Maldives: Towards a free and peaceful poll

maldives-poll1Ahead of the first round of presidential polls on 7 September, the Election Commission (EC) of Maldives recently came out with do’s and don’ts for the nation’s police force. It provides for the police personnel not to come closer than 100 metres of the polling boxes and at the same time be available for intervention to ensure free and fair polls, but only at the instance of the head of the polling station.

In turn, the nation’s top cop Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz has referred to the setting up of an all-party coordination committee at a high-level to ensure that no untoward incidents happened before, during and after the polls. He has also underlined the fact that ensuring free, fair and peaceful polls is not the exclusive duty of the police force alone, and implied that political parties and the citizenry had a shared responsibility.

What both the EC and the police chief may have missed out is the possible need for all-party coordination committees of the kind at the island and atoll-levels. More importantly, there is a greater need for coordination between the police and the EC officials at all levels, if misunderstanding or mis-reporting of any kind is to be avoided, particularly during the crucial poll hours, leading to contradictory instructions flowing down the line.

Maybe, the two institutions together tasked with an onerous task should set up common control rooms in the national capital and all atoll headquarters, if not possible at the island-level. The latter would owe to lack of manpower and other resources. Yet, one can safely assume that the Maldivian Police Service (MPS) would be operating its control rooms at the atoll-level to full capacity, and could consider housing poll panel representatives, under the roof, with special communication links to the EC at Male and their subordinates and counterparts in the islands.

Such coordination may help fast-track sharing of verifiable intelligence inputs that is available to the police as a matter of routine but not always to the EC. Likewise, poll-related complaints, particularly through those crucial hours, would be preferred more to the Election Commission than the police. Clear understanding, if not outright guidelines, may have to be there if the EC officials, particularly at lower-levels, do not misread a development and/or misinterpret their own authority in handling law and order situation outside of their immediate purview, particularly on the date or dates of polling – depending on the fact if the presidential polls would run into the second round.

Hyper-sensitive

maldives-pollIn a nation where the bifurcation of ‘usage’ between the police and the armed forces has not really happened despite the bifurcation of the unified National Security Service (NSS) in 2004. If anything, the bifurcation of the NSS into the Maldives Police ‘Service’ (MPS) and the Maldivian National Defence ‘Force’ (MNDF) was among the early reforms in governance that the pro-democracy movement in the country could be proud of.

The police reforms came about after the custodial death of Hassan Evan Naseem, on 19 September 2003, when the uniformed serves were sought to quell a ‘prison rebellion’ and massive public protests in Male a day later. Incidentally, Evan Naseem did not boast of any democratic credentials or reformist zeal – but had been jailed for a drug-offence, but given the ‘reformist mood’ in the younger generation, that was enough to set off the demand and stoke expectations.

For a population of 300,000-plus Maldives may have enough numbers in uniform. Given the wide spread-out islands, these numbers are also thinly dispersed. This has made policing difficult across the country, particularly in the national capital of Male, which accounts for a third of the population. It has often been left to the good sense of the people and responsible behaviour of social groups earlier, and political parties since the advent of multi-party democracy in 2008, to maintain peace and order in the society. The average Maldivian’s expectations from their political leaders are as strong as their expectations of non-partisan conduct by the police and the security forces, the latter when commanded to policing duties.

Yet, arson and rioting accompanying the ‘anti-coup’ protests by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of outgoing President Mohammed Nasheed caught the security forces unawares, more so in the urban centres. There have also been off-again, on-again complaints of bias and partisanship of police and MNDF officials, often owing to the unchanged system. The existing system, inherited from a past that the nation’s polity otherwise claims wanting to forget, has involved the near-automatic change of leadership of these two security agencies with every change of Government, or with every change of loyalty-perceptions of every Government.

maldives-poll2At the end of the 7-8 February events in 2012, the police and the armed forces were to take more than a fair share of the blame, if it were so. On the one hand, they were alleged to have been part of a ‘political coup’ that led to President Nasheed’s replacement by Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik. That men in uniform were part of the last leg of the ‘December 23 Movement’ protests, demanding President Nasheed’s exit, has not been contested or contradicted. Those affected have not forgotten it, nor seem to have forgiven it.

