BY PETER DORSET
20 SEPTEMBER 2018
Can the Maldives’ opposition stage a dramatic comeback, or will this election be a continuation of democracy interrupted?
On 23 September 2018, Maldivian citizens will go to the polls in only the third multiparty presidential election in the island nation’s history. In a country normally portrayed by white beaches, swaying palms and luxury tourist resorts, the upcoming election will focus global attention on a less familiar cast of characters.
These actors, normally kept behind the scenes of a paradise idyll, will take centre stage as five years of political drama approaches a climax. Will President Abdulla Yameen reprise his role as the increasingly authoritarian head of state for another five-year term; or will the beleaguered opposition save the day for the archipelago’s ailing democracy?
Here’s the who’s who of the Maldives presidential election 2018:
President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (Progressive Party of Maldives)
The incumbent head of state Abdulla Yameen became the Maldives’ sixth president in 2013, narrowly defeating Mohamed Nasheed, the fourth. Half-brother to the country’s third president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen held various ministerial posts in his brother’s government, before serving two decades in the People’s Majlis prior to becoming the country’s leading man.
Quickly adopting the persona of a stern authoritarian, Yameen’s government began by reintroducing the death penalty, as well as promising historic levels of infrastructure development. While (thankfully) not yet following through on the former, the president can certainly point to the latter. Opponents, however, are more concerned about the levels of state corruption, media repression and political persecution that can arguably rival anything from the country’s pre-democratic era.
Despite having quickly built a reputation for ruthlessness, Yameen still surprised many when he declared a state of emergency in February 2018 – albeit, the second of his term – arresting Maumoon along with scores of others suspected of plotting his overthrow. The senior dictator’s subsequent conviction completed a purge of all perceived challengers, leaving a decimated opposition barely able to muster a unity candidate for the ballot. Touting his record on concrete and steel, Yameen’s re-election campaign relies mainly on the standard themes of sovereignty and religion, warning people that a second term is necessary to guarantee the country’s independence and Islamic faith.
Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Mohamed Solih (Maldivian Democratic Party/Maldives United Opposition)
With their big names languishing in jail or self-imposed exile, the coalition group known as the Maldives United Opposition (MUO) cast the steady, if unspectacular, ‘Ibu’ Solih as their candidate at the eleventh hour. A member of the Majlis since 1995, Ibu was a founding member of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and has served as their leader in the house since 2011, unscathed by the endless mudslinging of front-line Maldivian politics. Pro-government supporters have so far struggled to find ways to discredit Ibu personally, focusing instead on old gripes concerning the coalition’s absent stars.
Despite the apparent determination of police to remove them, opposition campaign posters give Ibu equal billing alongside his ineligible coalition allies, further confirming his status as a proxy candidate for more familiar faces. The MUO’s pledge to overturn the universally-panned convictions of its leaders would mark the resumption of the country’s transition towards democracy, which was abruptly curtailed when the MDP-led government was ousted in 2012. The MDP has floated the idea of an interim government and a period of transitional justice, overseeing root and branch constitutional changes in order to prevent further backsliding into autocracy.
Running mates (understudies)
Traditionally more of a supporting role, vice-presidents in the Maldives often make fascinating viewing, with some playing an outsized part in recent political dramas. The country’s first democratically-elected vice-president, Dr Mohamed Waheed, stepped up into the top job in early 2012 when Mohamed Nasheed controversially resigned, leading many to accuse Waheed of complicity in a coup. More recently, the Brutus to President Yameen’s Julius Caesar came in the form of the flashy young Ahmed Adeeb, fast-tracked into the role in mid-2015 before being fast-tracked to jail three months later, accused of attempting to assassinate his boss. Adeeb’s three gold-plated iPhones have continued to play an important role even as he languishes in jail: smuggled out of the country, the phones contained many secretly recorded conversations and not-so-secret messages that revealed the depth of corruption and systematic use of violence against opponents and critics, captured in the Al Jazeera documentary Stealing Paradise.
Yameen’s running mate in 2018 is the chancellor of the Maldives Islamic University, Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed – an obvious play for conservative religious voters willing to forgive the president for jailing Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla on trumped-up terrorism charges in 2016. In keeping with its limited options, the MUO has placed another relative unknown to run alongside Ibu, placating the coalition’s Jumhooree Party by choosing the party’s MP Faisal Naseem.
