N Sathiya Moorthy 14 September 2018
With only a fortnight left for the presidential polls in Maldives, the government of incumbent Abdulla Yameen has nearly pooh-poohed threats of sanctions by ‘sole super-power’ US, dubbing it ‘intimidation and coercion’. The two statements came in the midst of the sluggish poll campaign picking up some momentum lately, with the Joint Opposition (JO) rally of common MDP candidate, Mohammed Ibrahim Solih ‘Ibu’ reportedly attracting more people than that of Yameen’s, in the electorally-important capital of Male recently.
In a tongue-in-cheek reference, the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs applauded the efforts of the international community, including those of the US, to ‘consolidate democracy’ in the country. However, the US State Department’s intervention was “unhelpful, an act of intimidation” and “imposing undue influence” on the Maldivian voters ahead of a presidential election, the Maldivian statement said.
Possibly provoking the Maldivian response was the US State Department’s Heather Nauert, who said that Washington was concerned about continued democratic backsliding in the Indian Ocean archipelago. He threatened sanctions against people in Maldives “who undermine democracy, the rule of law, and a free and fair electoral process”. The US also called for “full implementation of the Maldivian Supreme Court’s February ruling over-turning the convictions of Opposition members” and made such other demands that are applicable only to Yameen in power.
The American statement, otherwise seen as ‘routine and perfunctory’, incidentally followed the refusal of Maldivian State-funded ‘Public Service Media’ (PSM) declined to retract allegations based on “leaked” documents about Washington colluding with the political Opposition in the country. This, along with earlier Maldivian slights of the US may have post-poll consequences for Yameen in the international arena, whether or not he returns to power.
In a near-similar political situation, neighbouring Sri Lanka’s then Foreign Minister, G L Peiris, chose not to respond to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invitation to visit Washington to talk over things on ‘war crimes’ issues and possibly China, too. Given the Sri Lankan political culture and traditions, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa may now be happier being out of power than otherwise, unlike as the US and the West might have hoped for.
Compared to the US, the European Union (EU) has been more active on the ‘Maldivian democracy’ front. After the EU Parliament passed a unanimous resolution, the organisation has since prepared an expandable list of 40 Maldivian individuals identified with President Yameen, for such sanctions. As if taking the cue from the EU, ‘Sun’ Siyam, heading the Maldives Democratic Alliance (MDA) partner of Yameen’s PPM, has quietly handed over party’s leadership to a deputy and left the country – possibly with the former’s clearance.
Without any formal announcement, India became the first nation to enforce an informal ban of the kind when Yameen’s PPM Majority Leader in Parliament, Ahmed Nihan, from landing at Chennai Airport. With the US seemingly returning to the centre-stage of anti-Yameen international grouping, and India becoming the ‘front-line’ State of sorts in this regards, New Delhi’s moves in the coming days will be keenly watched.
Whatever his internal predicament and predilection concerning the post-poll situation, Yameen has little choice but to club together the political Opposition nearer home with the ‘international community’, in his campaign speeches. Foreign nations would ‘invade’ Maldives if the MDP-JO won the presidential polls, he has been telling the voters, hoping to whip up ‘Maldivian/Islamic nationalist and religious sentiments’ in them.
In context, China, whose proximity to Yameen has been a problem for India and the rest, has been maintaining a stoic silence on the poll issue. It is a repeat of Chinese political behaviour viz Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa, even when he had ordered presidential polls ahead of time. However, when there was a change of elected Government in Colombo, in January 2015, Beijing moved in faster than most ‘friends of the new rulers’, for the proverbial ‘kill’. In present-day Sri Lanka, China seems to be having the cake after eating it too.
Flowing from this is also the possibility that China may not intervene if Yameen were to face political/personal difficulties, post-poll. However, China may view it differently, if any of the anti-Yameen nations, starting with India, considered intervening in Maldives, militarily, now or later. Apart from China, Russia, and even Pakistan, and a few other nations too may then take the larger Indian Ocean geo-strategic security as justification for their counter moves and measures.
Yet, for now, Yameen seems to be having the ‘international community’ eating out of his hands, whatever may happen post-poll. By having the poll schedule announced early, and also letting the MDP-JO candidate Ibu file his papers and also campaign relatively free of any large-scale Government interference, Yameen has forced the ‘international community’ to drop all references to an ‘inclusive election’, even if after a few mentions in their statements, in between.
By ‘inclusive elections’, the West, and also India, had referred to freedom and civic rights for jailed and self-exiled leaders like former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed and Jumhooree Party founder, Gasim Ibrahim, the latter to a much lesser extent. There are hopes in the MDP-JO camp about an early return of Nasheed, Gasim and other self-exiled leaders, post-poll. Yameen is also playing on such a possibility to tell the voters that under JO’s care, political instability too would return.
However, no one is clear about the immediate post-poll situation, whether Yameen were to win or lose the elections. A victory for him could mean and involve additional/fresh charges of poll-fraud, and demands for ‘muscular intervention’ by India and the international community. If Yameen were to lose the elections, and he were to acknowledge it, too, then the question arises about the interregnum, as a new President needs to be sworn in only by mid-November.
Smooth transition, but…
Under near-similar circumstances, Yameen’s jailed half-brother, President Maumoon Gayoom, who was president for 30 years, facilitated smooth transition of power to MDP’s Nasheed, after the latter had defeated him in the first multi-party polls of 2008. However, Gayoom later complained that the Nasheed camp did not keep up their part of the deal by ensuring constitutional protection from State-sponsored litigation of every kind against former Presidents. If placed under similar circumstances, Yameen may require more than words, including ‘international guarantees’ of whatever kind.
In such a scenario, Yameen’s political opponents, if they were to be back in power after a time, would still need to satisfy their domestic constituency. The latter had felt cheated when President Nasheed ‘nearly let go off’ Gayoom. Needless to recall, the Nasheed Government did resort to certain posturing to satisfy its large cadre-base. The posturing did not achieve anything for the MDP or Nasheed. It was however enough to force the latter back into ‘active politics’ from post-poll retirement after his electoral defeat.
The ‘Nasheed posturing’ included the summoning of Gayoom to the police station, to face an enquiry relating to his term in office. It also comprised ‘leaks’ to sections of the Indian media about large-scale illegal Iraqi oil imports through private entities for sale to Myanmar, both nations facing UN/US sanctions at the time. It did not produce desired political effects nearer home. Instead, others leading up to Nasheed’s exit from office overtook them all.
As coincidence would have it, the Japanese Navy recently zeroed in on a Maldivian-flagged ship, purportedly linked to Yameen, reportedly selling oil to North Korea, mid-sea. The Maldivian Government was prompt to distance itself from the sale, and even informed the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), accordingly. Incidentally, ‘illegal oil sales’ during the Gayoom era where also linked to Yameen, who the Finance Minister at the time.
For want of choice, Yameen has been forced to take a ‘principled position’ (?), not yield to Western pressures and Indian urgings on the democracy front. He has also sought to project his ‘defiance’ of foreign powers as an expression of ‘Maldivian nationalism’. However, he has not been able to explain his ‘Beijing connections’ convincingly to his voters, though the China-funded Male-Huluhule’ sea-bridge to the airport-island, seems to have triggered some positive vibes nearer home.
Yameen is not the one to yield to threats and pleas just now, nor can he be seen as doing so. If he were to win the presidency again, if at all, and under less controversial circumstances than predicted/anticipated, then he may revisit his poll-postures, become more accommodative than at present. It will have to be on his terms, and may be in response to what ‘adversarial nations’ may then have to offer him, in political, diplomatic and economic terms – and also in their attitude towards his political adversaries in his country