From the other side, only explanations and justification for individual behaviour may have been offered. If the protesting policemen ‘capturing’ television station, was a sign and symbol of an attempted coup, it was there – again uncontested, thus far. There was however no charge of senior officials being part of the alleged ‘coup’, and heading the rest of the uniformed protestors from the frontline. It is this that often qualifies for differentiation between a ‘coup’ and ‘rebellion’. The international Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) that probed the episode(s) has recommended action, but nothing has been forthcoming, either.

This may have made the security forces hyper-sensitive in one way ahead of the upcoming elections. There seems to be a general feeling that it is better to err on the right side of caution – rather than with a wrong sense of negligence bordering on callousness. Or, so would it seem. The thin dividing line may be crossed, if and only if the situation so warranted between now and the elections – whether confined to a single round or more. If palpable tension rules, as happened through the ‘December 23 Movement’ protest up to the 7 February events of 2012, it could also take its toll on the morale and the psyche of the men in uniform.

Under the scanner

In this era of ‘social media’, some of them promoted by interested political parties, they are always under the scanner, or are made to feel that way. A feeling that “you are damned if you do it, and you are damned if you do not do it” has become all pervasive. Unfortunately, the political parties during the past year and more have not done enough to restore the morale of their men in uniform. The reverse may have been the case, instead, with free and often unfair views being expressed across the table or through the social media network, for which no one can be held physically accountable.

For all this however, Police Commissioner Riyaz in the eye of a controversy after he accepted tweeting a message, received by him, asking to vote against MDP’s Nasheed. In a belated reaction, President Waheed said that Riyaz’s tweet was done in his personal capacity, and not official. The local media has already pointed out that the Constitution specifically prohibits serving police officers taking political positions even in their personal capacity. The Police Integrity Commission, one of the many ‘Independent Institutions’ instituted under the 2008 Constitution has since announced its intention to probe.

MDP leaders had not spared individual police officers, including Commissioner Riyaz, for their alleged role in the ‘coup’. Riyaz even filed a defamation case against Nasheed. Even as Nasheed as a prospective presidential candidate was circumspect in later days, other party leaders had come harsh on the MSP personnel. Nasheed himself recently said that he had accepted the verdict of the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) that went into the 7-8 February developments only because it had proposed ‘police reforms’. In more recent times, he asked party men to be ‘nice’ to the police.

Incidentally, the Election Commission too has not been free of accusations, but by the PPM and the JP. Both parties have taken exception to the EC utilising the services of IT professionals from India. The EC to has reiterated that the Indians were not involved in election-related work. Chief Election Commissioner Fuwad Tqufeeq has also said in public that ‘hackers’ from outside the country had attacked the EC’s data-base, but to no avail.

Local media reports named the US and Russia as among the countries from where hacking attempts had been made. Such ‘scientific-rigging’, whoever were behind it, could prove to be the nemesis of democracy, not just in Maldives. It is not unlikely that in the foreseeable future the country can develop the IT capacities required not only to nullify such attempts. It may even overseas experts totrack such attacks and alert the officials in good time, lest the credibility of electoral democracy in Maldives could be compromised, without anyone having to raise his hand against another.

Integrating the MNDF

Maldives may hold the unique and admirable record of its security forces not opening fire on any protestors for decades now. The last recorded incident occurred as far back as 1974, when again the NSS fired in the air to disperse a mob of protestors when President Ibrahim Nasir was in office. To date, the law says that the security forces personnel, including those of the MNDF, cannot carry weapons. Police men can carry a baton, which in the modern era comes in the collapsible form.

So strict has been the law and so imbibed has been the respect for the same that the MNDF cannot open the armoury for its men to be armed, without the express, written permission of the President, who is also the Supreme Commander of the armed forces. It is on record that President Nasheed refused to authorise the use of weapons at the height of the 7 February protests, leading to his replacement. The claim, made in public and before the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), which went into the 7-8 February events, was never ever contested.

Though the subsequent riots and arson may have reached the proportions that they did, possibly owing to the security forces not resorting to firing, it remains to be seen how the situation would be handled in the context of the presidential polls, if it so warranted. The police — and the MNDF in particular — can still be expected to derive their authority only from the President, and not otherwise – as they had proved during the change-of-power. But given the public distaste for the use of weapons, bordering on disbelief, should it happen, could discourage any President in the foreseeable future, to authorise the opening of the armoury, if only to curb street-violence and enforce law and order.

