Maldives: Solih begins taking rough with the smooth

Image result for Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohammed ‘Ibu’ Solih
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih — Wikipédia

N Sathiya Moorthy 2 September 2019

From an unsubstantiated charge of bribe-taking as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, when predecessor Abdulla Yameen was in power, to an emerging controversy about ‘packing’ the nation’s Supreme Court with sympathisers of the ruling party, in the name of judicial reforms, to quietly neutralising emerging internal challenges, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohammed ‘Ibu’ Solih has seen them all in the first nine months of his five-year term.

Through all this, the ‘islander’ (as different from ‘Male royalty) has also been effectively taking civic infrastructure development and improvements to far-away atolls, with funding mainly from the larger Indian neighbour. Unintentionally though, the latter has the potential to create a constituency for President Solih, in addition to the MDP’s traditional ‘pro-democracy’, urbanised electorate, as President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had done in his time.

Maldivians also did not take recent social media campaign that ‘Ibu’ Solih as Opposition Leader had taken big money from the now-discredited Ahmed Adheeb, one of the three vice-presidents of predecessor President Abdulla Yameen, seriously. The rumour is not new, but the timing of the current revival, though short-lived, raises questions about the source and motive. The instant denial by the President’s Office notwithstanding, the constitutionally-mandated Anti-Corruption commission (ACC), reporting to an MDP-controlled Parliament, with former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed as Speaker, has promised to investigate the same.

Adheeb issue

The bribe-controversy is old and centred on discredited former Vice-President Ahmed Adheeb, who had escaped from ‘house arrest’ in capital Male, some weeks ago. He was intercepted by Indian authorities and sent back. Curiously, the Maldivian Correctional Services (MCS) has returned Adheeb to ‘house-arrest’, possibly given his reported health condition, after fixing an electronic-tag on his person for remote tracking of his movements. Pending massive corruption cases against him and his evidence against Yameen in some of them, Adheeb is also now being charged for escaping from ‘house arrest’.

Curiously, no one in Male seems wanting to talk about those that had helped Adheeb escape, nor has he been sent back to regular prison in view of his abnormal violation. If However, if and when the ruling MDP’s popularity begins taking a hit,  this issue is bound to be revived, as if to embarrass the Solih-Nasheed leadership, in more ways than one.

Democratic travails

Democracy and judicial reforms were the key components of candidate Solih’s poll campaign. While what constitutes ‘democracy’, particularly in the contemporary Maldivian context, still remains debatable, there is no denying the sudden rush of free air and freedom of speech, which marked Yameen’s exit

Pre-poll Nasheed as party boss had (unilaterally?) announced the possible conversion of the American ‘Executive Presidency’ to ‘Westminster form of parliamentary democracy’ if Solih as President wanted it. The latter has maintained stoic silence on the subject, at least in public. The move may possibly entail a referendum too, as happened ahead of the multi-party democratic Constitution of 2008.

The Nasheed camp within the MDP, if it could be called so, now seems going slow on the process. It is unclear if it has had anything to do with the failure of their strategy in the election of parliamentary Speaker. The MDP has 67 members in the 87-member House. Though Nasheed announced a candidate, again unilaterally, he ended up becoming the ‘compromise candidate’ after a rival name seemed to have Solih’s blessings and better

Judicial reforms?

Since the advent of the new Parliament after the 6 April polls, the ruling MDP, especially Speaker Nasheed’scamp, have been pushing for greater and speedier ‘reforms’ – better, ‘chances’ — in the  higher judiciary. Translated, it means sacking all Yameen-appointed Supreme Court Judges, who were dubbed partisan and unprofessional, and replacing them with others, cleared by the MDP-packed parliamentary committees.

Speaker Nasheed himself set the ball rolling by laying corruption charges against the SC Judge who in his trial court days had condemned him to a 13-year jail-term in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’ (2012), when he himself was President. Despite protestations by the Chief Justice and directions by the court’s Full Bench, the ACC and parliamentary committees have near-unilaterally completed investigations, recommending his sacking. In more recent times, the government has also sacked the disgraced judge’s wife as deputy ambassador to Malaysia.

Yet, President Solih, however, also created history by nominating the first two women judges to the Supreme Court. Coming at a time when negative propaganda, first centred on Gayoom and then Yameen presidencies, as promoting a ‘fundamentalist’ picture of the country, President Solih’s current initiative would go a long way in sending out a clear message to the international community.

