President Dr Mohamed Waheed assumed the presidency after the controversial resignation of his predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, on February 7, 2012. He will tomorrow face his former running-mate in the country’s second ever multi-party presidential election.
Appearing relaxed in the tranquil surroundings of Muleeage, Waheed took time before Friday prayers to talk about the country, his time in office, and Saturday’s poll.
Daniel Bosley: How are you feeling going into tomorrow’s election?
President Dr Mohamed Waheed: Actually, I’m quite happy and I feel peaceful because two years ago it was a little bit hard to imagine how we could come to this point where we have a peaceful election. I’m confident that this will be one of the best elections in our country’s history. This is the second democratic election and the Election Commission is trying its best to hold a free and fair election, because it’s not only the responsibility of the Elections Commission to do this. A free and fair election is possible only when all the political actors make an effort to make it a free and fair election – and not try to make it more difficult than it already is. But I’m generally confident that we will have a transparent, free, and fair election tomorrow.
DB: You are well known for having a liberal background – Stanford educated, experience at the United Nations, liberal views under former President Nasheed openly expressed – and yet soon after coming to power, you told your supporters “you are all my mujahideen”. What was your motivation for that kind of rhetoric?
MW: Okay, that wasn’t right because we used the word ‘jihad’, I never used the word ‘mujahideen’ to begin with. The word ‘jihad’ is used in Maldives for various contexts – everybody uses it – even my finance minister is called Jihad. Really, it’s a term in our language that is interchangeably used for suffering, for sacrifice, for struggle. All these three meanings come, so if you want to say ‘our struggle’ you will say ‘our jihad’. So it was used in that context, but of course because it connotes very sensitive meanings in the international media, some people picked it up and used it against us.
DB: What are your general thoughts on politicisation of Islam in the Maldives?
MW: Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country – a Sunni Muslim country. It’s generally more liberal than many other Islamic countries. Religion and politics have never been separate in this country. It has always been part and parcel of the political process. Religious scholars have always played an important role in government in this country. So, in that sense, it is hard for us immediately to achieve a secular state. We have to have the imagination and the creativity to come up with a political system that can also count in the values of our society. So the challenge that we face today is to walk together – to blend together – the traditional Maldivian and Islamic values along with liberal values which have their roots predominantly in the West. So, trying to do this is not easy and it’s not going to happen overnight.
It will come through the education system. Young people will grow up to become the majority of our society, [and] will have to embrace the new values. This is why I always say that liberal education is so important, but only if we have enough of it. Our universities don’t teach courses in world history, in philosophy – and I’ve been arguing that this is so important. Ultimately, the democracy that we want to achieve is one in which people can speak freely on all matters, including religious matters, and to be able to discuss issues freely. Because Islam also has given a very strong moral basis, an ethical basis – the way you treat your elders, the way you treat your children, how you behave yourself in society, the use of cleanliness – a lot of these thing are already there and they are part of the social fabric of Maldives. That is why it is so important to maintain the fabric that we have while we bring in the new values. For people like us who have spent most of our time in Western universities, sometimes we don’t understand the importance of the traditional values system. But that’s what makes Maldives a unique place, that’s what makes Maldivians what they are, and that’s really a challenge. We are trying to move forward with democracy and because it’s the early years of democracy, it’s difficult.
DB: Have you found it difficult to lead without being part of a mainstream party? Do you think that it’s hard for a president in the Maldives at this time to negotiate consensus with other parties?
MW: Very good question. This is why I have chosen a running mate who is from the second largest political party and that party also has members of parliament. My sense of this election is like the 2008 election – it will probably be a coalition that will win this election. So there are other political parties who will probably join and we will have a workable majority in the parliament. It has been difficult not just for me, it has been difficult for my predecessor President Nasheed, it was also difficult for President Gayoom because, in our democratic march forward, there is this tension within the executive and the legislature, and that tension has been there – I don’t think it is going to disappear immediately but we need to work out a working relationship between the executive and the legislative branches of the government.
DB: Soon after you came to power your former political advisor, Dr Hassan Saeed, described you as ‘politically the weakest person in the government’, and you yourself said last November that everybody was running the state as they pleased. What do you say to those who argue that you have overseen a lame duck presidency?
