For a nation of its size and population, Maldives has been through ups and downs in its democratic career since 2008
The more things change, the more they remain the same. The dictum applies al to rival campaigns for the Maldivian presidential poll, scheduled for 9 September, with a possible second, run-off round on 30 September if no candidate crosses the mandatory 50-per-cent vote threshold in the first. In the race are five candidates, starting with incumbent defender Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, seeking a second term under the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) flag.
The MDP has since split with a rival faction under Parliament Speaker and long-time party chief Mohammed ‘Anni Nasheed’, floating a new electoral outfit, ‘The Democrats’, with intent on fielding a candidate against his friend from childhood and chosen nominee for the victorious 2018 poll. Yet, the real fight is said to be between Solih and jailed predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, whose candidacy remains doubtful, pending two separate court proceedings – and whose Opposition PPM-PNC combine insists that he is their one and only nominee.
Two other candidates are already out campaigning, namely, Gasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party (JP) and Col Mohamed Nazim, founder of the infant Maldives National Party (MNP). Like ‘The Democrats’, is facing its first major national elections after its formation in 2021 though the latter has contested a few by-elections across the country, since.
For a nation of its size and population, Maldives has been through ups and downs in its democratic career since 2008. In the first multi-party democracy elections under a new and mutually-agreeable Constitution, Nasheed defeated incumbent Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was president under a different electoral scheme for 30 long years. The nation has since undergone continual twists and turns in its democratic infancy but is yet to grow out of it into its teens as its age indicated. This has numbed a substantial number of Maldivian voters, especially those that had trusted democracy without knowing its ways and vagaries, so to say.
According to the Election Commission (EC), a high 42 per cent of the voters are unattached to any political party. A majority of them are believed to be pro-democracy sympathisers whose ‘tilt’ or ‘swing’ between two successive elections had decided the fate of individual candidates and the course of the nation through the past decade and a half. This time, the anxiety is also about the turn-out figure, which used to be in the 90-per cent range in the past elections but could fall sharply, owing to perceived voter indifference, as witnessed in the municipal elections in the capital Male in 2021.
Even after providing for Covid anxieties and many voters travelling to native islands for voting, 20 per cent polling in a city that accounts for 40 per cent of the nation’s population was unacceptable to the political class. Given the nation’s mood, political parties, leadership and candidates will have to first enthuse the voters to return to the polling booths in usual numbers.
It may have to be much more than rabble-rousing speeches, with which the nation seems to have had too much. Between them, the political class and the EC will also have to do more to achieve a good turnout. Parties and candidates may have to go beyond door-to-door campaigns and cash-for-votes and other illegal gratification.
The current anticipation is that with such incentives, they could at best bring in the voters to the booths, but not make them cast their votes, especially for the bribe-giver. Incidentally, the Maldivian political practice of giving one party and its leader a bad name, for others to escape the podium, too may not hold this time.
In the end, the candidate who is seen as more democratic than the rest in the current circumstances may become the victor – only that the definition and yardstick for democracy have changed over the past 15 years of the nation’s democratic existence and experience as it meanders along. So is the case with development. The two terms, ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ have different connotations between the ruling class and the ruled.
The latter also uses different yardsticks for those in power and those out of it. Less said about individual perceptions of economic development and growth, where again, for many voters, jobs and family incomes, government-monitored prices and government-controlled tariffs matter more than infrastructure, both physical and social. Or, so it seems.
On paper, President Solih sits more comfortably than the rest, though no published opinion poll has given him the absolute majority of the 50-plus poll percentage required for re-election in the first round. Overall, the desperation of individual candidates and political parties keeps rising its head, off and on, with a result, the voter is becoming increasingly convinced that the elections are not theirs, nor are being fought for them and the values that they were once told to cherish.
Launching his poll campaign in northern Shaviyani Atoll with the slogan, ‘Joyful Maldives, Peaceful Maldives’, he referred to Election Commission figures the MDP enrolment figure had gone up in recent weeks, though by only a few hundred, to 58,000. With the support of two existing allies, namely the MDA (10,000 members) and the Adhaalath Party (9,900), he now had the committed support of 77,000. He was confident that the membership would go up to 90,000 before the September polls – implying that they all were his voters, taking him closer to the victory margin, depending of course on the turnout and thus the 50 per cent cut-off figure.
Before the Nasheed camp split, the MDP had a registered membership of 57,000-plus, and the new membership shows that the party had somehow made up for those lost to The Democrats, if at all. At the same time, The Democrats had signed up 6,500 members for registration purposes, and maybe continuing with their enrolment drive. Their final figure closer to the polling day could give some clue to the future.
