerous precedent here and in my opinion this constitutional sin is worse than anything Nasheed ever did.
I am willing to accept that politicians from all sides have failed to uphold the rule of law in the past, move forward and draw lessons from it. So I ask President Waheed, since he holds the reigns now, what is his plan to uphold and maintain the rule of law? The current government’s commitment to democracy will continue to be tested and judged by the disgruntled opposition until the next election. Until then I hope our fragile democracy will continue to withstand the pressures and shocks without abandoning the electoral process ever again. The lesson for all of us is, never again should the constitution and rule of law be abandoned under the guise of upholding democracy.
I am not really concerned about ‘who’ is in power as long as the person in power is there through legitimate means and is concerned about implementing positive change. We have intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum. Our infant democracy was born by the work of several people. For every protester there was an intelligent and energetic policymaker creating the rules of the game. For instance, Nasheed is a great orator and a true torch bearer for democracy. While Nasheed carried the torch, there were policy makers behind the table such as Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, Dr. Hassan Saeed, and Dr. Waheed who rigorously used other channels to bring democracy to our country. All of them should be credited for their contributions regardless of which side of the table they are on.
Some of our MP’s display appalling behaviour, ignorance and a lack of professionalism. Some are borderline criminals. When the next election confronts us, we as the electorate have a moral responsibility to select and elect leaders who are competent, crime-free and open-minded.
One of the fundamental components of democracy is freedom of expression, because without it, free elections mean nothing. We do enjoy ‘freedom of expression’ in the Maldives but without any responsibility. Freedom of expression is an abused freedom in the Maldives because religious extremists use it to spread their religious fatwas, war-mongerers use it to spread their hate, politicians use it create division and the media uses it spread half-truths. Where is our sense of social responsibility when we exercise freedom of expression?
We need to remember that before the 7th of February there were thousands of people that opposed MDP and exercised their fundamental right to criticize. The coup was not undertaken by the opposition supporters, therefore, why should they be labelled as ‘baghees’ (traitors)? The level of cyber bullying evident on social media towards anyone associated with the current government is one example where freedom of opinion is violated. The number of people that tell me that they are afraid to show their support to the parties they supported prior to 7th February due to fear of being labelled as ‘baghee’ is proof enough that freedom of opinion and expression is no longer a given. Without proper freedom of thought, opinion and association we will never be able to safeguard the integrity of our elections.
As a society that aspires to be democratic we all have a social responsibility to respect the rule of law, exercise our freedoms with responsibility and empower politicians for the right reasons. We are the drivers of change and politicians are only the mediators we select to implement the change we want.
Some studies suggest that most newly democratising countries will go through a phase of violence or instability before democracy fully settles in. Some argue that it is a temporary phase. I am hoping this is our temporary phase. I am hoping that we learn from our mistakes. I am praying that this storm passes soon.