Why the Maldives needs a transitional government
Dhivehi Observer, 8 November 2007
"This is how fair and free elections can be ensured," Benazir Bhutto recently told reporters after demanding that President Pervez Musharraf hand over power to a caretaker government in preparation for next year's Pakistani general elections. She knows what she is talking. Dictators and their kleptocratic governments are not famous for bagging fair-play awards in elections.
For a copybook example of a poll conducted under a dictator one needs to look no further than the Maldives national referendum of August 2007. In the no-holds-barred campaign of Gayyoom's ruling DRP Party, administrative offices in the islands and atolls were turned into party campaign offices. Government officials were given hasty promotions on election eve to 'motivate' them into becoming party activists for the occasion. Public money flowed freely to bribe communities and individuals to rig the polls.
To prevent such flagrant rigging, some countries have adopted the practice of handing over power to a transitional government to preside over elections. A transitional government is a temporary ruling organization usually put into place pending the establishment of a permanent government. A caretaker government is similar and is often set up following a war until stable democratic rule can be restored, or installed, in which case it is often referred to as a provisional government. Caretaker governments may also be put in place when a government in a parliamentary system is defeated in a motion of no confidence or when the parliament is dissolved, to rule the country for an interim period until an election is held and a new government is formed. Such practice is common in UK, Australia and other parliamentary democracies.
Bangladesh has adopted this practice with considerable success in minimizing electoral fraud. They appoint a caretaker government led by a former chief judge to rule the country for 3 months before an elected government takes over.
In Bangladesh, the practice of rigging elections started during the military regime of General Zia and continued under General Ershad. The Parliaments elected through these rigged elections were used to legitimize their usurpation of power. This practice continued till 1996, when the blatant rigging of a by-election at Magura led to such public outrage that Begum Zia's government was forced to accept the proposal for a caretaker government and enact the necessary change in the Constitution.
The Bangladeshi experiment with this system in 1996 proved to be a success. Neither side complained of rigging. Admittedly there were minor complaints but on the whole the elections were accepted as free and fair. Both the national and international observers expressed satisfaction about the arrangements.
The justification for caretaker governments springs from the deep distrust of the outgoing government amongst the people. It is the result of repeated failure, on the part of the elected governments, to conduct elections fairly and honestly. It is also the result of the government's shameless manipulation of the levers of power to rig the election in order to ensure its own victory. In such situations opposition parties know they do not stand a ghost of a chance to win if the ruling party remains in office.
In this respect how has Gayyoom's government conducted itself over the last 3 decades? It is an open secret that through his brother Hameed who controlled the atolls, Gayyoom managed to turn every past presidential election into a farce, making it an inter island competition to get the highest percentage of votes for the dictator. While the Chiefs of winning islands got promotions and their islands rewarded with development projects, underperforming chiefs and their islands were penalized. When the people of Kelaa Island in Haa Alifu Atoll dared to reject Golhaaboa in the 1998 elections, their island was treated like a pariah for years.
To avoid the plight of Kelaa, the chiefs of other islands devised innovative methods to get the votes right. In one island, the chief duped the islanders into giving 100% 'yes' votes for the dictator by instruction voters to put a big 'yes' on the ballot paper if they liked him and a small 'yes' if they did not. Many katheebs inspected the completed ballot papers and prevented them from being put in the box if negative. If after all this, someone still manages to cast a vote against the dictator, katheebs had devised many interesting backup methods to fish out the vote papers and 'clean' them.
Golhaa and his brother Hameed used these methods in all past elections including the latest in 2003. He may of course claim that the rigging occurred before he became a born again democrat in 2004. But the referendum of August 2007 was rigged just 3 months back, after the dictator had claimed he was fully 'reformed.' Thus one would have to be extremely gullible to believe he will play fair in the coming elections. So a caretaker government is a must to ensure the next election is free and fair.
But getting Gayyoom to agree to a transitional government will be easier said than done. He knows that a camel could pass through the eye of a needle more comfortably than he could win a free and fair election. So, he will need a lot of persuasion to agree. This is where well-wishers in the international community can help the country's transition to democracy.
History shows that international pressure is crucial in getting dictators and warring factions to agree to share power. In recent examples from Africa such as Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo, vital roles were played by EU, US, the African Union and South Africa in 'persuading' the dictators and warlords to agree to transitional governments.
Next year's presidential election is perhaps a once in a lifetime chance for the present generation of Maldivians to see a democratic government in their country. They would certainly hope that friends in the international community will not let them down in their hour of need.
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© Dhivehi Observer 2004