Maldives: Positing the voter in a ‘two-horse’ race

N. Sathiya Moorthy o4 September 2018

With the countdown already on for the ‘first of a kind’ multiparty democratic polls for the presidency, Maldivian politics have begun moving away from concepts to campaign, if only to address specific concerns of specific constituencies. Nowhere else is this more visible than in the rival campaigns putting bread-and-butter issues on the top of their respective platforms, convinced that they need to offer much more than their known posturing on ‘democracy vs development’ issues of the past years.

This is the first time the presidential elections involves a ‘direct contest,’ between incumbent Abdulla Yameen and MDP-led, four-party Joint Opposition (JO) candidate Ibrahim Mohammed ‘Ibu’ Solih. If Yameen’s one-time Home Minister Umar Naseer went silent after a false-start months ago, the Election Commission (EC) has since rejected an Independent’s nomination-paper on ‘technical grounds.’ It is thus also a new experience, not only for the voters but also for the political parties, candidates and their campaign managers, not to leave out their pollsters and the rest.

As may be recalled, the two previous presidential polls of 2008 and 2013 had witnessed multiple candidates in the first-round of what otherwise can be a two-phase polling. It can be argued that multiple candidates spoke for the vibrancy of democracy that the nation was purportedly longing for. It is equally possible that the confusion that has confronted a nation unaccustomed to democracy and the unavoidable cacophony accompanying the same may have upset voters across islands, and across age-groups, gender and social identities no bar.

The 2008 Constitution entailed that a candidate to be elected President has to obtain more than 50 percent of the cast votes. If not, the top two from the first-round polling would go into a run-off, within 21 days. The political realignments involving the ‘runners-up’, with their substantial and ‘transferrable’ vote-shares, however ended up bringing a bad name to the infant-democracy. On both occasions, the victors’ unkept promises to his run-off backers also ended up unsettling the polity, offering in turn, weird justification for ‘horse-trading,’ both before and after the subsequent parliamentary polls.

Air of insincerity

In the third multiparty polls in the country, democracy continues to be the central theme as on the two previous occasions — at least to the candidates and their international backers. Rather, the incumbent, now as earlier, still swears by the Constitution but the political opposition nearer home and global critics otherwise, are not impressed. more and/or nothing less.

In a cynical way at least, to incumbent Yameen should go the credit for making this one a proverbial ‘two-horse race,’ and help the nation ‘avoid’ (!) the cumbersome processes and politics of a two-phase election. For, long before the polls, Yameen’s ‘undemocratic and anti-democracy’ acts of commission and omission, had united the multiple opposition faster than they might have thought possible.

In the past two elections, despite pre-poll claims to the contrary, contesting parties and candidates were well aware that it would not be a one-round election. With the result, the nation and the outside world were left, reading between the lines of rival campaigns to study how all the second-phase could pan out. This also lent an air of insincerity to those campaigns, and the candidates’ campaign claims and charges of every kind.

If nothing else, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Jumhooree Party (JP) of billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim, with a substantial vote-share, were fighting each other before Yameen ‘intervened’ to bring them together. The other two members of the JO, namely, the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) and the breakaway faction of Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), originally founded by estranged and jailed half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President for 30 years till 2008, are ‘junior partners,’ in every sense of the term.

Today, as the campaign heats up, no one is talking about Gayoom’s imprisonment as a campaign-point. However, the MDP-JO has once again flagged fresh concerns about the deteriorating health of Gayoom, whom doctors are attending in his prison-cell. Yameen is on record that he would concede the Maumoon family’s request for transferring him to ‘house-arrest’, as permitted under the post-democracy penal law, too, if any only if the latter handed over his mobile-phone for investigations into what the government claims is the ‘failed coup’ initiated through a Supreme Court order of 1 February.

The fact that MDP boss and former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed and JP’s Gasim are in self-exile for three and two years, respectively, do not make for news any more. The nation, barring possibly his party and family, seems to have forgotten AP’s Sheikh Imran, who has been serving a long, court-ordered prison-term, at the instance of the Yameen government.