Around 263,000 Maldivians are eligible to vote in this election, at polling stations on the archipelago’s 187 inhabited islands, on more than 40 of the country’s resort islands, and overseas in Trivandrum, Colombo, Kuala Lumpur and London. With politics something of a national obsession, and most people living just a few feet away from polling stations on tiny islands, voter turnout is normally high (just under 90 percent at the 2008 and 2013 polls).
The margin of victory was just over 15,000 votes in 2008; and in 2013, just over 6000, suggesting a small portion of the electorate could steal the show in 2018.
The transition to multiparty democracy has led to exaggerated polarisation in the atolls’ small, religiously and ethnically homogenous communities. With both sides releasing their full manifestos less than a week before voting, this is evidently not an election about subtle policy differences. Voters will be asked to choose between a familiar but repressive model of centralised patriarchy – in which political affiliation is valued above justice, equality or public safety – or a more progressive system, promising greater personal freedoms but relying on frail democratic institutions which have yet to prove themselves up to the task.
Mohamed Nasheed (Maldivian Democratic Party)
A co-founder of the MDP, longtime pro-democracy campaigner and former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Mohamed Nasheed – ‘Anni’ to his supporters – became the country’s first democratically elected president, and the undoubted superstar of Maldivian politics, in 2008. The charismatic, media-savvy, young president soon became an international sensation following the 2011 climate change documentary The Island President. Unfortunately, adoration abroad could not counter opposition at home, and conservative resistance to further democratic reforms saw
Nasheed forced to resign in early 2012, later claiming duress.
After narrowly failing to beat Yameen in the 2013 poll, charges related to Nasheed’s detention of a judge while in office were dusted off in early 2015, repackaged as a terror offence and, within a month, the former president received a 13-year jail sentence. An international outcry followed and, after being allowed to visit the UK in 2016 for medical treatment, Nasheed claimed asylum in the country of his schooling.
His still unassailable position at the top of the MDP was indicated in the party’s presidential primary earlier this year, in which Nasheed ran unopposed despite the government’s contrived insistence that convicts are ineligible. While his party has reluctantly found an alternative candidate, there is little doubt that the majority of those voting ‘Ibu’ on 23 September will be thinking ‘Anni’.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (Progressive Party of Maldives/ Maumoon Reform Movement)
For older Maldivians, the jailing of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was perhaps the most shocking episode of recent years. Untouchable for three decades, most could not conceive of another man leading the nation before the upset of the 2008 poll. Maumoon was among Asia’s longest serving leaders when revelations of institutional human-rights abuses, followed by the economic impact of the 2004 tsunami and rise of Nasheed’s irrepressible pro-democracy movement, ended his 30-year rule. After a brief hiatus, he returned to politics, founding the PPM in 2011.
The previously unthinkable alliance of Maumoon and Nasheed is indicative of the widespread threat posed by President Yameen, as well as the general chaos of Maldivian politics after Maumoon’s oppressive but stable tenure. Having been ousted from his own party in 2017, Maumoon’s fall from grace was completed when he was arrested in February 2018 and subsequently jailed. As family members express grave concern for the incarcerated octogenarians’ health, his remaining loyalists will throw their support behind the MUO candidate, under the banner of the ‘Maumoon Reform Movement’.
Enthusiastic party activists will spend the next few days attending rallies, waving flags and generally attempting to paint the narrative with a liberal application of PPM-pink or MDP-yellow on anything that stays still long enough. But, while the colour of the streets may be the closest thing to a Maldivian opinion poll, the dominance of hot pink is no doubt exaggerated by the blur between state and campaign resources. Civil servants are often obliged to attend ruling- party rallies, which have recently doubled-up as inauguration ceremonies for state-funded projects, while anecdotal reports suggest government jobs (the only ones available on most islands) are now dependent on unwavering support for the president.
Elsewhere, ruling party activists are drawn readily from the nation’s plentiful ‘youth’, a demographic which has swelled the electorate by 25 percent over the past decade. While making fanciful claims to have created 100,000 jobs and labelling the capital suburb of Hulhumale’ a ‘Youth City’, an easier way to win friends and activists seems to involve cash handouts to unemployed youngsters, waived fines for minor offences, and turning a blind-eye to persistent and violent gang activity.