MW: You see, I don’t think that’s not completely correct because a lame-duck government is not able to do the kind of things that we have done. If you just look at the development programmes, we have continued to provide all the support, the social services, that this government has planned – all of them have been implemented. The elderly people have received their regular allowances, the single mothers received their allowances, all the government employees get their salaries – all of these things are happening. On top of that, we have had a very ambitious infrastructure development programme. Fifty islands’ harbour projects are going on. We have highly ambitious renewable energy programme. We have acquired about US$200 million in pledges for the introduction of renewable energy into the country. Thirty islands will be almost 100 percent renewable energy. We started making the roads of many islands – we have started new roads of 66 km over the last two years. We used to have, until last year, the lowest higher-education enrolment in any developed country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Today, any student who wants to go into higher education, who has enrolment in a university or college, has access to financial aid. So, you couldn’t do these things if you are a lame-duck president, but we are not the only country in which the executive branch is deferred to with legislation – we see that in bigger countries in the western hemisphere.
DB: If you could look back at February 7 and the surrounding period, is there anything you would do differently?
MW: Yes, I wish President Nasheed and I were able to have better communication. That would have been something I would have liked. But unfortunately it didn’t happen for whatever reason.
DB: What specifically can you mention that occurred on the day, or the preceding days?
MW: Not just the day itself, but also prior to that we should have worked much more closely. We were not able to work closely partly because a lot of the MDP [Maldivian Democratic Party] activists – MDP senior people – felt that I couldn’t be trusted because I refused to join the MDP. I was one of the founding members of the MDP but, for various reasons, I had to leave it and then I was reluctant to go back in under pressure. There would have been a possibility for me to join the MDP if they didn’t push too hard. But, because of those things our communications were not good. I think this could have been avoided and I’m sure senior MDP people would tell you the same.
DB: Following the investigation of the transfer of power, the CoNI report called for reform of the police and the judiciary. What concrete steps have you taken in the past 12 months to bring about these reforms?
MW: One was about police brutality, there were allegations of police brutality, and the CoNI report called for investigation and we specifically asked the Police Integrity Commission to look into this. There were cases of excessive use of force and these were investigated and some cases have been already tried. There were recommendations about institutional strengthening, particularly the judiciary and others, but this last two years have been so difficult, it has really not been easy for us to embark on that. Courses of institution building – I think this is what used to be done after the elections with a consensus. There is a fairly comprehensive proposal that government has drawn up on institutional reform and institutional strengthening. I wanted to have a national conference on this but we couldn’t get all the political parties to buy into it. It’s really important that political parties be part of that process so that we all work together for the common objective of strengthening the judiciary and others. That also goes for parliament – parliament is also not functioning ideally, and anybody who’s seen me delivering my presidential address would know.
DB: You have spoken about the mistreatment of your family members under former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – you mentioned your mother being dragged through the streets and spat upon – something you said you would never forget. But then you invited Gayoom and many members of his family back into the government. How can you explain that? Do you think it’s possible to rule the country without Gayoom’s consent?
MW: Yes, it’s possible to run the government without Gayoom’s consent – absolutely. Me and my family have these issues – but those are family and personal issues. As president of this country, I have to rise above my personal feeling. I know some of my family is not happy with it but as president you are looking at the complete record of a person. When Gayoom came to be be president, we didn’t have education in all the islands, we had only very young tourism industry, we didn’t have regional hospitals, we didn’t have so many educated people in this country. So, the man did something for this country, but he was also very brutal. He continues to have a following – why do you think [Abdulla] Yameen has been getting traction in his political career – not because Yameen is so popular, it’s because of Gayoom and in 2008 election also, if you remember, he actually got more votes in the second round than the first one. So, the man is important in local politics but that doesn’t mean that any government that comes to power has to have his consent or has to listen to him. This is not there anymore. The man served his country, his service has been recognised, it’s time for him to retire.
DB: Without judicial reform, do you think you could govern easily with Gayoom’s apparent control of the courts?
MW: Gayoom is not the only one in this country. We will continue to support the judiciary to function effectively. I think we are emphasising Gayoom’s role in this too much – I don’t think he has that kind of control over the judiciary.