Yet, gone thus are the days when the average voter believed that the Solih government’s initiation of legal action on massive frauds attributed to predecessor Yameen’s regime is no more about restoring moral values in public life. At least the Yameen camp has come to believe – and is hoping for others to do so – that it is all about keeping Yameen out of circulation and in jail, causing his continued disqualification from contesting the election.
At present, Yameen is facing two money-laundering cases, after the nation’s Supreme Court acquitted him in the first in a series of three. He is serving an 11-year jail term in a second case, where his appeal is pending before the nation’s high court. The third one is in the trial stage. For Yameen to be able to contest the elections, the high court should acquit him before the presidential nominations close, and the trial court should not convict him in the third case.
The Election Commission has since reiterated that they would approve Yameen’s nomination only if he did not have any court-ordered convictions against him. The alternative was for the Supreme Court to order them to accept his nomination papers, the EC said further. Following discussions with the EC, the Yameen camp has since declared that they would first file his nomination, and then move the Supreme Court, if required.
The earlier belief in the Yameen camp was that the High Court would have freed him in a pending appeal case before nominations closed and the Criminal Court might not have completed the trial in a third case, where again only a conviction would bar him from contesting the elections. In the first of three tactically timed money-laundering cases against Yameen, launched by the Solih government, the Supreme Court overturned the trial court verdict, which was upheld by the High Court, and set him free.
The fratricidal war in the ruling MDP, if it could be called so, commenced when after the 2019 parliamentary polls that followed Solih’s election months earlier in 2018, saw strains in his long friendship with party boss Nasheed. The Solih camp floated the name of a Speaker candidate against Nasheed’s nominee, after being convinced of their majority in the MDP parliamentary group and also Parliament. Under a compromise, aimed at not embarrassing either leader or keeping the party united, Nasheed became the common candidate and Speaker.
In normal times, the Speaker under the Constitution had only powers to administer the proceedings of Parliament, that too with internal checks and balances as the House approves from time to time. But when the presidency and vice-presidency are vacant, including through successive impeachments, the Speaker assumes presidential powers for 60 days to preside over, when the EC is mandated to conduct fresh elections.
For reasons better understood or not-understood, team Solih became nervous about the possibilities. There was no going back to normalcy when Nasheed also acted up as the nation’s most popular and charismatic leader (at that time), at least up to that point – and not as the boss of the ruling coalition.
In the run-up to the present, Nasheed floated a change of governance system, from the current American model presidential system to an Indian/Commonwealth scheme of parliamentary administration. Seemingly, it did not have many takers, both within the MDP and outside. Yet, he was persistent.
At the end of long months of shadowboxing, purportedly over this issue but more over hardening egos, Solih defeated Nasheed in the party primaries for presidential nomination earlier this year. This ultimately led to, the vertical split that has since materialised in the form of a new party that calls itself ‘The Democrats, implying that the MDP parent was no more the same.
The national irony is striking. The MDP was founded as a self-conceived antidote to what the founders dubbed a ‘decades-long autocracy’ under President Gayoom (1978—2008). Today, the party is divided more than any time in the past. There is another party calling itself the ‘Third-Way Democrats’, founded by disgraced and jailed former Vice-President, Ahmed Adeeb Abdul Ghafoor.
Adeeb has since been hospitalised for treatment of serious neurological complaints, possibly caused by long weeks of solitary confinement, after the Indian Coast Guard intercepted his boat and restored him to Maldivian Correctional Service (MCS), for jumping what under the local laws is called ‘house imprisonment’.
With only eight weeks left for the presidential polls, the Solih-Nasheed sideshow is still at present the main show, beginning with the latter’s continuance in the MDP even after 13 party MPs supporting him had walked out with his blessings, to float the MDP. His idea was to take back the party from within. When that did not seem to be happening, at least any time soon, he too quit the MDP but not as the Speaker even when the rival side commanded a majority.
At least 54 of 87 MPs have signed up a much-delayed no-confidence motion against the Speaker, preceded by one against Deputy Speaker Eva Abdulla, a Nasheed loyalist and cousin, but the House has not been able to meet even for a single productive session after Nasheed began playing hide-and-seek with the Speakership. His mandated nominee Hassan Afeef also predictably kept adjourning the House without transacting business, every day it met.
Yet, Nasheed won a crucial round, so to say, after the EC, by a 2:2 split vote, sought to delay registration for The Democrats, citing a need for membership verification, to make up a minimum of 3,000 compared to a claim of 6,500. Wiser counsel prevailed (only) after the Nasheed camp opened coalition talks with Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine. At the commencement of the nine-day Bakrid holiday recently, the EC hurriedly announced that it would hand over the registration certificate to the new party at the end of the vacation – and did so promptly.