Opposition activists have faced repeated crackdowns and restrictions on gatherings over the past five years, most notably after a crowd of up to 20,000 protested against the government in May 2015. Concerns that opposition groups had been deterred were dispelled earlier this month, however, when the first major opposition rally in three years attracted impressive crowds. These re-energised supporters are confident the intimidating hue of the ruling party will fade in the privacy of the polling booth, reflecting the true colors of the voting public.
While September’s poll will momentarily put the Maldives’ world-famous tourism industry in the shade, the men behind the gleaming resorts are likely to exert considerable influence over the final outcome. Having grown to encompass 130 single-island resorts and 1.3 million visitors a year, the industry now directly contributes more than 40 percent of GDP and has concentrated wealth in the hands of an exorbitantly wealthy few.
The more extroverted of these oligarchs are active politicians, with Gasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party allied with the MUO, and Ahmed ‘Sun’ Siyam part of the governing coalition as head of the Maldivian Development Alliance. After playing spoiler and then kingmaker as a candidate in 2013, Gasim became another victim of the opposition purge (three-year jail term for bribery) and will sit out the 2018 poll in exile, though his money is likely to wield considerable influence. Alternatively, the position of Siyam is unclear. Having failed to take part in Yameen’s campaign, he is reported to have left the country, shutting down his ‘Sun’ brand media operations along the way. Speculation that he has been spooked by looming threats of targeted international sanctions remain just that, but could be indicative of deeper unrest among the oligarchs.
It is the direction of the tourism industry’s founding fathers, however, that is a more reliable indicator of political plotlines. The real titans of Maldivian tourism, Mohamed Umar Manik and Hussain ‘Champa’ Afeef, chairman of Universal Enterprises and Crown Company, respectively, appeared to endorse President Yameen during a panel discussion on state TV last month. A new investigative journalism project released this week, which suggests these companies had also benefited from the current regime’s illegal largesse, may help to explain why. Notoriously pragmatic, wise old players like these can be expected to opt for stability ahead of ideology. While tacitly supporting the incumbent, they are experienced enough to do their real business behind the scenes.
China and Saudi Arabia
President Yameen’s focus on infrastructure development at the expense of less visible indicators of social progress called for deep-pocketed aid partners without any overt desire to promote democracy or human rights. Since the launch of his presidency with pledges of mega-projects and Special Economic Zones for billion-dollar global investors, China and Saudi Arabia have been the country’s major partners. The resulting redevelopment of the Male International Airport and China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, linking the airport island with the capital, are Yameen’s undoubted showstoppers.
Saudi Arabia’s ideological motivations in the Maldives are best exemplified by the enormous King Salman Mosque now under construction in Male, but many people are more concerned about the long-term consequences of mounting Chinese debt. Along with a high percentage of Chinese tourists filling Maldivian resorts, the relentless criticism of Western countries – whether their concerns be humanitarian or geopolitical – appears to be pushing the bullish Yameen ever closer towards total economic dependence on his Eastern financier, raising regional tensions.
While both China and Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly be happy to see their economic relations thrive, there are few signs that these global powers have any more than a passing interest in the Maldives’ unpredictable domestic pantomime.
Playing the traditional role of the regional power, India will be concerned primarily with preserving its waning influence in the Indian Ocean. Its economic and diplomatic relations with the Maldives have clearly fallen as China’s have risen, and President Yameen still boasts of his role in terminating the previous deal with India’s GMR to upgrade Male airport.
Looking to India for support against political rivals is a Maldivian tradition going back centuries, though few have been as blatant as former President Nasheed when he urged India to send troops to Male during the state of emergency earlier this year. A PR gift to President Yameen and his supporters, the age-old theme of threatened sovereignty has since become the catchphrase of the PPM campaign, further damaging regional relations. While acting diplomatically in public, behind the scenes, Delhi will be hoping an opposition victory can result in a friendly and stable government in Male.
After a relentless chorus of boos and hisses from international organisations in recent years, the European Union opted to take more serious steps in July 2018, announcing targeted sanctions against individuals it considers to be obstructing the rule of law and ‘inclusive political solutions’ in the Maldives. The US State Department followed suit in August, promising steps against those undermining democracy, and a free and fair electoral process. The Maldivian government has been defiant, labelling the threats as coercion and interference, though asset freezes and travel bans may test the nerve of Yameen’s wealthier backers.