‘Stability card’ or what

This also owes to the kind of embarrassment that the MDP may face, if it makes the campaign Nasheed-centric for a third time in a row, though his is the single largest political force in the country, and he is still the single-most popular leader. It is in this context that the Yameen camp lost no time in welcoming Ibu’s candidacy. Unlike what might have been anticipated in some circles, the EC also cleared Ibu’s nomination weeks before the incumbent had filed his own.

If the Yameen government did not contest the UK and Germany granting ‘political asylum’ to Nasheed and Gasim, respectively, and seek their extradition back home, to serve pending jail-sentences and face new court cases for ‘contempt of court’, it was not without reason. By letting them where they were, the government seemed to have ensured that the incumbent would not have a ‘serious challenger’. Nor could the ‘forced self-exile’ of the two opposition leaders be made a major campaign platform for the opposition candidate, whoever it is.

This does not mean that Ibu is not a serious contender, nor or ever. A childhood friend of Nasheed, he has been in parliamentary politics from the nineties, and proved to be an effective and efficient Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, who at the same time was less flamboyant and the least controversial. At times like this, when the nation has tied itself up in knots over issues of democracy and worse, he is seen by many, if not most, as the right man at the right place at the right time.

Even as the campaign was warming up, the Yameen camp, including the President, began claiming that Ibu was only a ‘stop-gap’ candidate, and would be vacating the place for Nasheed, if he was elected to power. Both implicit and explicit with this, Yameen’s campaign team also spread the word that if Ibu were elected, and Nasheed were to come to power after a gap, it would be a return to ‘political instability’ and issues of what the MDP has been dubbing ‘transitional justice.’

Both themes, as may be recalled, had marked Nasheed’s first and only term in office (2008 to early 2012, in a five-year term ending October 2013). The MDP leadership cannot escape the blame in this regard. With the result, the un-mentioned campaign-message of the Yameen camp, to the average voter is that the four-party JO was bound to collapse if and when Ibu got elected.

Translated, it was aimed at meaning that that Ibu as President would have no control over what all would be done in his name and in the name of the party that he was believed to be in control of. Anticipating such a turn, and answering such criticism, Ibu has since declared that his would be a coalition government, through and through. “I am forming a government of the people. This is not just one person’s government. This is what the country needs. With the will of Allah this government will remain,” the Miadhu quoted Ibu as telling a campaign rally.

‘Stealing’ the election?

Even while side-stepping Yameen camp’s charges of the kind, the rival Ibu campaign has been focusing lately on their concerns about the government side ‘stealing our votes’ using existing provisions under the election laws and by misusing/abusing the officialdom for the purpose. According to them, the government has been forcing the nation’s 57,000 public servants in an electorate of a-round 250,000 to re-register themselves, vet them all through the Yameen camp before submitting the ‘favourable’ short-listed ones (alone) to the EC for inclusion in the voters’ list.

Under the laws in force from the pre-democracy days, when migration from the islands to capital Male was rampant, and transportation took time and was centred on weather conditions across the sea, voters are permitted to re-register their names in any island / population-centre, depending on where they expected to be on polling day. The re-registration process extends almost up to polling day, rather a week or so short of it. In the present case, the Election Commission has promptly distanced itself from charges of collusion with the Yameen camp, without actually denying the opposition charge on ‘stealing the election.’

It is in this context, the international community’s views on the actual conduct of the elections will weigh upon such institutions as the UN and the UNHRC, among others. The UN has clarified that it is not in the habit of sending observer teams for national elections while the EU, which has otherwise imposed travel ban on select Maldivian individuals (from the Yameen camp), promptly declined the President’s personal invitation to send out a team.

However, the EC has set up an ‘international observer’ team, with official representation from other nations, reportedly including neighbouring Sri Lanka. What kind of access that those teams might have, or how much access could they expect, given the geography, even otherwise, is a moot question. Though the EC and the government have also invited journalists from outside the country to ‘observe’ the elections from close quarters, the accreditation rules, it is said, have made things difficult for them.

‘Transferability’ and more

If one went by the election report in popular web-journal Mihaaru, or its English version, The Edition: “there are two candidates, two choices and a 50:50 chance of success.” It is arithmetical, if nothing more, or nothing less. However, if past poll-figures and the proven ability of second-round allies to ‘transfer’ all their first-round votes to the candidate of their choice is any indication, MDP-JO’s Ibu should be having the election already in his pocket.

The question is if the numbers would actually add up, five years after the last outing is the question, considering that 18-year-old first-time voters can make the difference to victory and defeat of individual candidates and what they may stand for. With both camps focussing mostly on their pet themes of democracy and development, respectively, neither side seems to have taken time to study the minds and moods of the first-time voters, especially and those of the second and third-time voters, who had begun it all with Elections-2008. The question of addressing their aspirations does not arise.

In elections-2013, MDP’s Nasheed obtained 45.5 percent vote-share in the first-round as against Yameen’s 25.35 percent and Gasim’s 24.07. Contesting as an Independent, incumbent President Mohammed Hassan Waheed Manik got 5.13 percent votes. Less than one percent votes pushed Yameen (over Gasim) into the second-round, where Nasheed sat comfortably.

Though Gasim had contested the first-round figures in the nation’s Supreme Court, seeking to replace Yameen, soon he acquiesced to the allotted position and joined hands with the latter for the second-round, and also in pursuing court cases more seriously than the other. With Gasim’s backing in the second, run-off round, Yameen became President with 51.39 percent votes against Nasheed’s 48.61.

The ‘transferability’ of first–round votes was equally self-evident in 2008, too, when Nasheed became President though he had polled only 24.91 percent votes in the first-round against incumbent Gayoom’s 40.34 percent. Gasim with 15.22 percent and Independent, Hassan Saeed, with 16.67 percent backed Nasheed in the second-round. The result the final tally stood at 53.65 percent for Nasheed and 45.32 percent for ’outgoing’ Gayoom.

Jobs, the prime concern

The two elections and the results thereof show up the flexibility in the voter’s mind, which focuses more on issues at hand, as the voter thinks than necessarily on issues of democracy, development and the like. In either case, the nation’s youth, who constitutes the single largest voter-pool in the country, are looking for jobs, while their immediate earlier generation are in continual search for political stability, they having got used to the 30-long rule of President Gayoom.

Gayoom took off from where predecessor Ibrahim Nasir had left. He ushered in social growth and economic prosperity for the individual, by promoting high-end resort-tourism industry, which paid for unprecedented growth in family incomes, education and healthcare. When Gayoom became incapable of changing with the times and addressing the aspirations of the new-generation that were born with the benefits that his governance had ushered in, the latter voted him out.

Jobs and family incomes apart, there is also the un-mentioned demographic divisions that have influenced the voter-decision in the past. As in the first-generation ruling class in any democracy, many of the top-rung leaders in the nation’s polity belong to what is euphemistically called the ‘Male royalty’, which itself dates back to centuries. In this, Gayoom — and thus Yameen — too belong to the ‘commoner’ class, while Gasim, is a rank outsider in every which way.

Gasim’s rags-to-riches story has inspired many present-day youth from the islands, including those who have migrated to capital Male. This in turn also explains how the island-capital accounts for half of the nation’s 427,000-plus population (Official Estimates, 2016, up from Census-2014 figure of 341,000. This includes a substantial number of migrant-population with no voting-right, but the question at hand is if the new-generation ‘Gayoom-Gasim’ voters would vote for Ibu, as neither of them can any more contest the presidential polls, under the Yameen-prescribed age-law, approved by the MDP in Parliament.

Exploring options..

Yet, as the first-round results showed in 2008 and 2013, other than in deciding to vote out the incumbent of the time, the voter was divided in his ‘first-round’ preference. This can be read in two different ways in the run-up to Elections-2018. The voter wants change, or he is exploring the options, and not wanting to be taken for granted, until they are pushed to the wall by a mandatory, second-round polling.

