Maldives: Ahead of presidential polls, West going slow on Yameen?

Image credit – Stanford Alumni Association. India and the Maldives.

N Sathiya Moorthy      24 April 2018

Through separate but related developments, involving the UNHRC and the EU, the international community (read: West) seems to have resigned to the possibility/inevitability of talking Maldivian democracy with incumbent Abdulla Yameen even after the presidential polls, scheduled for September-October. If it came to that, India as the immediate but recently-estranged neighbour may have to work ways to overcome the current deadlock in bilateral ties, in its own way, or work on alternatives with or without western compliance.

After the recently-concluded bi-annual session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the committee reiterated the West’s known position, demanging the Yameen Government to restore the civic rights of former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed. He was jailed at home, based on a court verdict, and is self-exiled overseas, with ‘political asylum’, granted by the UK.

Acting on Nasheed’s twin petitions over the past years, the UNHRC committee has set a 180-day deadline for Maldives to file a compliance report. It is not about the reiteration of the UN/UNHRC’s earlier demands/directions in the ‘Nasheed case’, but about the deadline.

This is because the presidential poll might well have passed the UNHRC deadline (ending in mid-October), what with the Maldives Election Commission’s announcing long ago the tentative poll schedule – nominations in August, first-round polls in September, and a second, run-off round, if required, the next month.

If nothing else, the nominations would have closed by August. Even the elections would be stretched to October if and only if there is a second, run-off round. Under the Maldivian scheme, a second round becomes mandatory only if no candidate gets a 50-percent-plus vote-share in the first round.

In such a scenario, the top two from the first round face a second round, where again the 50-percent mark is the clincher. It happened in the previous two presidential polls of 2008 and 2013, under the current, multi-party, democracy scheme.  How, it plays out in the prevailing political situation, given the ground realities, remains to be seen.

Not done enough

Alongside the UNHRC, the European Union (EU), which was even more vociferous about ‘democracy issues’ in Maldives, going as far as to threaten ‘sanctions’ targeting the nation’s revenue-earning resort tourism industry, too, seems to be going soft on the Yameen leadership just now. For one, the EU has decided not to make Maldives an ‘agenda’ item at next month’s Council meeting, which should have otherwise send out a strong message in the long run-up to the presidential polls.

After being reportedly upset over Yameen not receiving an EU team earlier this year, the organisation seemed satisfied when he obliged a second one not very long after – that too, when his controversial Emergency proclamation was in operation. Even while sticking to their position on the need for restoring the  civic rights issues attaching to their ‘denial’ to Nasheed, the EU has since started speaking about larger concerns of electoral reforms.

A recent EU statement thus spoke about the Government, Parliament and the Opposition not doing enough to implement the recommendations of the EU observer team for the parliamentary polls of 2014, held under the Yameen presidency. Yet, the EU wants to send out an observer team for the upcoming presidential polls, too, given the inherent sense of democracy of and in member-nations, which dictates their third-country relations after a point.

Just now, indications are that the EU may oblige Yameen’s keenness to prove the ‘fairness’ of the presidential poll, by sending in an observer’s team all over again. Yet, geography dictates that any observer team from outside Maldives would have to depend either on government agencies or Opposition, media and other independent, local and localised source, or all of them, for information on poll violations of any and every kind.

It is not unlikely that such an observer team from the EU might still have enough reasons, causes and justification to report on allegations of malfeasance in the upcoming presidential polls, and even recommend a review/re-poll. That is all in the future, if and when the EU sends out a team in the first place and the Yameen Government accepts their presence and participation – as observers.

Should the EU still send out an observer team after all it could cut both ways. The very fact of an observer team on the ground, even while checking on the veracity of Maldivian EC claims, would indicate the European Union’s acceptance of the status quo, however reluctant or far-fetched the decision.

