In the Maldives, the old authoritarian style of leadership and the politics of vendetta threaten to reverse the country’s hard-won democratic advances.
In a dramatic development, Mohamed Nasheed, who until last year was the democratically elected president of the island nation, took political refuge in the Indian Embassy in Male on Tuesday, after a court in the Maldives issued a warrant for his arrest.
The warrant was issued after Nasheed failed to appear at a hearing related to charges that he had illegally ordered the detention of chief justice Abdulla Mohamed in December 2011.
The arrest order sparked a controversy that led to Nasheed’s ouster in what the former president called a coup.
The warrant for Nasheed’s arrest has expired and the Maldives government has declared him a free man. However, the former president is unwilling to leave the embassy compound until authorities assure him that he will not be arrested and will be permitted to campaign in the presidential elections scheduled for September 7.
Nasheed’s refuge in the Indian embassy has dragged New Delhi into the Maldives’ domestic political turmoil. So far India has operated on Nasheed’s behalf, without interfering in the internal tug of war. Nonetheless, a section of the ruling elite in Male has accused New Delhi of meddling in the country’s domestic issues.
Last year, he was ousted as president and replaced by his former deputy Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, Nasheed accused India of siding with anti-democratic forces in the country.
The Maldives’ big neighbor, however, is openly siding with Nasheed, the first-ever democratically elected president on the archipelago. A statement made by India’s Ministry of External Affairs “called upon the Government and all political parties to adhere strictly to democratic principles and the rule of law, thereby paving the way for free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.”
On Thursday Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid spoke via telephone with his Maldivian counterpart Abdul Samad Abdulla, but no concrete proposal has emerged to end the impasse.
These circumstances raise a few important questions. Why has India decided to back Nasheed now, after allegedly playing an active role in Waheed’s ascension to power last year? Further, what does the arrest of the former president mean for the democratic evolution of the predominantly Muslim Maldives?
On the one hand, according to an article in The Hindu, India is irked by a decision made by the current Maldivian government to cancel a contract that an Indian-Malaysian consortium had to operate the country’s main airport in Male.
More worrying for the international community is the distortion of the Maldives’ democratic process. Many fear that Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MPD), will be disqualified from contesting the country’s presidential elections in September if he is arrested and subsequently convicted. On the MDP’s official website, Nasheed is quoted as saying that the events of the past year – mass arrests, police brutality, politically motivated trials – demonstrate that Waheed cannot be trusted to hold a free and fair election.
Indeed, analysts say that an election without Nasheed would suit the political ambitions of incumbent Waheed and former president Maumoon Abdul, Gayoom, who ruled the country for 30 years until 2008.
The international community is also concerned about the growing presence of parties espousing radical Islam in the Sunni-dominated country. The island nation is known for its liberal traditions, but there is also an ongoing attempt to radicalize Maldivian society.
In February 2012, vandals entered the National Museum in Male and destroyed nearly 30 Buddhist statues dating from the 12th century. The statues were important symbols of the island nation’s pre-Islamic past. Last July, the BBC reported that Maldivian journalist Ismail Rasheed fled the country after receiving death threats from hardline Islamic groups. He later told the BBC that radicals were operating with impunity under the Washeed government.
As it stands, the situation is delicate for India, which cannot be seen as backing a particular political group.
In similar circumstances, India suffered the consequences of backing a particular party in Bangladesh, when New Delhi supported the Awami League. This alienated the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), with the consequence that India’s relationship with its eastern neighbor is strained whenever that party has power. The dynamic has pushed the BNP further into the embrace of radical Islamic groups and anti-Indian forces.
To avoid a similar fate with its southwestern neighbor, India will need to show more skill in navigating tricky Maldivian politics.