There is enough evidence on the ground to show that ‘jobs’ are upper-most in the minds of the youth, who straightaway comprises 25-40 percent of the nation’s voters, depending on where you draw the age-line. According to back-of-the envelope calculations, voters in the 18-45 age-group account for 60 percent of the electorate. In terms of voter-demography, there is a general agreement that this segment, especially the lower age-group, holds the key to the results — as in the previous two outings.

Social media speculation is contradictory about a majority of the first-time voters and possibly their immediate predecessor group being confused by the current goings-on, claiming that the democracy-development discourse does not tough them at all. Others say that if confused, a substantial number of first-time voters may take the cue from their families.

The last time round, many voters claiming to be ‘first-timers’ told the local media that they ‘swore by the Koran, to vote for Nasheed’. But in a polarised society of the past decade, where siblings, parents-children, and husbands and wives are on either side the ‘great political-divide’, how much of family-influence would guide the first-time voters this time, too remains to be seen and proved.

At the same time, the entire segment is also scared of losing more jobs if the EU, among other originating nations of high-end resort tourists, tightened the screws through travel-advisories for their citizens, if it came to that. This can affect the industry as a whole, which is generally believed to be bank-rolling rival campaigns through past elections, based also as much on ego-hassles and predictability of political behaviour of the elected leadership.

With the result, not only Gayoom but also AP’s Sheikh Imran has not found a prominent place in the MDP-JO campaign, though the same may be said to be true of self-exiled Nasheed and Gasim, thus far. It is another matter, how far could the first-time voters connect either with Gayoom, whose rule and role effectively ended a decade ago, or even Nasheed, who left the country when they were around 15 years of age, and were not keen on politics as their counterparts a decade ago might have been. With no public protests having taken place over the past two years especially, the ‘connect’ that the MDP-JO seems confident of, needs to be proved – and only on polling day.

At the same time, it is in this context, the Yameen government seems wanting to throw statistics at critics, that tourist-arrivals have increased month-on-month between last year and this. However, the Yameen camp is also said to be aware that a higher number of tourists from China, whose aid and assistance that his government has got, may not be able to substitute for the loss of revenue that any EU initiative could produce — more for the industry than for the Treasury.

Not dazzled by China, but..

Through the campaign-trail, MDP-JO’s Ibu has been open in declaring his intention to introduce staggered income-tax, if elected. The idea had not gone down well with the middle-class, middle-income Maldivians. This, some say, could be a throw-back to the Nasheed era, when introduction of income-tax, job-cuts and pay-cuts in the government, which was the mainstay, both at the acknowledged instance of the IMF, did not go down well with the people.

With Maldivians dependent on imports for every-day needs, including food and medicine, and they having to travel overseas for medical emergencies and higher education for their children, the Nasheed government’s decision on ‘partial floatation’ of the local currency, Rufiyaa (MVR), against the US dollar, the international currency, hit them hard and overnight. The later-decision in 2011, to let MVR to fluctuate within the MVR 10.28 – 15.42 band against the US dollar for a decade would come up for review under the next presidency.

In all this, the Maldivian voter may not be as much dazzled by Yameen-initiated, China-funded ‘Sinamale Sea Bridge’, connecting capital Male and the airport-island Hulhumale’, unless they are convinced that this and other China-funded projects could mean jobs for the youth, and prosperity for the individual across the nation’s socio-economic strata. There is nothing to show for that in concrete terms, but then the rival Ibu camp has also not promised anything even remotely close to holding out hopes, if not jobs, at least as yet.

Foot-soldiers, martyrs

If someone thought that the average Maldivian is sold on anti-Yameen, campaign that under his regime the nation had become a major contributor of foot-soldiers and martyrs for the cause of the ISIS, it is also not to be. A nation that had practised ‘moderate Islam’ by global standards for close to a thousand years, they seem to have drawn the distinction between the increasing orthodoxy that the ‘contemporary world has imposed on us’ and the motivation that a few IT- generation Maldivians had acquired to become self-styled foot-soldiers of Islam, as misinterpreted for them, and misunderstood by them.