All of it raises questions about India’s stand, too – if it has overdone the ‘pro-democracy’ posture on Maldives to the point of making it look anti-Yameen, and pro-Nasheed even more. If the current perceptions about the more recent postures are to be considered, India too may have to revisit its position, and rework strategies to address emerging realities on the ground – and without either losing the ‘democracy initiative’ or face in the South Asian neighbourhood as a whole.

Forcibly disqualified

This does not mean that the Maldivian presidential poll can be pre-judged and sealed, as in any (other) autocratic State, as some in the Yameen camp and more in the international community might have thought. The Maldivian voter might have a mind of his own, and the presence of a non-partisan observer team(s) may well end up ensuring that they have their say, and get heard, too.

This is so despite the fact that Yameen has ensured that prospective candidates, including Nasheed, Gayoom and Gaim Ibrahim, all Opposition heavy-weights at present, are not allowed to contest. He started the process early on, by introducing an upper-age limit for presidential candidates, that too with the parliamentary backing of Nasheed’s MDP. That got Gayoom and Gasim out of the way.

Nasheed was already facing the music in the otherwise forgotten ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’ after his MDP overnight launched rallies just one year after Yameen’s ascension, demanding his immediate exit. Even a maximum sentence of three years under the criminal law, followed by three years of post-imprisonment bar would have ensured that Nasheed could not contest Elections-2018 now.

The conversion of the trial into an even more controversial ‘terrorism case’ under a near- forgotten law of 1989, followed by 13 year jail-term, Nasheed obtaining medical leave for spinal surgery in London and his obtaining ‘political asylum’ in the UK have all ensured that he cannot contest the presidential polls. If someone thought that the equally controversial 1 February 2018 ‘unanimous order’ of the Supreme Court freeing all ‘political prisoners’, would save the day for Nasheed especially, it was not to be, either.

In between, Yameen had added to the list of the ‘forcibly disqualified’ his own ministerial colleagues. Defence Minister, veteran army officer, Col Mohamed Nazim, was arrested on a coup charge, while Home Minister, Umar Naseer, quit office, into possible oblivion. They too should have benefited from the SC order, but then the arrest of two Judges on the Bench, including Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, has restored the ‘status quo ante’, if the withdrawal of the order by a truncated three-Judge Bench is anything to go by.

Yameen did not spare personally-chosen running-mates and vice-presidential nominees, either Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, Yameen’s chosen running-mate in Elections-2013, is in self-exile, possibly deserted since by the Nasheed camp, too, while successor, Ahmed Adheeb is cooling his heels in prison, for attempt to assassinate President Yameen.  Of course, the two cases are entirely different. Incumbent Vice-President, Abdulla Jihad, a successful Finance Minister under successive government, is more of a technocrat and less of a politician.

Collective will

Other aspirant candidates too have been facing pressures from the government, in the form of arrests and tax-raids, etc. The fact also remains that in Maldives, as in many other Third World democracies, most political aspirants are as corrupt as they are being made out to be – and they also have not found ways to hide their ‘ill-gotten wealth’ away from the prying eyes of the authorities, if the latter chose to act, whatever the political reason or motivation.

Yet, there could still be a ‘surprise, last-minute candidate’, whom the nation could root for, if the voter decided to see Yameen out. Of course, a lot would depend on the willingness of the otherwise divided four-party Joint Opposition (JO) to agree to a name, and their ability to ‘market’ a lesser-known face across the nation, with limited time and financial resources at their disposal, that too after the nominations open.

It is not about the denial of right of candidacy to individuals, but is all about the collective will of the electorate, upward of 18 years of age. As in the last two presidential elections, an enthusiastic youthful electorate can make or unmake governments, as they did in 2008 – to the utter surprise and unpreparedness of Gayoom, the incumbent for 30 long years who had got used to being President.

In such a scenario, a honest international team of observers could do a lot by ensuring that the elections were free and fair, whether or not there was a ‘level-playing field’ for Nasheed, the favourite of the West, to contest. Those questions could be addressed and ‘satisfactory answers’ found, if and when Yameen got replaced through the democratic model elections, which the nation is still experimenting with – and cannot be allowed to falter!

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University