This meant that the Nasheed camp did not have an excuse not to field a candidate of its own, thus splitting the anti-Solih votes, at least in the first. However, the Yameen and Nasheed camps have been continuing their talks, but only after the former had dismissed the latter’s open call at The Democrats’ launch rally, for them both to step aside and field/support a common candidate against the incumbent.
The PPM-PNC combine hurriedly declared that Yameen was still their candidate and even more hurriedly launched an atoll-wise campaign but without the candidate. The Solih team had reportedly indicated that his campaign launch would coincide with the party launch of The Democrats but delayed it by a few days.
‘Maldives for Maldivians’
For a campaign slogan, the Yameen camp has chosen, the slogan ‘Dhivehinge Raajje’, or ‘Maldives belongs to Maldivians’. The accompanying explanation(s) do not refer to India, but clearly, it is a take-off from Yameen’s earlier ‘India Out’ campaign, which is now before the high court after Solih banned it through a presidential order. There is also an equally, and even more unsaid reference to the ‘Chagos-IMBL issue’, supposedly a territorial border dispute with southern Ocean neighbour Mauritius.
In a bid to revive the forgotten anti-India campaign, the Yameen cadres carried effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in their Bakrid rallies in the capital Male, which did not go down well with the Nasheed camp, either. The latter promptly declared that the two could not work together if the PPM-PNC combine targeted India. The government is yet to declare if they intend to take action against law violators at the Bakrid procession, months after Solih had banned actions upsetting relations with friendly neighbours.
The Opposition combine was not one to care for Nasheed’s sensitivities and sentiments, which are based on a reality check on shared neighbourhood issues and concerns between the two nations. They said that their instructions had to come only from Yameen.
The question is if Yameen exploited Nasheed’s personality traits to ensure that he broke the MDP, before using the hyper-sensitive ‘India Out’ campaign, to throw him out. By using the ‘India card’ in a way that Nasheed could not stomach, team Yameen used the Bakrid effigies to ensure that the two remained apart in the elections. Nasheed’s later call for the two of them to step aside in favour of a common candidate too was swiftly rebuffed.
If Nasheed had JP’s Gasim in mind as the common candidate, is unclear. After all, he had volunteered support for Gasim even when he remained the MDP president but both drifted afterwards. Social media reports had claimed that they had drifted owing to Nasheed’s insistence on parliamentary democracy, to which Gasim does not subscribe. So is Yameen. They are all strong believers in the presidential form that is in vogue, and even Solih seems to have veered around to the same after promising the transition in his manifesto for the 2018 presidential poll that he won.
The irony of the current situation is not only over the strength of Maldivian democracy as indefensible vacillations are being touted as institutional vigour and vitality. The greater irony is about Solih defending coalition politics when Nasheed would have none of it, other than to use ‘lesser parties’ (?) to win elections and then cast them aside. Some of their bitter battles, including shadow-boxing, were over what in neighbouring India is called ‘coalition dharma’ – or, ‘coalition morals’.
Parliament, EC dead-locked
Under Solih, not only has the ‘Solih coalition’, as known in Elections-2018, split with Gasim’s JP and Gayoom’s ‘Maumoon Reform Movement’ (MRM), but even the mainstay MDP has split. MNP presidential candidate Nazim has dubbed a ‘political vendetta’, the independent Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) opening investigations against him over his alleged role in Yameen’s money-laundering scams as his defence minister for a time. All these may have consequences in the second round if there is no victor in the first place. It could also imply that the Solih camp is hopeful of his re-election in the first round itself, though in real terms it will be wait-and-watch, until those results are known on 10 September or thereabouts.
Today, both Parliament and the EC are dead-locked, and MDP parliamentary group leader Mohamed Aslam has said that they would ‘move the court’ to resolve the former, but only as ’a lost resort’. The Solih leadership wants the EC recast, by replacing two members, including Chairman Fuad Tauqueeq, who are considered pro-Nasheed.
For that to happen, Parliament needs to convene, which at present may not happen until after presidential poll nominations are over. Indications are that Nasheed would want to stay on until after the elections, where a Solih defeat – or that is their perception – (alone) would help them re-take the party, starting with the parliamentary group ahead of fresh polls, as scheduled, before 6 April next year.
And for now, none of the three candidates already in the fray – including Yameen, it is four – has named his running mate. In a way, the Yameen camp would announce its decision on fielding a candidate if their leader remains disqualified and a running mate. In the case of Nasheed’s ‘The Democrats’, they still have to name their presidential candidate and also running mate.
The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Views expressed your personal.