Maldives: Breathing ‘free air’ under Solih, but issues remain

by Sathiya Moorthy 5 November 2019

Come 11 November, and President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih’s regime in Maldives would be entering the second of its five-year elected term. If anything came out from the moment he was elected the President in the nation-wide direct-vote, held on 23 September 2018, it was a sense of the people breathing ‘free air’ after five years of predecessor Abdulla Yameen’s ‘oppressive regime’. To the average Maldivian, the Yameen era was a return to his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the nation with an iron-grip for 30 long years since 1978, though the former did incarcerate the latter for attempting a ‘constitutional coup’ by involving the nation’s Supreme Court.

Solih’s election heralded the instant return of a sense of democracy and end of despondency among a larger section of the population, especially the younger generation that had begun aspiring for the same through the last decade of the Gayoom rule. Yet, it has also marked the return of inadequacies that had marked the first democracy presidency under Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, who continues to be the MDP boss even while being the supposedly non-partisan Speaker of Parliament.

Democracy, at the end of the day, is all about healthy precedents and healthy practices. Law, court orders and governmental execution and experience are all expected to strengthen the same. It is in the absence of them all that the nation began craving for democracy under Gayoom, and failed again under Nasheed in a small way and Yameen in a much larger way, later on.

It is in this background that MDP’s subsequent seat-sweep of Parliament needs to be viewed and contexualised. Contesting the presidential polls as the common candidate of four parties, of which the MDP was the tallest in every sense of the term, Solih bagged 58 percent of the popular vote. Unless often understood overseas and by the international media, incumbent Yameen’s losing vote-share of 42 percent was nearly ten times the poll performance of the People’s Alliance (PA) party that he had once floated and lead, before merging the same with half-brother Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and hijacking the same.

In the parliamentary polls, held on 6 April this year, the MDP won two-thirds of the seats, but with a much reduced vote-share of 44 percent. In reality, the party’s 65-seat victory in the 87-member House was a mis-match when read with the vote-share, as for many seats, the victory margins with thin to low. Yet, there can be no denying the voter’s preference for the MDP, especially the Solih presidency, and their determination to give his leadership a stable government, bereft of coalition squabbles that had rocked the predecessor Nasheed and Yameen presidencies under the democracy regime.

Delaying island polls?

For starters, the MDP, however, ‘ditched’ its allies from the presidential polls when party chief Nasheed unilaterally declared their intention to go it alone. There was obvious tensions within the party as President Solih went back and forth to stick to the presidential poll alliance, to convince the nation that he meant business. Though the party leadership has been toughening its stand against the rest, possibly barring the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP), which alone is left from the presidential poll combine, the ground realities seems to be otherwise.

If nothing else, the MDP seems keen on seeking to delay the nation-wide island and atoll council polls by extending their terms from three to five years, through parliamentary legislation. The polls are due, and given the party’s parliamentary vote-share, someone in the MDP hierarchy seems to be concerned about the possibility of a common Opposition shaping up for ahead of the next presidential polls that are not due full four years from now.

Yet, considering the past practices of parties and leaderships launching their presidential poll campaigns just a year after the last one had concluded, there is definitely a cause for concern, more for the MDP than possibly for the Solih leadership of the Government. To the point, the party strategists do not seem wanting to give the divided Opposition from the parliamentary polls to have an occasion to come together, which chance the island council polls might well offer.

Judicial reforms

It is also in this background, the MDP’s much-touted judicial reforms come in for a closer look. It has been one of the clarion calls of the party leadership since Nasheed’s election as President in 2008, along with constant calls for ‘transitional justice’, whose residual aim was to floor the strong adversarial leadership of the outgoing President of the time. Yet, when it has had a chance, the MDP failed the nation earlier. It seems to be repeating the performance now again.

No one is talking about the way the judges of the Supreme Court reflected the government’s mood of the time, first over the ‘Nasheed conviction’, and relatively recently over the 1 February 2018 web-posted, unanimous order, turning it down, without seemingly hearing the prosecution. Taken by surprise, President Yameen, as was expected to be his wont, proclaimed emergency, jailed and voted out at least two SC judges for corruption, along with his half-brother Gayoom, now in the Opposition, for master-minding what his camp called a ‘judicial coup’.