It does not stop there. While individuals may have been politicised at all levels, both the MSP and the MNDF derive their men and women from a traditionally peace-loving society. The two forces too have been trained and equipped for maintaining law and order in a peaceful society. Even the slow pace of road traffic – 20 km/hour as the upper-limit – with too many vehicles maintaining less chaotic patterns on the streets has meant that the relatively high number of traffic police present on Male streets, for instance, are there to watch that things do not fall apart than to enforce rules and regulations, as may be the case in many other countries.

Between them, the police interact with the people constantly, and men have been trained to accept its role as such – at times intercede on their behalf with the political and professional leadership, just as they are expected to do in the reverse. Though the MNDF may not have been psyched into fighting wars with external enemies when none exists, their officers and men have been trained in and/or by professional counterparts from elsewhere. There may lie a distinction, and a possible source of a potential problem, which may have surfaced time and again in the past – with ‘promises’ (!) for the future.

Not expected to evolve strategies on a daily basis, where alone exchanges need to take place with the civilian administration at all levels, their training has taught to obey orders – as has been the case elsewhere, too. The armed forces not obeying or disobeying legitimate orders has its consequences for any nation too goes without saying. In the case of Maldives, it would seem, that the political leadership at any given point in time seems to be comfortable thus with ordering in the MNDF than calling in the police, for handling what essentially are policing jobs.

It may have thus become imperative for evolving operational code for the induction of armed forces for policing duties – bring them under the civilian authorities, though not command. As is known, the MNDF comes under the Defence Ministry while the MSP is attached to the Home Ministry. The induction of the MNDF for policing duties should be a resource of the last resort – if it come be helped. But with fewer and thinly spread-out police force at their command, the political leadership of the command cannot resist the urge/need for commending the MNDF to policing duties. Integrating the MNDF into the civilian structure when called upon to policing duties may be a way out.

In recent weeks, the Government has created the ‘Special Constabulary’ without anyone giving it the due. The new force could be manned by a combination of experienced and newly-recruited men, who may be fitted in as a para-military force of the kind, as existing in many other countries. They could be tasked to assist the police force when called upon to do so, in the maintenance of peace and order, in situations such as they may now be anticipated by a select few – but apprehended by many more in the country. It may not be in the immediate future, but developing the Special Constabulary this way, and attaching it also to the Home Ministry, could contribute to minimising the need and demand for calling in the MNDF for what essentially are policing duties, if only to ensure that things did not go out of hand.

 

Of gifts and gangs

A day after the parliamentary polls of 2009, a news website in the country published a picture reportedly of a voter having captured his crossed ballot on his mobile phone camera, before casting it in the box. The accompanying news report claimed that the picture was ‘proof’ against which the voter could claim MVR 100 for his vote, from the candidate/party concerned. While the Election Commission may not be able to stop payment of money and costly gifts for vote, it could still attempt to minimise such an unabashed exploitation of technology to this end.

Through a simple order, it could stop voters from brining in their mobile phones to the polling booths, even while allowing its own officials and political party representatives overseeing the polling, to refrain from using theirs in the vicinity of the poll-box. The police on duty could be called upon to enforce the ban, for instance. There of course would be other ways of short-changing the spirit of free and fair polls. Innovative methods would call for innovative solutions.

Having put ‘freedom’ on the top of their list of priorities, the drafters of the 2008 ‘democratic’ Constitution had consciously refrained from restricting political movements, rallies and protests. The ‘December 23 Movement’ protests may have set off a process. However, only iIn the light of the Opposition MDP’s rallies that refused to die down even weeks afterward, the Government of President Waheed got Parliament to amend the law – and rightly so — setting prior permission from the police as a pre-requisite for political assemblies/gatherings of the kind.

The Supreme Court has since upheld the new law, which tantamount to ‘reasonable restrictions’ to the ‘freedoms’ that any democratic Constitution guarantees citizens. Together, the new law and its attestation by the Apex Court may have helped, if nothing else, in the police having advance notice on what to expect, when and where. However, there have been whispering protests that local (municipal) councils, elected on party-basis, were delaying, if not outright with-holding permission for Opposition parties in their limited jurisdiction, holding election rallies.

