The Maldives needs democracy

While the Maldives government’s decision to lift a state of emergency after less than a week is indeed a welcome move, it is yet to convincingly explain why it took the extreme step in the first place. The Abdulla Yameen administration’s claim that the emergency was meant to “protect the people” in the wake of security challenges seems to be a convenient excuse, given the political crisis that is brewing in the Indian Ocean nation. The declaration of emergency was not an isolated incident, but the latest in a series of steps the government has taken over the past few months to bolster President Yameen’s authority. Recently, the government sacked the Defence Minister and police chiefs. It also arrested the Vice-President, Ahmed Adeeb, in connection with a blast on the presidential boat on September 28. According to the government, the blast was an attempt on the President’s life, a claim that international investigators have rejected. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation probed the blast and said it found no evidence that it was caused by a bomb. But the government sticks to its narrative, and says the emergency was lifted after investigators made “important progress” in an inquiry into the blast. And it shows no inclination to stop the purge. One of the immediate decisions the ruling party took was to vote out the Prosecutor General, Muhthaz Muhsin, without explaining why he was sacked.

Ever since Mr. Yameen became President through a controversial election in 2013, the country’s democracy has faced tough challenges. President Yameen, half-brother of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, has adopted a confrontational approach towards the opposition and showed little respect to the right to dissent. The imprisonment of Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected President, after a controversial trial has created fissures in the country’s polity which are actually weakening the state. Despite widespread international condemnation and a ruling by a UN panel that Mr. Nasheed’s arrest was illegal, the government showed no readiness to ease its stand. But in the case of the emergency, maybe in a sign of weakness, the government bowed to international pressure and domestic resistance. It is worth noting that the decision to lift the emergency came two days before a planned protest by the country’s main opposition, the Maldivian Democratic Party. President Yameen should use this opportunity to reach out to the opposition. Instead of the confrontationist approach, the government should adopt a consensus-building policy, engage the political opposition and act like a healthy democratic administration. Such a move would only strengthen institutions in the Maldives, putting it in a better position to address the security challenges. Otherwise, the complex mix of a divided society, a fractured polity and an authoritarian state will further destabilise the archipelago nation.