It began this time with Speaker Nasheed blaming a Supreme Court judge for accepting money, in his wife’s name in an overseas account, for sending him to jail when the former was a trial court judge. Be it as it may, the speed with which a ‘packed anti-corruption’ constitutional body and the MDP-loaded Parliament and parliamentary committees are going about the same, the chances of popular reservations of the 2010 kind resurfacing over the procedures, or lack of the same, cannot be ruled out, over the medium and long terms.

India relations

Ahead of the presidential polls or even earlier, when he was in  the UK on political asylum and used to visit Delhi, President Nasheed used to run down China in favour of India. He continually criticised the Yameen Government for pushing the nation into a ‘debt-trap’, thanks to the massive development loans obtained from China, without taking his own Cabinet, Parliament and nation into confidence. He said as much even recently while in New Delhi, leading the Maldivian delegation to the Asia Development Forum, which was otherwise supposed to be apolitical.

However, most other members of the Solih team, starting with the President, have been circumspect in their public assessment of Chinese loans, or even past and future dealings with Beijing. While the Maldives government is yet to bring out a ‘white paper’ or otherwise come out with the details of Chinese debts under the Yameen regime, they have been following a carefully laid out plan, where larger economic aid could still flow from Beijing, though not in the immediate future.

In context, Male-Delhi political, diplomatic and security relations are back to the upswing mode, particularly starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Maldives, as the only world leader to be invited to attend Solih’s Inauguration. The PM has since followed it up with an official visit in the past months. In an unprecedented way, India announced a $ 1.4-b aid package to Maldives, to be spend on projects, which Male wanted for its people, and not what Delhi might have wanted to impose (which was mostly the case with Chinese funding, as elsewhere in the Third World).

It is also becoming increasingly clear that Maldives under the MDP Government of President Solih would near-exclusively depend on larger Indian neighbour for all its security needs, both internal and external, where its requirements are even more. A Solih-appointed Presidential Commission with special police powers has frankly acknowledged the existence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in the country.

Even more recently, Turkey, a distant Islamic nation, has black-listed a high 134 Maldivian insurgents, re-confirming their existence and spread. Thus, there is a greater need for the nation to work even more closely with friendly and resourceful larger neighbours like India, to eradicate terrorism – but without mixing it up with the ruling party’s proclivity to bend backwards to non-Islamic nations like the US and Israel.

Popular perception

At the end of the day, for a nascent yet tottering democracy as Maldives has been through the first decade of the multi-party scheme, domestic popular perceptions matter much more than international opinion. In a situation favourable to the ruling MDP since 2008, both have gone hand-in-hand. The party leadership in particular has been investing on both, but with varied response, depending on the vagaries of policy-making, when in power.

Thus today, there is a return of the resistance to the Solih Government’s attempts to introduce income-tax for businesses, both inside and outside Parliament. In its time, the Nasheed Government sought to introduce income-tax, and also cut down on Government sector staff strength and salaries by 20 percent each at the instance of IMF. In turn, it was a pre-condition for extending loans, as a possible/part-substitute for those that the Indian neighbour might not have been unwilling to offer.

Such decisions affecting individuals, most of whom had voted for leadership-change, along with the hiking of power tariff and the Government’s suspect policy on Islam, Israel and the US, not necessarily in that order, might have nailed the Nasheed leadership, before the alleged coup of 7 February 2012, which saw him quit in a huff, with hopes to returning to power on a bigger and more convincing majority. It did not happen, as expected.

Today, when the Solih Government is settling down to the business of delivering on popular aspirations and undefined expectations, as much as on the promised poll promises, it needs to look deeper at the political fall-outs of its multiple decisions. The list includes continuing perceptions of the Government taking on the higher judiciary with a political intent and content, to talking about income-tax to a population that has a mental-block about such concepts of political economy, and seemingly targeting Islam in the name of targeting terrorism. With four more years to go, the Solih leadership should decide which way to turn, and which step to take, and how false or life-threatening it could be, for the longevity of the Government, that is!

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