BY BASANTI MARDEMOOTOO
Beyond its white sand and crystal clear waters, the Maldives – a small Indian Ocean island nation – has surprisingly found itself at the forefront of the news in several media outlets around the world. This increase in attention is the result of a state of emergency declared by President Yameen Gayoom on Feb. 5, 2018. This declaration came on the heels of a controversial ruling by the Supreme Court of Maldives regarding the release of several political opponents of the current administration. This state of emergency triggered forced takeover of the Supreme Court, a halt in parliament, and the jailing of two prominent judges. While this is a story which deserves media attention, there is a lot more to Maldives’ political history than meets the eye. Contrary to popular belief, the current political climate is but one instance in a series of rather forceful political circumstances since 2012. This begs the question of how the Maldives actually got to the point of declaring this state of emergency, and what impact this action will have on the democratic future of this country.
During a controversial election in 2012, the Maldives witnessed the resignation of its first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed. President Nasheed was particularly known for making headlines after hosting the very first underwater cabinet meeting to demonstrate the dangers of climate change on the country’s environmental situation. This event brought a lot of attention to climate change and Nasheed was praised for his actions by several media outlets around the world. The good publicity hid the country’s domestic troubles; protests had erupted due to the country’s economic problems and growing national opposition to the former president’s platform. The origin of these protests began after former President Nasheed ordered the arrest of a judge who was said to be aligned with Former President Maumoon Gayoom – an incident that bears a rather uncanny resemblance to the current political events. Nasheed’s party publicly speculated about his resignation, hinting at the fact that Nasheed was forced out of office instead of resigning of his own volition. The party blamed “rogue elements” in the police force who allegedly partnered with the supporters of Gayoom to overthrow the administration in power. Yameen Gayoom, Maumoon Gayoom’s half brother, assumed the presidency after an election infested with questionable “delays and irregularities.” An intervention by the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Nasheed’s arrest was unlawful according to international law. Nasheed had been a political refugee in Britain since 2016 but finally returned to the Maldives when the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Since his return, there has been speculation about Nasheed’s renewed desire for political power and his possible involvement in the upcoming November 2018 elections.
With these elections in sight, and his former political opponent back in the country, President Yameen Gayoom has been determined to do everything in his power to keep tight control of the country. The Supreme Court ruled against the president on two counts of unconstitutional action, putting his administration in a vulnerable position. The first ruling had to do with the imprisonment of several political candidates who had been affiliated with the opposition. The court determined that those involved in the legislative process were conducive to non-democratic political agendas. The second ruling addressed the wrongful removal of “12 legislators from their seat…when they defected from the ruling party.” By way of the court’s decision, those 12 seats would have been reinstated and shifted the parliamentary majority to the opposition. This would have resulted in a politically entrenched minority government with very little sway on what legislation could be passed during their time in office.
At the risk of jeopardizing a possible win during the November elections, President Yameen Gayoom exercised his executive powers and placed the country under a state of emergency. When a nation is under a state of emergency, there are certain political actions that are no longer limited by the traditional system of checks and balances. Restrictions become lax and there is more flexibility in what the government is allowed to do in order to ensure a quick recovery from whatever problem the country may be facing. Gayoom’s executive powers asserted control over the Supreme Court and parliament before anything got out of hand. Unfortunately, with these conditions, it is incredibly easy for a leader to go down the wrong path and use the powers he is awarded to act in his own self-interest in order to promote a personal political agenda. Because there is a very fine line that determines when this political tool can be declared and when it cannot, in cases like Maldives, the government has the power of discretion – no matter how selfishly motivated – to declare a state of emergency.
For the most part, President Gayoom’s plan worked. Within hours of declaring the state of emergency, the Supreme Court reversed their decision on the ruling that released the political opponents from prison. With two out of the five presiding judges in custody for allegedly trying to overthrow the president, the remaining three judges issued the new legal opinion stating the annulment of their previous verdict on the basis of presidential concern. There have been many calls by those who oppose Gayoom’s presidency to several countries with regards to support from major powers such as the United States, India and China. Despite having all conveyed their concerns over the matters unfolding in the Maldives, no nations took serious steps to address the situation, establish sanctions, or make coercive political statements that would urge some kind of response from Gayoom justifying his actions. Statements from both China and India suggest approaching this matter with great caution, citing that they are waiting to see how the situation unfolds before getting involved. Travel advisories have been issued by surrounding countries given the country’s tourist industry but other than that there have not been any international repercussions.
It is important to remember that the judges did not annul the second ruling allowing the 12 legislative candidates to return to their positions in parliament. However, due to a decision by the Speaker, an ally of Yameen’s, this ruling does not have an immediate impact on the parliamentary lockdown. This has the potential of becoming very destructive. Depending on whether or not those 12 members will be reinstated, the parliamentary demographic characteristics might shift to the opposition and put President Yameen Gayoom’s party at risk.
Once the state of emergency is lifted, there will be a clearer picture of where the current government of Maldives stands. President Yameen Gayoom’s plan to remain in power worked, but may have some detrimental consequences. China and India have been on alert since the state of emergency was declared and are currently facing the dilemma of whether or not to get involved. It is hard to say what these two regional powers will do and how they will go about ensuring stability in the country. At this point, it is doubtful that either country will send troops to Maldives on the premise that the situation has not degraded significantly since the start of the political turmoil. It is safe to say that the second ruling has a better chance of leading to governmental turnover than that of a third party invasion. This issue may be solved democratically and through parliamentary procedure, but it will all depend on when the parliamentary session resumes and the political state of the Maldives once the state of emergency is lifted.