Starting with the protest for the ‘First Republican Constitution’ in the early thirties of the previous century, Islam has played a unifying role in the contemporary political history of the nation. Religious leaders were the first ones to protest against Gayoom even though he was known as an Islamic scholar from Cairo’s Al Azhar University, and the Constitution proclaimed that as President, he was also the ‘Head of the Religion’ in Maldives.

More recently, the anti-Nasheed ‘December 23 Movement’ of 2011-12 were held under a united platform of religious organisations, though the Gayoom-centric, Yameen-led political opposition was the motivating force that also managed the affairs. When after Nasheed’s exit, some religious/Movement leaders claimed that they would ‘guide’ the affairs of the State from then on Yameen was the first one to shoot down their claims. “It is politics, and politicians will decide it,” was his refrain.

Compared to the ‘fundamentalist groups’ inside the country and outside, the Adhaalath Party has remained a moderate politico-electoral outfit. If anything, it may have lost out prospective cadres to centre-right extremist outfits, which do not have a name and brand in Maldives, but who are visibly ‘encouraging’ the local population across the country, to return to the ‘basic tenets’ of Islam at least in their day-to-day life, including the way their women dress.

The Adhaalath Party, which brought together the Islamic NGOs under the banner of the ‘December 23 Movement’ against President Nasheed in 2011, has been forced into the background. This, despite the fact, the AP had spearheaded the first anti-Yameen protests in early 2015. Incidentally, the AP has only one member — incidentally, a woman — in the 85-seat People’s Majlis, or Parliament, and its vote-share has also been dwindling, election after election.

However, with the ISIS taking a beating in Syria and Iraq, and surrendering the territories that they had held over the past couple of years, there are apprehensions that the Maldivian youth who had joined the IS clandestinely to fight in the ‘jihad’ of their dreams in those distant lands, might return home more frustrated than they were already with the existing system back home, and elsewhere across the world. Whoever comes to power after 23 September would thus have to be watchful for them, and of them – no, escaping the responsibility, no finger-pointing to the past, either!

Maldivian irony

Otherwise yet, ‘nationalism’ and ‘sovereignty’ are touchy subjects in Maldivian politics, as in and with any other nation. Hence was the 23 December movement’s decision to peg their anti-Nasheed protests to the ‘GMR airport deal’, involving an Indian infrastructure major. Likewise, the present-day opposition has been going hammer and tongs against the Yameen leadership for seeking to ‘give-away’ Maldivian ‘real-estate’ to China, a la Hambantota in neighbouring Sri Lanka, which claims both Male and Beijing have denied. The Maldivian irony is that neither has the Maldivian opposition been able to convince anyone of its charge, nor the government of its denial. The truth may — or, may not — lie in-between.

It is in this context that Nasheed’s earlier call for India sending armed forces to Maldives to restore democracy needs to be viewed, especially from a voter-perspective. Likewise, India’s ruling BJP parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy’s call more recently after meeting with Nasheed in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo has come up for criticism, both from the ruling party and the Joint Opposition in Maldives, as it is a sensitive issue in the run-up to the presidential polls.

It is also in this context, some Maldivians want to view the Yameen government’s reservations to ‘looking the gift’ of two helicopters from India, for surveillance purposes, up for renewal since early this year. There has been added discomfort in the Yameen camp and also Maldivian Establishment on the ‘helicopter issue,’ which however pre-dates Nasheed’s call for ‘Indian military intervention.’

Post facto, there has been equal discomfort in the MDP-JO camp on the ground on how such calls may reflect on the voter-sensitivity ahead of the presidential polls. That includes the earlier Nasheed call, which has got a new lease of life with Swamy’s statement. Despite the prompt Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ denial that parliamentarian Swamy’s views were his own and did not reflect the government’s views on the subject, the Ibu camp is yet to gather its wits on the subject!

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