Asian Centre for Human Rights

Dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights in Asia

[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for 8 June 2005
Review: /76/05
Multi-party Democracy in South Asia:
One Down, One More to Go
MDP's Ablo Saeed & Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim hand in the party's forms; Courtesy:

On 5 June 2005, the regulation to register the political parties came into force in the Maldives. For the first time since 1953, the four political parties - Dhivehi Raiyithunge Party (DRP) i.e. Maldivian People's Party headed by President Gayoom, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Islamic Democratic Party and Maldives Labour Party have submitted their applications for registration. Full registration of the political parties would be completed after the parties secure a minimum of 3,000 members within 60 days and get their respective party constitutions approved by the general assembly of the party. Both Maldivian Democratic Party and Dhivehi Raiyithunge Party have submitted their full applications on 8 June 2005.

With the start of the processing of the registration of the political parties, Bhutan remains the only country in South Asia where political parties are not allowed to register. However, Bhutan has also been in the process of drafting a constitution.

On 20 May 2005 President Gayyoom decided to introduce, in the second session of Peoples’ Majlis (parliament) beginning on 2 June 2005, a request for revision of a previous house-opinion against the formation of political parties in the Maldives. On 2 June 2005, the Majlis voted unanimously to overturn the opinion on banning political parties. It was a historic day but celebration was spoilt by the arbitrary arrest of the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, Mohamed Nasheed and his Governing Council colleagues Ahmed Abbas, Susan Ibrahim Fulhu, the party’s top Administration Executive Shuaib Ali and party activist Ibrahim Shiham. They had gathered to lend support to the members of the Majlis and were released on the same day.

Political parties registration regulation:

The Maldives government subsequently promulgated the rules for registration of political parties. The new regulations would be in force until they can be embodied by proper legislation.

The new rules allow Maldivians over 21 years of age to become members of a political party. However, the Commissioner of Elections, Auditor General, Judges and Magistrates, Members of the Human Rights Commission, and specified levels of government posts cannot become members of the political parties and therefore cannot contest elections.

The proposed interim measures also provide for the government to provide grants for political parties. The other main sources of income can be membership fees and donations of money and/or property. But, contributions from foreign sources is prohibited. Attorney General, Dr. Hassan Saeed stated that once political parties begin functioning it has been decided to allot 5-10 million Rufiyaa from the annual budget of the state. The money allocated to different parties might differ based on the strength of membership of each party.

While equitable State funding is important, the fear that political parties close to Gayoom using the state fund to solidify their support base cannot be discounted. There is need to keep the State funding at minimum to ensure that State funds cannot be misused by the ruling parties.

Need for full reform:

While Gayoom may receive kudos for initiating refroms, there was as such no law which banned registration of political parties in the Maldives. Rather Article 27 of the Constitution of Maldives recognises the freedom of association and assembly. Yet, the Peoples Majlis gave an illegal opinion to ban the political parties. In any democratic country, such a bizarre opinion would have been subjected to judicial scrutiny. However, with President Gayoom serving as the Chief of the judiciary, there was no such possibility. Therefore, the proposal of President Gayoom of 14 February 2005 to separate judiciary is welcome.

President Gayoom is on the threshold of making history. He could easily go down in history as another dictator who just addressed the increasing democratic protests. He can also decide to immortalise himself as a genuine democratic reformer to make the Maldives as a model democracy in Asia.

If President Gayoom does not wish to be condemned for half-hearted measures, he must dissolve the Peoples Majlis which was elected in January 2005 and call for fresh elections once the initial registration of political parties is complete. There are many Members in the People’s Majlis who were elected in January 2005 while serving with government employment. With the enforcement of the regulation for registration of political parties that bars the Commissioner of Elections, Auditor General, Judges and Magistrates, Members of the Human Rights Commission, and specified levels of government posts from becoming members of the political parties, the role of these government servants cum Members of Majlis has become simply untenable. This particular provision shows the genuineness to institutionalise democracy and President Gayoom can give further push.

However, if President Gayoom continues with the current Peoples Majlis, it would basically imply postponing the reform process for another five years – which is scandalous by any yardstick! The question would arise as to whether President Gayoom is attempting to buy five years rule by doling out 5 to 10 million Rufiyaa from the annual budget of the state to the political parties.

The Peoples Majlis also needs to be dissolved to give credibility to the process of drafting the new constitution including the proposals given by President Gayoom on 14 February 2005. It would be equally scandalous if political parties are not allowed to participate in the drafting of the new constitution and instead, the bureaucrats cum members of the Peoples Majlis are allowed to draft the new constitution. The Peoples Special Majlis which is mandated to draft the new constitution should also be done away as it has many unelected Ministers, bureaucrats etc as members. For a country of 300,000 populations, 50 members of the Peoples Majlis to be elected in a fresh election after dissolution of the current one will be genuine representatives to draft a new constitution.

On their part, political parties should assure President Gayoom that he should complete his existing term to continue the reform process.

The donors including the European Commission and the United States should provide financial assistance to hold first multi-party elections in the Maldives should President Gayoom dissolves the current Peoples Majlis.

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