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Maldives: Institution-building, the why and how of it

26 April 2012 06:47 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Former President Mohammed Nasheed was on a six-day-long visit to India, pressing his case for early elections and reiterating his position on the need for reforming the nation's 'independent institutions'. During his three years in office, cut short from the mandated five following his sudden resignation on February 7, and later, too, he has laid a great stress on the need for reforming the Judiciary, Election Commission, Human Rights Commission and also the legislative aspect of the People's Majlis or Parliament. His detractors, now in power, are using the same arguments of his to try and deny him the early presidential polls that Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have been demanding since his resignation. President Waheed Hassan and his multi-party coalition Government say that they needed to 'empower', not 'reform' independent institutions, and enact laws to check against 'Executive interference' as happened under the Nasheed regime. 
 
The MDP has never hidden its reservations about working with Judges and members of independent commissions, once appointed by then entrenched President Maumoon Gayoom. It wanted them removed, and critics say that the party and the Nasheed Government 'invented' reasons to paint the entire lot of Government employees black. Critics also say that the MDP perception was based on the anti-Gayoom mood of the nation's people and voters when Nasheed won the presidential polls, again as a part of an informal coalition ahead of the second, run-off round in October 2008. The party refused to acknowledge that three years down the line and less than two years to presidential polls, Nasheed, not Gayoom, would be the electoral issue ¨C and sought to keep the electoral focus still on the latter.
 
 There is some truth in the political argument of both sides. There is however a need to revisit the MDP-offered specifics dispassionately, for the nation to arrive at a consensus on capacity-building at all levels of governance. It can start at the top-most, where in the absence of established norms and democratic precedents, whims of every kind, have passed for Executive discretion. Given that the President has always been chosen in a direct election, whether multi-party or not, there was greater respect for the institution. This translated into excessive loyalty for the person of the President, and a blind adherence to the policies initiated in his name. This did not find much change under the MDP, too. Familiarity with the forgettable past led to status quoism, though of a different kind, and breaching the comfort zone became difficult after a point.
 
Appealing to the youth 

In their time, both President Gayoom and President Nasheed were in their early 40s when they assumed office. They appealed to the youth of the day, addressed their immediate concerns and quenched their aspirations, however limited their efforts were by Maldivian circumstances and economy. They sounded genuine and were readily accepted as the man for the time. In his early days as President, Gayoom focussed on education and employment, the former by opening schools in islands across the country and the latter by promoting resort tourism, an imaginative economic initiative, taking Maldives beyond the limitations imposed by fishing on both counts. All of these efforts stood in the name of Gayoom's predecessor, the late Prime Minister Ibrahim Nazir, who did not stay on in power for long. Yet, to President Gayoom should go the twin-credits of not discontinuing the good work done by his predecessor ¨C a common trait otherwise across South Asia ¨C and also building on the same.
 
 Ironically, educational opportunities, though only up to the Cambridge A-Level also meant that Maldivian youth would not be satisfied with the status or lack of it attached to resort jobs. The salaries were also low compared to what was on offer in the Government. Lest they should go astray in a nation that was already concerned about increasing incidence of drug-addition in the lower age-groups, and lest he too should lose the emerging rank of youthful voters ahead of the first multi-party presidential polls of 2008, the Gayoom leadership appointed more Government employees than may have been justified ¨C adding up to 10 per cent of the nation's 350,000 population. The trend has continued in a way, though the Nasheed presidency scraped 20 per cent of all Government jobs through a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS), as a part of the IMF-guided economic reforms, but created more for political appointees, though through elections after intervening ad hocism. The Gayoom leadership could not grow with its beneficiaries in terms of thinking for the new generation of youth, born to governmental largesse or social benefit that was new and welcome to an earlier one. The inevitable stagnation attaching to entrenched leaderships, whose communication with the governed often gets stifled owing to a personality-driven administration and the inevitable sycophancy in the existing climate proved to be the electoral bane of President Gayoom. The cry for human rights and multi-party democracy were all products of a new generation approach to issues in a new era where global communication and exposure had become relatively easy and equally resolvant.
 
 The successor-Government has since alleged that the Nasheed administration created a multiplicity of Government corporations and a plethora of elected provincial councillors, under a privatisation and decentralisation scheme. The former owed to IMF reforms, and the latter was flagged as an achievement of democracy and constitutional reforms. The elected councillors took the place of island-councillors, nominated in President Gayoom's time. Government officials now claim that the new scheme provided for salaries for elected members and board members of public corporation, denting the exchequer much more than what the job and salary-cuts saved. In President Gayoom's time, as some recall, even parliamentarians held only a part-time job, their sources of income coming either from the Government jobs they held, or the businesses they were associated with. 
 
The 20 per cent cut in salaries and jobs introduced by the Nasheed presidency also meant that the Government was at logger-heads with the constitutionally-mandated Civil Services Commission (CSC). Creation of nominated provincial and island councillors ahead of election to these bodies in March 2011, replacing those nominated by President Gayoom under an atolls-based scheme instead, critics argued, was aimed at circumventing the existing processes, including the role of the CSC in Government recruitments, appointments and transfers. Under the nominated scheme, followed by elections later, the Nasheed leadership, it was argued, had brought in MDP cadres in the place of Gayoom loyalists at all levels. 
 
In a way, it was a clash of interest between the entrenched Gayoom-appointees and the new-found power at the hands of youthful MDP cadres that was said to be at the bottom of the crises that successively rocked the Nasheed Government. When a promotion-level appointment of Deputy Ministers in individual departments under the earlier dispensation was 'compromised' through political nominations under the Nasheed leadership, non-partisan observers in Maldives claimed that the Government and its Ministers, inexperienced and unexposed as many of them were, might not have been able to extract the right inputs and advice from the permanent civil service as would have been the case otherwise. 
 
Otherwise, too, the Nasheed leadership, in a hurry to fast-track reforms much of where was required, rather than learning to work with and within the system, and on it, chose to work against the system. Near-wholesale change of officials at all levels as was being hinted was not on, but that was what the proposed course ended up being seen as. Worse still, unbiased observers in Maldives saw the replacement of Gayoom loyalists, whose other qualification at the lower-levels of islands-administration in particular could not be questioned, being replaced by MDP foot-soldiers. The legitimisation of the process through the decentralisation scheme in particular did not go down well. With the result, even the well-meaning measures of the Nasheed Government on governance reforms, by addressing specific cases involving top people in various institutions, came to be viewed with a jaundiced eye.
Observer Research Foundation
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