N Sathiya Moorthy 1 August 2018
With the Election Commission (EC) clearing the Joint Opposition candidacy of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, the battle-lines are truly and clearly drawn for the 23 September presidential polls. Though incumbent President Abdulla Yameen (of PPM), who is seeking re-election under odd and controversial circumstances, had welcomed Ibu’s candidacy early on, doubts and suspicions still remained in the JO circles until the EC approval came through.
For his running-mate in the ‘American model’ presidency and polls, Ibu has Faisal Naseem from jailed and self-exiled billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (JP), the second largest constituent in the four-party JO combine. Going by media reports, JP/JO gave up the ‘revolutionary’ idea of fielding a woman candidate (read: Gasim’s fourth wife, Aishath Nahula) after another constituent, the religion-centric Adaalath Party (AP), publicly opposed the idea. The fourth constituent, the PPM faction under jailed former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and son Faaris Maumoon, are ‘silent partners’ just now – and may remain through the medium term.
The JO bonding in the early stages of naming the candidates was not a smooth affair after the MDP unilaterally chose jailed and self-exiled former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed as their presidential candidate. The JP promptly and publicly expressed reservations to the MDP’s approach as it was clear that the Establishment, starting with the EC and the courts, would not permit Nasheed to contest, citing various legal provisions and judicial pronouncements.
By implication, it might have also meant that if Nasheed could return home unscathed and contest, so could JP’s Gasim. The JO would then be off, at least until the first round polling was over without producing anyone with an absolute majority. Once Nasheed unilaterally withdrew from the race, and the MDP named Ibu in his place, things began smoothening out for the JO partners.
In the PPM camp, Yameen named Saudi-funded Maldives Islamic University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, as his running-mate, early on. A Minister in the Nasheed-led MDP Ministry (2008-12), Saeed belonged to the Adhaalath Party, and was also a member of the successor Governments of Presidents Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik and incumbent Yameen.
Saeed quit the Yameen Government and politics, protesting against the 2015 arrest of AP leader Sheikh Imran Abdullah, who is serving a 12-year jail-term now on ‘terrorism charges’. Interestingly, Saeed joined the Yameen-led PPM close to a month after his candidacy as the President’s running-mate was formally announced. He did so only when the party council formally handed over the PPM nomination to Yameen in recent days.
Though a foregone conclusion, Yameen’s ‘formal nomination’ only a week after the EC notified the poll-date two months ahead, on 23 July. This was so despite the fact that Yameen had unilaterally declared his intention to contest the presidential polls of 2018, leading to the ‘family-cum-party’ split with half-brother Gayoom. The Maumoon clan reluctantly backed Yameen in 2013 with a reverse commitment that he would favour Faaris Maumoon for 2018. Today, with the Maumoons in prison, the traditional PPM votes are expected to split vertically.
In a politically-polarised society where siblings, parents and children, and also spouses stand on either side of the nation’s political-divide ever since multi-party democracy became the norm with Elections-2008, the poll issues have chosen themselves. In a way, President Yameen chose the poll issues, both for the self and his opponents, through his acts of commissions and omissions. To Yameen should also go the ‘credit’ for bringing all his opponents under the ‘JO umbrella’, with some push here and pull there by the ‘international community’ (read: West, plus or minus the Indian neighbour).
By ushering in controversial, China-funded ‘development projects’ that are high on packaging and low on content for the average Maldivian voter, Yameen seemed to have long concluded that it was also his passport for a second term in office. Elected President under controversial circumstances in 2013, Yameen declared that Singapore’s late development messiah, Lee Kuan Yew, was his ‘role model’. The Yameen camp hence refuses to understand how the West that backed Lee’s ‘developmental autocracy’ finds fault with their President’s ways of taking the nation there, taking the same route.
Citing the multi-party combine, the Yameen camp is also likely to focus on the ‘stability factor’, both through bold statements and whisper campaigns. Yameen fired the first salvo while accepting the mandatory party nomination, by firing a series of questions to MDP-JO’s Ibu. If Ibu chose to answer them publicly, he would be criticised either way, for giving up on democracy, or on ‘core Maldivian values’ such as sovereignty and religious beliefs, the latter centred on a modern mode of Islam.
In reaching there, Yameen left no stone unturned to set a ready agenda for the Opposition, too. The controversial measures of the Yameen leadership in terms of what the JO and the West calls the ‘stifling and throttling’ of the nation’s independent, democratic institutions like the Judiciary, Parliament and the Election Commission, the arrest and long-term imprisonment of Opposition leaders of all hues have not gone down well with their traditional supporters.
MDP’s Nasheed is the most popular leader in the nation. Despite claims to the contrary by the ruling PPM and Election Commission records, the MDP is also considered the single largest party in the country. This, as also the readily transferrable nature of the Gasim’s 25 percent vote-share from Elections-2013 (up from 16 percent in 2018) have given an early, psychological advantage to the MDP-JO – at least on paper.
