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Maldives: Testing the nation's resilience already?
N Sathiya Moorthy
04 December 2012

Even as the "GMR row" has crossed the shores of Maldives to involve courts and arbitrators in Singapore, the nation's inherent resilience seems to be under strain. On a day the controversial contract came to an end as per Government claims on Monday, nearer home Parliament passed a resolution granting secret-voting rights for members in matters of no-trust motion against the President and other high dignitaries. Voting with the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) 10 MPs from Government parties and two Independents, including the top leaders of the ruling coalition like Thasmeen Ali of the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) and Gasim Ibrahim, founder of the Jumhoore Party (JP).

The question is not about who wins the presidency in elections that are due by November next year, but what happens between now and then. As was only to be anticipated under the circumstances, a government MP has since moved the Supreme Court against the legality and constitutionality of the Parliament vote on secret-ballot that was won 41-34. Sure enough, Parliament insists on a hands-off approach by the Judiciary in matters pertaining to its own authority. It was so after a House committee summoned three Judges trying former MDP President Mohammed Nasheed for the arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohammed. The higher judiciary has resisted the same. It can be so to the new Supreme Court case on 'secret voting'. It can lead to a constitutional deadlock, which may be healthier and inevitable in a democracy than those of the kind that Maldives has witnessed in the near-past. Yet, the nation's fragile democracy, which has already taken a lot of avoidable stress, can ill-afford it at this juncture in particular.

The reasons are not far to seek. Theoretical possibilities flowing from the 'secret vote' and the pending petitions before the Supreme Court could cause an administrative impasse, too. The future is unclear if Parliament were still to go ahead with a no-trust vote against President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, pending the Supreme Court petition - or, an adversarial order thereof. Even if there is clarity and unanimity in the matter, it would still be unclear if any vote against President Waheed would automatically lead to Parliament Speaker Abdullah Shahid stepping in for two months, to conduct fresh elections - or, incumbent Vice-President Waheed Deen could take over with a new team, just as President Waheed had succeeded President Nasheed in February.

That is to say, if a no-trust vote against the President is also a vote against his Cabinet, of which the Vice-President too is nominee not elected by the people. Again, the Supreme Court may be called upon to interpret the situation - for which there has to be ready takers, all-round, particularly from those in control, or charge. Beforehand, it needs to be seen how the incumbent Government would handle any no-trust vote against the President if it did not have judicial approval - or, otherwise. Not long ago, Parliament witnessed unprecedented ruckus, discrediting the fair name of Maldives, when MDP members refused to allow President Waheed to deliver the customary annual address. The imaginative Speaker had little option but to reconvene the House weeks later for the purpose. By that time the MDP too seemed to have learnt from the negative publicity the earlier scene attracted for the party, nearer home and afar.

The political instability that is looming large over the country is now being supplemented by the GMR row" -- but independent of each other -- after Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad admitted in his Budget speech that 82 per cent of the GDP comprised debts, both domestic and overseas, and the economy was already in the 'red'. Though for historic and geographical reasons, Maldives may have to remain a dependent-economy for more years to come Jihad's figures are not encouraging, considering also the fact that the Government's determination to boot out a foreign investor like GMR may send wrong signals on FDI as a whole.

On the day a Singapore court with jurisdiction under the airport agreement stayed the ouster order, India's Axis Bank too send out a lawyer's notice to the Maldivian Government for a high $ 350 million it had advanced GMR against Male's guarantees. The Government promptly declined the Singapore court order and its reaction to the bank's notice is awaited. Yet, Attorney-General Asim Shukoor's Office listed out the alleged wrong-doings in the deal, justifying a need for investigations by Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), nearer home. The Government claimed that GMR was not qualified in the first round of bidding, but was brought in after negotiations.

According to SunOnline, the report said that the revenue to the Maldivian Government would be reduced by MVR"30 billion and the Maldives Airports Corporation Ltd (MACL) would face estimated losses of MVR 6.71 billion due to the letter which permitted deduction of ADC and GMR's amendment of the agreement in relation to the fuel concession. The 41-page Government statement also listed out other allegations of violations in the deal, including the drafting of the ADC amendment, allowing GMR to deduct airport entry fee from payments to the Government after a local court had struck down the original provision, and GMR staff's handling of the relevant papers in transit between Maldivian authoritie -- implying corrupt practices en route.

Though over the past weeks, the GMR row" had taken the shape of anti-India street-protests, with President's Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza declaring in public that Indian High Commissioner Dyaneshwar Mulay was working 'against Maldivian interests - which charge he repeated even after being exited to the Finance Ministry as a junior Minister - New Delhi has readily obliged to Male's requests for pressing a naval helicopter for search operations after a Maldivian vessel with three foreigners, five locals and a 11-year-old child went missing in mid-sea. The Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) is coordinating the search operations, and the instant cooperation between the two countries indicated that the anti-India protests were confined to a peripheral group, as yet.

On the political front, the role of the MNDF and the Maldivian Police Service (MPS), a section of which had concerns about their politicisation at the height of the 'December 23 Movement' protests, leading to the abrupt resignation of President Nasheed on February 7, would be watched with interest and concern. Maldives bifurcated the existing National Security Service (NSS) in 2006, to leave policing to the MPS and to keep newly carved-out MNDF off the streets. In effect, that has not happened. Successive Presidents since have continued to see the MNDF only as an extended arm of the police, and insularity has not been the watch-word on either side, as intended.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)