The Maldives

Election amid hurdles

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Mohamed Nasheed. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

A policeman carries away a ballot box after stopping the primary elections of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party on May 30 following a court order. Photo: Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Photo: Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP

Abdulla Yameen. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

Mohamed Nasheed, frustrated by the government’s attempts to target him, withdraws from the presidential race in favour of a common opposition candidate against President Abdulla Yameen.

On June 21, former Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem made a last-minute rush to New Delhi before his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) made a final decision on the presidential candidate for the September 23 election. The MDP had the sympathetic ear of envoys of the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States, but the substantive support on restoring democracy in the Maldives had to come from India. He met a few power centres in New Delhi but returned to Colombo, where he lives in self-imposed exile, empty-handed.

The MDP’s dilemma was over the fact that its charismatic face and former President, Mohamed Nasheed, had been barred—illegally in the eyes of the party—from contesting. The Elections Commission of Maldives did so on the grounds that he was a convicted criminal and a fugitive. The MDP had been hopeful that the February 2018 ruling of Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed of the Maldives Supreme Court on the release of all political prisoners would apply to Nasheed too. It is another matter that the Chief Justice himself was arrested and later sentenced. In April, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said the judicial proceedings in the case in which Nasheed had been convicted were based on vague legislation, contained serious flaws, and violated his right to a fair trial. The committee wanted the Maldives to free Nasheed and restore his political rights, including the right to seek public office.

With no tangible support coming from New Delhi, Nasheed announced on Twitter that he was quitting the race and that the joint opposition, of which the MDP is a partner, would field a candidate: “My heartfelt congratulations to the joint opposition parties who have today agreed to field a common presidential ticket. A MDP presidential candidate with a JP [Jumhoorie Party] running mate, backed by the whole opposition. I believe this is the way forward in restoring democracy in the Maldives.”

This was no easy decision for Nasheed. The MDP’s cadre across the Maldives had worked hard to ensure that almost all registered party people turned up to vote in the primary on May 30. More than 44,000 members of the party, which the MDP said amounted to 83 per cent of its total membership, voted in one of the 196 islands in the Maldives, in the six ballot boxes in Sri Lanka, two in India and one in Malaysia.

The party said the voting began around 2 p.m. and went on until midnight. Hamid Abdul Gafoor, the party’s international spokesperson, said the process had gone on despite the efforts of the government to scuttle it. “Maldivians defied President [Abdulla] Yameen’s attempts to thwart the primaries, by hiding ballot boxes, allowing decoy boxes to be taken by the police, turning cement mixers, fish storage hulls and other heavy and immovable objects into ballot boxes, and using mobile polling stations. In the end, the police action had a negligible effect on the primaries,” he said.

Soon after, the Elections Commission reiterated that Nasheed would not be allowed to contest. Given the current atmosphere of fear in the Maldives, the four major parties—the MDP, the J.P., one faction of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) run by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (the other is run by President Yameen), and the Adhaalat Party (A.P.)—decided to join hands against Yameen. In the last presidential elections in 2013, the J.P. cornered enough votes to force a second round, and then took Yameen’s side to clinch victory for Yameen. (The winning candidate needs 50 per cent plus one vote. If no candidate emerges with 50 per cent plus one in the first round, a second round is held between the top two candidates of the first round.)

The Maldivian Supreme Court, which is now seen to do the bidding of the President, convicted and sentenced Gayoom, the longest-serving President of the country, for “obstruction of justice”. Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed was also imprisoned for an identical period on an identical charge.

India’s stance

India issued a strong statement underlining the fact that both Gayoom and Saeed had not received a fair trial. “India believes that a democratic, stable and prosperous Maldives is in the interests of all its neighbours and friends in the Indian Ocean. It reiterates its advice to the Government of the Maldives to restore the credibility of the electoral and political process by immediately releasing political prisoners, including former President Gayoom and Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, and creating the necessary conditions for the participation of all political forces in the presidential elections,” a June 14 statement from the Ministry of External Affairs said.

None of this has had any effect on President Yameen. With each Indian statement that is adverse to his presidency, he has retaliated much in the fashion of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In a first, the Maldives stopped issuing permits to Indians working on already committed Indian projects and also for low-skilled jobs.

After the second round of “displeasure” expressed by New Delhi, Yameen asked India to take back the two military helicopters stationed in the Maldives and recently began exploring cooperation in the power sector with Pakistan. This is at a time when most big projects in Pakistan are being handled by Chinese power firms. This clearly appears to be a case of seeking to reduce dependence on India and on the Indian footprint in the Maldives.

It now appears that the presidential race will be between Yammen and the common opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Solih, who is “Ibu” to friends, “has served as the MP for Hinnavaru since 1995. As one of the country’s most senior and experienced politicians, MP Ibu played a leading role in the formation of the MDP and the national reform movement, as part of the Special Majlis that drafted the new Constitution,” says the MDP website.

One of the first things Solih talked about was allowing the alliance partners to incorporate their election promises in the MDP manifesto in such a way that it did not “trample” upon the values of the MDP. This is seen as a gesture to accommodate the bickering parties which have not taken kindly to the MDP releasing the manifesto far ahead of the elections.

It is up to the Elections Commission to conduct a free and fair election. But that is easier said than done. “MDP notes that the Elections Commission, headed by one of President Yameen’s staunchest allies and loyalists, lacks the trust of political parties as well as public confidence, and the Commission’s credibility is highly questionable. The Elections Commission had recently attempted to obstruct the party’s primaries and threatened to dissolve the party, drawing immense criticism from opposition parties as well as the general public,” the party said in a release.

From the events so far, it appears that the Maldives is going through the motions of an election, even as the large democracies, which forced democracy in the archipelago nation, sit by and issue statements.

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