Maldives: Nasheed calls for common candidate against President Yameen
N Sathiya Moorthy www.orfonline.org 25 January 2017
In yet another change of tactic for ‘regime-change’ back home, Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed has said that they should now be aiming at the presidential polls of 2018, and also field a common candidate against incumbent, President Abdulla Yameen. As if in retort, the Yameen leadership asked him to return home from the UK, where he was granted political asylum, to serve out the 13-year jail term (much of it remains unfulfilled) and contest the polls himself.
In the US, to where he travelled from the UK for a conference and climate-change, Nasheed also said that they were in talks with the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) faction of predecessor President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. This contrasts with earlier attempts of going solo first, and claiming a tie-up with Gayoom, only to be rebuffed by the latter (as it sounded every bit premature when made).
“What we would really like to see is a free and fair election – not necessarily changing the government now,” the Maldives Independent quoted him as telling the French news agency AFP in the US. “I don’t think we will have a free and fair election as things stand now. So we will have to have the whole opposition together and come out with a single candidate.”
Pending completion or cancellation of his jail-term and other court cases against him, Nasheed sounded more conciliatory, in context. “I don’t think I can return home without risks. I don’t think there will ever be a time for that,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to take the risks and do it, if I were to do it.” Yet, it’s easier said than done, as the Opposition is yet to work on a honest alliance and also identify a ‘winnable’ candidate. Apart from Nasheed, Gayoom and Jumhooree Party (JP) founder Gasim Ibrahim are barred by the 65-year upper age-limit fixed by Yameen-influenced Parliament with MDP’s support.
Dunya back with Yameen
Yet, only days and weeks before Nasheed firing the fresh salvo aimed at the plausible future, the anti-Yameen camp suffered a limited jolt when Gayoom’s daughter and former Foreign Minister, Dunya Maumoon, returned to Yameen’s fold, in the lesser rank of Minister of State (MoS) in the Health Ministry. Dunya’s immediate identification with her father was/is all to her political clout, if any, but her split with the Gayoom camp does tell a story of its own.
Dunya’s returning to the Yameen camp follows the early decision of one of her two brothers, Ghassan Maumoon, to stay back with half-uncle President, even as twin-sister Jumna and brother Faaris have stuck to Gayoom. But the larger question for the anti-Yameen camp relates to the ability of all groups to work together, as desired by Nasheed, and carry their cadres and vote-banks, too. More importantly, they will have to identify a candidate and promote him together – and hope that he could not be compromised, legally or otherwise.
In the past, when the nation voted against Gayoom 60-40 in the first round of the historic 2008 presidential polls, the other three main candidates were together at it only in opposing the incumbent. In the second round, two others, including JP’s Gasim, with lesser vote-shares backed first runner-off Nasheed, for the latter to win in the decisive second round.
The Yameen election of 2013 was no different. But 2018 may be a different ball game, as a weak, compromise and uninspiring common candidate could be a write-off even in the first round. Minus the nation’s favourite candidates just now, 2018 sounds ‘Advantage Yameen’, at least as of now.
With the Opposition unimaginative and late in reacting to ground realities, if at all, President Yameen is pushing ahead with his development agenda, hoping to create more jobs that the Maldivian youth would love to accept, and converting them into votes of his own. Yet, in a conservative society – and not just in religious terms – Yameen’s efforts at floating a debt-bond in the international market could have political consequences.
It would still mean that there would be no conditionalities of the IMF kind, which had embarrassed the short-lived Nasheed regime, no end. By choosing an unquestioning China as his development partner, Yameen has also roped in a ‘stable friend’ of sorts, who would vote with Maldives in the UN and other human rights fora.
But how for that union would be relished in a country remains to be seen – and felt, at times, too late. A section of the population is becoming increasingly inward looking in religious matters, and it is unclear how they would react (when their turn comes, in and through elections) to an increasing bond(age) with a god-less, communist country.
Visible evidence of development in Yameen’s Maldives, like the Male-airport sea-bridge, all with China’s funding and direct involvement, could thus cut both ways. If the involvement of India’s GMR Group could trigger ‘nationalist, sovereign’ sentiments in a large section of the population, the same could show up in time in the case of China-Maldives relations, too.
In office, the Nasheed camp was slow in appreciating the changing mood of the population as they were flying high on their self-styled democracy credentials, which also gave way after a time. It’s not wholly unlikely that a similar mood could develop, in its time, regarding the involvement and engagement of China in Maldives’ development projects – though in this case, there is nothing, as yet, to suggest that they ‘interfere’ directly in the nation’s internal affairs. It was an image that India could not live down or erase!
It’s here that Yameen’s Maldives seem hoping to address religious concerns through greater and more visible identification with Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s holy cities. There have been more frequent bilateral visits at different levels, with Yameen himself taking the lead on several occasions. He seems wanting to give the impression that not only is Saudi Arabia a dependable friends of Maldives as a nation, but the Saudi royalty is also a friend of his – at a personal and political level, and as dependable from the religious-right as China is from the ideological-left.
Under Yameen, Saudi spending in Maldives on religious institutions and scholars has increased, and is also (made) more visible than ever. But then, it’s a tag-line from the Gayoom experimentation, without the China angle, as his own developmental initiatives had made Maldives and Maldivians economically prosperous from where they had begun under him in 1978. But it did not help him electorally, after a time.
‘Graft is human’
Yet, it’s not just development and China-India equations that would matter to yesteryear Maldivian voters, whose influence may be dwindling but is not going to just go away – especially considering the family and religious values that they inspire, especially outside the urban centres. To them, President Yameen’s justification of the debt-bond and his linking corruption to ‘human nature’ could all become issues of political and religious morality, hence ‘national pride’.
“…I am not saying that there is no space for it (corruption) in this government. There is space for it,” the Maldives Independent quoted Yameen as telling party cadres in a Male meeting. “I am not at all trying to justify it. However, a quality that is in human nature will remain among Maldivians as well. That is what I am saying,” he said, claiming however that his Government has cooperated utmost with the nation’s Anti-Corruption Commission, an entity under the 2008 democracy Constitution.
To a South Asian audience, Yameen’s explanation could well be a recap of the more famous Indian leader, the late Indira Gandhi seeking to explain away corruption as a ‘global phenomenon’. In present-day Maldives, the Opposition MDP was not the one to lose an opportunity to hit out at Yameen when presented with one.
In a statement, the party termed Yameen’s comments as “dangerous” and against Islamic values. “When senior officials of Abdulla Yameen’s government could not put forth a reasonable defence against the theft and fraud they committed, (he) is now saying theft and corruption constitute human nature and attempting to portray theft and fraud as minor crimes that society should not be concerned by,” the Maldives Independent quoted from the MDP statement.
Some MDP leaders also claimed that Yameen’s hold over the anti-graft outfit stood in the way of many corruption probes against him and his officials. Clearly, the party also seems confident that some of its charges and the impact of its statement would stick in good time, as it had happened in the case of President Gayoom in his time.
Such a line could also come in the way of the MDP tying up with other anti-Yameen forces after talking tough against them all as ‘corrupt and undemocratic’ in the past. The success lies in the party’s ability to promote other electoral issues as bigger than the past, and the nation’s very future lies in the results of the 2018 elections, the line that they all could ‘market’ successfully a decade ago.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)