Parliament has also since reversed a Yameen era legislation which had  cut down the number of SC Judges from seven to five. While increasing the number of Judges to seven thus, the MDP-packed Parliament, however, seems to be in too much of a hurry to sack all incumbent judges. It is unclear if wholesale replacement of incumbent SC Judges and near-arbitrary sacking of others at different levels, is the Maldivian people’s understanding of what was promised.

If anything, it is a reminder of President Nasheed’s ways of ‘reforming’ the higher judiciary in his time. It led to his closing down of the Supreme Court for a day, which was/is unprecedented in Maldivian history. Though the SC was reopened the next day, it was not before the Opposition-led Parliament had negotiated an honourable deal with and for the President, in matters of nomination of new judges under the new, 2008 Constitution.

‘No permanent enemies’

In this background, the ruling MDP cannot afford to ignore the developments in the rival Opposition camp. Solih won the presidency with a high 58 percent vote-share in the nation’s first one-on-one contest under the democratic Constitution. He had the political and electoral backing of three other parties.

The MDP nearly swept the parliamentary polls later, bagging more than a third of the 87 seats. The party bagged 67 seats, all on its own. According to party sources, on the Speaker’s election, the MDP parliamentary group received only 47-20 votes in favour of the Solih camp, necessitating Nasheed to step in and cover the breach.

The MDP and their overseas backers seem to have also read the parliamentary poll partially, in the former’s favour. In Maldives, parliamentary constituencies have been demarcated for geographical distribution and not demographic equality or equity.

In this background, psephologists need to take the poll percentage also into equal consideration. The MDP polled a total of 46 percent votes. Broadly described as ‘conservatives’ (not to be confused with ‘religious fundamentalism’), the divided Opposition topped with a combined 54 percent vote-share. Though no one is talking about it, and no party seems to have begun work, all eyes would soon turn to next year’s nation-wide, island/atoll council election.

Without mentioning it but with the future electoral calculus in mind, the Opposition parties have begun re-grouping. Bid to replace ‘controversial’ Yameen as the head of the PPM-NPC combine had begun even as the presidential poll results. But he consolidated his hold without effort and kept anticipated ‘usurpers’ like impeached one-time Vice-President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed at bay.

However, the DRP founded by Maumoon Gayoom before he went on to found the breakaway PPM is not keeping quiet. Though inconsequential in electoral terms over the past five-plus years, DRP has now got a new and financially sound leader in parliamentarian Abdulla Jabir.

Jabir has now suddenly come under the Government’s scanner for alleged economic offences. Even more so, the Home Ministry under religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) chief Shiekh Imran Abdulla has begun initiating proceedings against unnamed officials allegedly involved in the 2012 ‘coup’ which purportedly led to President Nasheed leaving office in haste.

Incidentally, Imran and his AP were at the forefront of the anti-Nasheed protests of the time, and had refused to buy the MDP version that it was a ‘coup’. Going under the common banner, ‘December 23 Movement’, they dubbed it a ‘voluntary though hasty resignation’, by a President unable to, or incapable of handling the developing situation.

Even more recently and importantly, some top leaders, including the last of Yameen’s three Vice-President, former Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad, and then Leader of the House, Ahmed Nihan, among others have joined the Jumhooree Party (JP) under billionaire-politician, Gasim Ibrahim. Of them, Jihad was Finance Minister under post-Nasheed presidency of Mohammed Waheed and re-negotiated the controversial ‘GMR deal’, which ended nowhere. Nihan was deported when he landed at Chennai Airport for a kin’s medical treatment.

As if to address social media speculation that their cross-over was with the blessings of Yameen, who is facing tough times in criminal courts on massive corruption and money-laundering charges, Gasim said, “There are no permanent enemies or permanent friends, but only permanent interests.”

With court cases against Yameen proceeding at a fast-pace and judicial reforms seemingly taking an illogical and partisan direction, a clearer picture on the future of the nation’s polity may possibly emerge with the island council elections next year. That may, if at all, set the tone for the possibility of a section of the ruling MDP reviving forgotten, solo calls for conversion to ‘India-like’ parliamentary democracy.

The article appeared in the www.orfonline.org on 2 September 2019

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