There is also a perception that the Yameen leadership is following in the footsteps of the forgettable 30-year-long Gayoom rule, of incarcerating and otherwise harassing those holding independent and/or political views critical of the Government. This, the JO strategists hope, will work to their advantage, through the past and the present, up to the polling day.
As if by design more than by accident, the Yameen camp seems to have strategized for a ‘Joint Opposition’, if only to throw back the very same ‘unity’ at them and hope to win the polls on that count. Having been convinced that their leader is a ‘messiah of modern Islam’ in a country grabbling against a forced entry of fundamentalism, leading to Maldivian youth’s militant-participation in the civil wars in Afghanistan first and Syria since, the Yameen strategists seem wanting to send out a message to the GenNext voters that a Lee Kuan Yew is not born, but has to be made – out of him and only out of him.
In context, the PPM campaigners are expected to target the MDP in general and Nasheed in particular, on what they project as ‘post-poll instability of the 2008 kind’ that a tiny nation like Maldives with its ‘aspirational generation’ could ill-afford, if Ibu were to become President. As they have pointed out, the MDP and JP especially have ‘basic differences on core issues’, which could divide the JO even before they had commenced their campaign.
Under Nasheed’s bidding and based on his public pronouncements in recent times, the MDP wants the existing presidential form of government transformed into a Westminster of parliamentary democracy. JP’s Gasim Ibrahim shot it down from Germany, where he has taken ‘political asylum’. Nasheed may have also shot the JO in the foot, what with the religion-centric AP with its minor vote-share still intact, when he commented Yameen’s running-mate for his alleged ‘fundamentalist’ connections with a huge-funding nation like Saudi Arabia, which is better acknowledged as the seat of Islamic temporal power, or whatever could be deciphered.
The PPM camp is also seeking to sow seeds of doubts in the voter’s minds if the MDP and JP would and could stay together until the parliamentary polls that are due mid-2019. Their reference is to Elections-2008, when JP backed Nasheed in the second, run-off round with its substantial percent vote-share to be able to defeat incumbent Gayoom, but was ‘ditched’ ahead of the parliamentary polls, leading to victory for the unified DRP, the parent-party of the present-day PPM.
Debt-trap and worse
On the economic front, the Yameen camp is projecting China-funded projects like the Male-Hulumale sea-bridge to the capital’s airport-island, which in turn is the nerve-centre of the nation’s tourism economy, as its achievement. Yameen is also talking about the second runway in the Male airport, which again the Chinese have funded and built in a short time-span. Both projects are said to be ready for inauguration any time ahead of the polls, as Yameen’s achievements in his first term.
In referring to the second runway project especially, Yameen has made oblique references again to the Indian infrastructure major, GMR Group, challenging MDP’s Ibu on the ‘sovereignty’ front. However, he has not answered Opposition queries of the past years about China-funded projects pushing Maldives into an inevitable ‘debt-trap’ of the Sri Lankan neighbour’s kind, which again the latter has denied without possibly convincing anyone.
There is then the question of the debt-trap already leading Maldives, too, having to compromise the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, against what Yameen wants the nation to believe. These were key elements in the then Opposition-backed, religion-centric ‘December 23 Movement’ against the GMR project, under the Nasheed presidency. The Yameen camp has not convinced any Maldivian on this key aspect of their agenda from the past – which runs into the present, as well.
As the Opposition has been pointing out, the China-funded projects are not expected to provide more jobs to Maldivian youth, or increase their personal or family incomes, which alone is the core concern of the generation. The present-day youth are born into the kind of national prosperity and family incomes that their grandfather’s generation up to seventies were not aware of – but have not been able to achieve as their parental generation.
With an electorate of 260,000-plus voters with upwards of a high 90 percent polling in Elections-2008 and Elections-2013, the Yameen camp is also campaigning on the possibility of an Ibu-led presidency revisiting the Constitution, if only to ‘re-accommodate’ Nasheed at the helm. As they point out, it all has to start with the cancellation of jail-terms against all the main leaders of the JO constituents.
In turn, it should lead to the early return home of Nasheed and Gasim, among others – and a return of the ‘instability’ of the MDP-centric kind. According to the Yameen camp, the nation could ill-afford it all when the nation is purportedly at the second ‘take-off stage’ on the economic front, after the advent of the tourism economy in the seventies.
The Yameen camp can hope to succeed on this platform if they are able to convince the nation’s voters, especially the youth that another breadth of free air after the 2008 experience, in the form of freedom of speech, political action and protest, has to take a back-seat against freedom from economic wants. In this social-media era with greater awareness of the world around them, the Maldivian youth are being called to make their choice, choose their pick – which can leave an indelible mark on the nation’s future through the medium and long terms, too.