Unsurprisingly, prickly overseas relations mean the audience for this year’s vote is set to be a small one. Having sent observer missions for earlier polls, a skeptical EU will not be sending anyone this month, while Commonwealth observers will also be absent after the Maldives stormed out of the disapproving organisation in 2016. An unofficial fact-finding mission conducted by members of the European Parliament in August resulted in the latest in a steady stream of damning reports, prompting howls of protest from the foreign ministry who accused the EU of flouting visa regulations.
Tasked with setting the stage for a smooth and credible poll, the Elections Commission of Maldives could well steal the limelight again in 2018, just as it did five years ago when commissioners battled police and judicial interference to complete the two-round election. This time, however, the oversight body is very much being cast as the villain. The body has proven more pliant since 2013, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s dismissal of its much-lauded chairman, and the installment of established pro-Yameen loyalists. After postponing local council elections last year upon the ruling party’s request – a move that did not prevent the ruling party from suffering substantial losses – the commission crucially helped restore the Majlis’ pro-government majority by backing controversial moves to disqualify a dozen opposition MPs. During the campaign, Yameen has happily claimed responsibility for the MPs’ removal.
Even before the curtain lifts on election day, the re-registration of voters who live or work away from their place of permanent registry – around one-third of eligible voters this year – presents a huge logistical challenge for the commission, immediately sparking fears of disenfranchisement and voter fraud. Initial plans to drastically reduce the number of polling stations placed on resort islands – in which 10 percent of the electorate work – were reversed after a public outcry.
Further changes to counting and complaint procedures have only heightened concerns that the vote will be neither free nor fair. Though the opposition has alleged that over 100 PPM activists have been appointed to man the booths, the EC is ignoring or rejecting all such complaints. Needless to say, all eyes will be on the commission after the polls close, and terrible reviews from the losing side are inevitable.
Co-starring in the 2013 election debacle, the Maldives’ highest court made international headlines when it annulled the first round of voting, alleging 5623 fraudulent votes following spurious complaints by third-placed candidate, Gasim Ibrahim. While a repeat vote brought the same result – a Nasheed-Yameen run-off – the court was accused of overstepping its constitutional mandate in micromanaging the polls.
Five years on, the court’s credibility has further deteriorated. After working in lockstep with the government, including supporting the questionable prosecutions of multiple opposition leaders, the court’s dramatic overturning of all charges in February prompted President Yameen to implement a state of emergency and jail two of the seven-man bench. With loyalty seemingly restored and the 2013 precedent of a court veto on any result, another controversial cameo from the Supreme Court can’t be ruled out.
Camera and lighting
Increasing attacks on media freedom have been a hallmark of President Yameen’s time in office. Anti-defamation legislation introduced in 2016 has resulted in repeated fines levied against opposition-aligned outlets, while the abduction of journalist Ahmed Rilwan in 2014 and the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed in 2017 revealed the perilous state of free speech in the archipelago. Prominent local outlets have resorted to self-censorship, while others have chosen to close down altogether as state media faces accusations of giving pro-government groups excessive time in the spotlight.
International correspondents have struggled to meet entry criteria so strict as to present de facto restrictions on foreign coverage. Following a series of damaging reports in 2016, most notably Al Jazeera’s exposure of eye-watering state corruption, foreign reporters must now submit themselves to a Kafkaesque business-visa application process. With willing local sponsors for incoming journalists not easy to find, it seems the world will be relying on resilient local journalists as well as a few curious ‘tourists’ to tell the story of the 2018 election.
How will it end?
As the polls draw near, President Yameen has scripted a glorious victory through the support of those grateful for infrastructure development, combined with staunch nationalists and religious conservatives. Alternatively, Ibu’s coalition tells a tale of a silent majority poised to reject creeping authoritarianism and make themselves heard at the polling booths.
Unfortunately, the story is far more complicated than this. Against a backdrop of rampant influence-peddling, corruption and fraud, there are too many variables to reliably predict how the election will play out. Do pro-Yameen loyalists in key institutions make an incumbent win inevitable? Can the combined popularity of two jailed former presidents translate into victory for Ibu Solih? Will the threat of international sanctions spook the country’s financial overlords? Will the vote go ahead at all?
Either way, there are sure to be many plot twists before the credits roll on the 2018 election. The result could determine whether the Maldivian people will get a sequel in another five years, or whether the poll represents an extended period of democracy interrupted for Maldives.
~ Peter Dorset is a British writer with extensive experience of living and working in the Maldives. He can be contacted at [email protected].