It does not stop there, though. It is now an acknowledged fact of Maldivian social and political life that the latter often deploy ‘hired gangs’ for spreading tension and creating violence. Independent studies have claimed how political leaders and/or parties have deployed ‘paid gangs’ to disrupt rival rallies, and also disturb public life and peace otherwise, through clashes, riots and arson – and how much, if not all, of the political violence is confined to such professional gangs.

In the light of such claims – and consequent expectation – the police may consider the wisdom of taking known ‘gang members’ attached to independent political parties under preventive detention for the period of the elections. If the present Constitution and the law do not provide for such ‘preventive detention’ without presenting them before the courts, so should it be. After all, the police force cannot be seen as violating the letter and spirit of the law – the latter however also ensuring them with the greater task of ensuring and enforcing public peace and tranquillity.

Under the circumstances, however, if an appropriate case could be made out in individual cases, courts may not after all shy away from discharging their duties, in the larger interest of the nation, society and democracy – all of it within the four walls of the spirit of the Constitution and the laws framed therein under. It is here that the perceived non-partisanship of authorities concerned would come under strain, and question.

In a way, Elections-2013 may be an occasion for the nation’s uniformed services to redeem/reiterate their commitment to the national cause, fair-play and non-partisanship when various stake-holders are holding other institutions responsible for degradation, if not outright decay. That such fair-play should be confined to discharge of their duties to and under the Constitution is what it is all about.

Poll observers and political parties

It is sad and unfortunate that political parties like the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the Jumhooree Party (JP) have called the impartiality of the nation’s Election Commission into question. In a politically-divided society, their current charge that the EC had employed IT professionals from India could be applied to their own men and women, if similarly engaged – or, those from other nations, near or afar, and by one political party or the other. Having let and led the creation of one too many ‘Independent Institutions’ under the 2008 Constitutions, all political parties without exception have derided and downgraded them, as it had suited them from time to time. The MDP is no exception.

It is also in this context that the role of international observers of the election scene assumes greater significance and relevance. The situation also owes to the past behaviour of political parties, to cry foul after the event and pre-date the same to their past claims, even when they were in power or sharing the same. On the ground, the international observers, comprising independent persons, organisations and journalists on the ground have a greater responsibility than they may have visualised and acknowledged.

In a surcharged political atmosphere, where biased sections of the social media has been left to play havoc with opinion-making, the international observers would have to be doubly conscious of the possibilities of interested parties misleading them, by the hour, if not minute, on the polling day. They also need to know that Male is not Maldives, and that many, if not most, of them may not have accessed the islands, where still two-thirds of the nation’s electorate reside.

Accessing information from those islands, without having visited many of them even once, and without having independent and reliable sources in any of them, comes with a cost. Caution is the key-word that they may have to follow in discharging their task. For, the international community and even the larger Maldivian society may rely upon them, after a point.

As many as 60 civil society organisations in the country have since joined hands, and called for free and fair elections. Some of them have also planned to send small or large teams of observers across the country, as observers, and hope to collate the inputs to provide a comprehensive and holistic picture. Given that the atolls and islands are far and widespread, and accessing them too is not an easy task on a single day, the Election Commission may consider working with non-journalist teams of international observers, so that by their dividing the work, could provide a comprehensive and non-partisan report on the polls, they not having to be influenced arbitrarily by one party or the other, on social media network or the other.

Yet, for all the caution and precaution, it needs to be accepted that political parties and their leaders may after all act with greater responsibility than critics of the system may credit ’em all with. At the end of the day, the first round of polling for the presidential election may be followed by another – and the presidential election followed in turn by the nation-wide island and atoll council elections in December, followed by the all-important parliamentary polls in May 2014.

If nothing else, the ‘Big Brother’ in the voter, silent as he may otherwise be, would be watching their conduct before, during and after each round of polls in this long list – and decide on the suitability of political parties and individual candidates, at the island, atoll and parliamentary levels, based on what he does now – and what he does not do now, in terms of contributing to a ‘clean election’, after all!

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

(Courtesy: ORF: The article can also be read at  Maldives: Towards a free and peaceful poll