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Reports on Speech/Lecture

Name of Event: 
Fourth Sapru House Lecture
"Challenges to Democracy in Maldives"
H.E. Mr. Abdulla Shahid
Speaker, People’s Majlis (Parliament) of Maldives
Date:  7 May 2013
Venue:  Sapru House, New Delhi

         The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) organised the Fourth Sapru House Lecture by H. E. Mr. Abdulla Shahid, Speaker, People’s Majlis (Parliament) of Maldives, entitled “Challenges to Democracy in Maldives” on May 7, 2013. Ambassador Arun Kumar Banerjee, former High Commissioner to the Republic of the Maldives, chaired the event. A large audience attended the lecture including the diplomatic corps, academic community, media and university students.

         Ambassador Rajiv K Bhatia, Director General, ICWA, introduced the Speaker and formally welcomed the guest. In his opening remarks, Ambassador Bhatia highlighted that Maldives was a very important country in South Asia and ICWA attached great importance to research and relations with her.

         Ambassador Arun Kumar Banerjee mentioned that in the last decade, the world had witnessed the peaceful and successful transition of the Maldives into a democratic republic. He noted that this transition had introduced many changes and challenges to the people of the Maldives. Meeting those challenges and establishing democracy in the Maldives, would only be achieved with patience and commitment. Citing Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement that ‘people are not born democratic; people become democratic’; he said that one has to learn to be democratic.

         Espousing his vision of bilateral cooperation between India and the Maldives, Mr. Shahid held that India had always stood by Maldives and its people and uncompromisingly extended its generosity as a good neighbour. He said that though the differences in size and power between the two countries were glaring, and were, sometimes, prone to bestow inequality; India had always looked upon the Maldives as an equal partner. As an expert for more than two decades, Mr. Shahid testified that while there were innumerable examples of brotherly relationship between India and the Maldives, the Maldives had never been made to feel like a younger brother.

        Mr. Shahid recalled India’s generosity towards the Maldives on many occasions including on the occasion of the armed attack on the Maldivian sovereignty on November 3, 1988 and the tsunami disaster in 2004. He said such unreserved cooperation and good faith had been built over many decades of friendship between the two countries. Today, the Maldives faced a political tsunami, as it struggled with the chaos, caused by a sudden change of the government in February 2012. He mentioned that political discourse in the country had become polarised, fuelled by mutual mistrust and a lack of good faith among political leaders.

         Mr. Shahid emphasised that Maldives was expected to hold the second presidential election in September 2013 under the provisions of the 2008 Constitution. It required constructive engagement and cooperative assistance of the international community. He recalled that when the Maldives embraced multi-party democracy and conducted its free and fair elections in 2008, the international community joined it in rejoicing the peaceful transition of power through the ballot. However, the success that the Maldives celebrated in 2008 was not real. It faced problems of severe resource limitation, both in monetary and human terms, as well as inexperience in the art of ‘deliberative’ governance. He argued that the people of the Maldives had been ruled by authoritarian Sultans for more than 800 years; therefore, the transfer of power from Sultan to elected president in 1968, with the adoption of Republican form of government, did not diminish the power of the executive.

         Analysing the newly created autonomous state bodies in the Maldives after the events of 2008, he said that these bodies were over eager to establish their distinct identities, interpreting their mandate in an expansive manner that often brought them into conflict with other state institutions. Further, he said that it was evident that the mere presence of political parties, a hastily drawn up Constitution, establishing separation of power, conferring freedom of expression, setting up independent state institutions and even holding internationally verifiable free and fair elections did not provide for sustainable democracy. However, it would be premature to claim that democracy had failed in Maldives.

         In his concluding remarks, he mentioned that the upcoming election pose a crucial challenge for the future of democracy in the Maldives. It may help to consolidate the tentative steps that the Maldives had taken towards a sustainable and viable democratic future otherwise it could end up tearing the country further apart. Therefore, he urged the international community to become more actively engaged with the Maldives for the forthcoming elections. Further, he said that as Maldives attempts to restore its democratic credentials, a vote of confidence by the international community, in the newly elected leader, would be an important factor.

         During the discussion, several questions were raised relating to different issues ranging from health and education in Maldives, Islamic orientation, presidential election, institutional infrastructure and political situation in Maldives and lack of national consensus on basic issues. The discussion was interactive and informative.

Report by:     Dr. Smita Tiwari, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs