N Sathiya Moorthy 2 April 2021
The immediate task on hand is for the MDP to stay united and face the 10 April local council elections and ensure a sweep well ahead of the presidential poll.
At a time when he should be worrying about the party’s victory in the postponed nationwide local council elections (LCE), now due on 10 April, the ruling MDP president Mohamed Nasheed seems to be wanting to score a self-goal even more badly. Through a tweet, Nasheed, the former President and at present Parliament Speaker, has gone a step ahead in targeting the government of President Mohamed Solih, over the ‘ventilator-import scam.’ After claiming the scalp of one cabinet minister, he has now turned his attention on two other constitutional appointees, namely the Attorney General and President of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
“I see the government colluded in this… I do not want the MDP to stand by a government that steals,” Nasheed tweeted, adding that he would ‘not budge’ against attempts to put a lid over the scandal. He demanded the resignation of the Prosecutor General after incumbent Hussain Shameem said that they would prosecute the case (only) if the anti-graft investigator found where the (scam) money went to.
Initially, Shameem said that he was willing to resign, as sought by Nasheed. Later, he became open to ‘reviewing’ the case, possibly after the President’s Office declared that the government had provided all relevant documents to the police and also the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). In a statement that was as much personal or impersonal as Speaker’s Nasheed’s charge was, the President’s Office said that “As the Head of State… President Solih provides assurance he will do everything necessary in order to ensure work by relevant institutions to uphold and ascertain the rights of the people is conducted free from all influence and with independence and autonomy.”
The case relates to alleged corruption when the Health Ministry placed a MVR 34.50 million (US$ 2.2 million) contract to Dubai-based Executors General Trading to procure 75 ventilators, at the height of the COVID outbreak last year. The Auditor General’s office found out that nearly 90 percent of the contracted amount was paid in advance without any ‘performance guarantee.’ The situation worsened after it was found that only 15 of the 75 ventilators were received.
Flowing from the findings, the Nasheed camp within the ruling MDP forced the exit of Health Minister Abdulla Ameen. Independent of the scam, the Nasheed camp forced the exit of Communications Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamaal late last month. Long before the scam hit the roof, President Solih had sacked Tourism Minister Ali Waheed, a one-time MDP chairman who later migrated to the party’s Jumhooree Party (JP) ally, over multiple complaints of sexual harassment of female employees.
Now, over the ventilator scam, Nasheed, as party chief and the nation’s most popular and equally credible political face, publicly demanded the resignation of P.G. Shameem. Possibly after the President’s Office statement, he targeted ACC President Mariyam Shiuna, but failed to muster support in the MDP parliamentary group.
In the 65-member group within the 87-seat Parliament, including the Speaker, the motion could muster only 13 groups. A related motion, calling for a parliamentary probe into the ACC’s alleged negligence in the case, managed an extra vote. The parliamentary group is, however, expected to discuss the issue on a future date, thus leaving the political fate of ACC’s Shiuna, hanging.
The Nasheed-Solih shadow-boxing owes to a perception within the cadre-based MDP that the government was ineffective and also corrupt. If left unchecked and/or unacknowledged with appropriate organisational initiatives, the party could lose the presidential polls due in late 2024 and also the parliamentary polls a year after, or that is the perception. They also want Nasheed to contest the presidency at the time, and find that the political tide might have turned against the party, if the ground situation did not improve.
The immediate task on hand is for the MDP to stay united and face the 10 April local council elections and ensure a sweep well ahead of the presidential poll. This is important as the party had polled only 46 percent, or less than half of the total votes polled in the parliamentary polls of 2019, despite a high seat-score. Of particular interest in the local government elections (LGE) are the mayoralties of capital Malé, southern Addu, and northern population centre, Kulhudhuffushi, which have been MDP strongholds since the inception of multi-party democracy polls in 2008, but not necessarily so any more.
Any reversal now for the ruling party could also open up the simmering wounds within the ruling party that neither side is willing to prise through as yet. A post-poll scenario of the kind could also throw up new challenges for the ruling party as new groupings and factions emerge from the shadows, either staking a say in the affairs of the party or the government, or both. Among them are long-term presidential aspirants, who have kept their ambitions below the radar, given Nasheed’s known ambitions and his high popularity, both inside the party and outside.
The Election Commission (EC) has since put the number of registered voters at 273,182 persons. Past elections, including those for the local councils and the accompanying women’s development councils in the islands had recorded a high voter turnout, going beyond 90 percent for presidential polls. First-time voters and other youth are continued to be seen as the ‘deciding factor,’ and they too are impacted by unemployment and under-employment during the year-long pandemic, despite the country opening up to overseas tourism halfway through, in mid-July 2019.
Making India a poll issue?
Independent of COVID-centric anti-incumbency issues, including attendant corruption issues of the ‘ventilator scam’ kind, India relations is an issue that the divided Opposition is seeking to flag in the local council polls, as if to show the ruling MDP as an ‘Indian stooge.’ Their perceived grievances flow from the controversial ‘GMR agreement’ signed the by Nasheed presidency (2008-12) with the Indian infra major.
However, the immediate target is the funding agreement that the MDP government that was signed during the February visit of India’s External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar, for the construction of a harbour and dockyard for Maldives Coast Guard at Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) island. The agreement was originally proposed by the Yameen government in 2013. The Maldivian draft at the time seemed to have contained some controversial clauses, which are now wrongly attributed to the present agreement. Some of the other clauses, like granting immunity for Indian military personnel from local laws when on Maldivian territory, in a ‘leaked draft’ seems to have been a straight lift from the aborted draft of the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA) offered by the US during the short-lived presidency of Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (2012-13).
Considering the sensitivity of the issues involved, the Solih government took extra care to be transparent by signing the agreement before television news cameras. Ruling party MPs also co-signed a subsequent Opposition demand for a parliamentary discussion, which took place. The discussion led to MPs getting access to go through the agreement on their ‘protected web,’ but not to be cited or quoted elsewhere.
In an unprecedented move, the government fielded none other than the Chief of Defence Force, Brig. Gen. Abdulla Shamal, to reassure the nation, through a news conference, that nowhere did the current agreement state that armed Indian military personnel could be stationed at the UTF base. “The State has the full authority to terminate the agreement at any point of time,” he said.
However, Yameen’s Defence Minister and People’s National Congress (PPM)-Progressive Party of Maldives (PNC) parliamentarian Adam Shareef tweeted later that the Solih government had committed a mistake by involving the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) in the UTF agreement issue. Another Opposition group, the Dhivehi National Action (DNA) represented by Yameen’s estranged Home Minister Umar Naseer and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s politician-daughter Dunya Mamoon, released what they claimed was the draft of the bilateral agreement, claiming that the agreement compromised the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Maldives, by letting Indian military personnel.
Of the two, Umar Naseer has been harbouring presidential ambitions from the first multi-party democracy polls of 2008, ending up with a lowly 1.4 percent vote share. He then moved onto the Opposition PPM, then led by founder and former President Gayoom and felt deserted when the latter rooted for half-brother Yameen for the 2013 presidency. As daughter of President Gayoom, Dunya Maumoon was Foreign Minister under President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, who is now a special advisor to the Yameen camp.
Independent of the political targeting of India, New Delhi continued to facilitate the despatch of 100,000 units of the Covishield pandemic vaccine, under an agreement between the Maldives government and the Serum Institute. The Maldivian Foreign Ministry, which announced the receipt of the vaccine, said it was half of the 200,000 units contracted. India, as may be recalled, gifted 200,000 units of the vaccine to Maldives, among other neighbours, that too before commencing vaccination for the local population.
‘Vaccine diplomacy’ apart, which was an unexpected turn, India has been funding Maldives systematically after the Solih government came to power, for island-wise development projects, to create physical and social infrastructure. Heading the list is the US$ 500-metre single-largest infra project, a 6.5-kilometre sea-bridge, connecting the densely populated capital Malé with neighbouring islands, to try and reverse internal migration, especially in terms of residential population.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation)