The Maldives

Return of hope

Print edition : October 26, 2018

Supporters of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih celebrate his victory in Male on September 24. Photo: AP

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, President-elect. Photo: AP

President Abdulla Yameen. Photo: AP

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih wins a historic mandate in the presidential election, but managing a host of challenges will be key to a successful presidency.

A conditional victory is often more difficult to reconcile with, and deal with, than a crushing defeat. In winning the September 23 presidential election in the Maldives in an unprecedented manner, the candidate of the combined opposition, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has the unenviable task of holding together a coalition that has never made common cause once an election gets over. His second challenge: making sure that he is always in step with his friend, brother-in-law and widely popular party leader, former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Ibrahim Solih was nowhere in the picture when the presidential race was announced a few months ago. Nasheed refused to return to the Maldives to serve the remainder of a 13-year prison sentence after he got “leave” to go abroad for medical treatment and lived in Colombo and London in self-imposed exile. He had hoped that he would be able to run, aided by considerable help from the international community. When this did not happen, the names of a few senior Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leaders were floated, possibly to catch the ruling party off guard. The MDP finally proposed Ibrahim Solih, a well-respected but low-profile lawmaker. His style of low-key, on-the-ground campaigning, with the support of a team of dedicated volunteers, involved engaging with as many voters as possible from across all the inhabited islands in the Maldives. He did not court controversy with any comment or visit he made. This approach made it seem as if there was only one candidate campaigning in the Maldives—the incumbent President, Abdulla Yameen.

The joint opposition candidate, known as Ibu to those close to him, polled nearly 58 per cent of the almost 90 per cent votes cast in the election, stunning Yameen, who seemed to hold all the aces in the events leading up to the election.

Of the 2,62,135 voters, as many as 2,38,877 voters turned up to cast their votes in 472 ballot boxes (89.22 per cent)—a rarity in the Maldives. Ibu won convincingly, polling 1,34,616 to Yameen’s 96,132.

Ibu managed this against insurmountable odds. After Yameen came to power in 2013, through a controversial run-off to the presidential election, he systematically seized control of all democratic institutions; threw almost all opposition politicians in jail or forced them into exile; barred any candidate with a remote potential of winning from contesting the election; created fear in the minds of his own legislators by jailing his Vice President, Ahmed Adeeb, accusing him of being responsible for an attempt on his life; and cherry-picked foreign observers from “friendly” nations to witness the election.

There were arbitrary arrests in the run-up to the voting, and an unexplained police raid on the opposition headquarters around midnight on the eve of the election. He appointed people to top independent institutions at whim: the Elections Commissioner was a secretary general of Yameen’s political party and the Supreme Court Chief Justice was appointed after Yameen arrested and jailed the previous Chief Justice for giving a judgment against him. The police had made no headway in as many as 30 murder cases in the Maldives during the Yameen years, including that of a blogger, and the disappearance of a journalist.

Yameen rebuffed any attempt that major democracies made at course correction: his Foreign Office warned India, the European Union and even the United States to stay away from interfering in the internal affairs of the Maldives and he personally ordered a freeze on visas to Indian workers. He also asked the Indian Coast Guard helicopters stationed in the Maldives to leave the archipelago and cosied up to China, just as Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa had done. He pulled the country out of the Commonwealth and warned the international community that he would not tolerate any negative comments about the manner in which his country was being governed.

Yameen granted China a slew of projects in the Maldives, and no one in the opposition, including Nasheed, who was in forced exile, or the Grand Old Man of the Maldives, Maumoon Gayoom, has any clue what these projects are. The Maldives was the first nation in South Asia to cut off ties with Qatar, and this move pleased Saudi Arabia immensely. Again, no one in the Maldivian polity, barring a few close to Yameen, is aware of the details of the deal with Saudi Arabia.

Yameen had the money, the muscle and the entire state machinery at his disposal when he went into the election. “After the raid on the opposition headquarters just a few hours before polling was to start, we did not believe that there could be a free and fair election,” said a diplomat based in Colombo who was tasked with monitoring the election. “It was almost as if Ibu had lost even before polling began,” another diplomat said.

But the people did not give up. Friends of this correspondent in the Maldives sent images of voters queuing up before midnight even though the polling booths opened only at 8 a.m. “I was in a queue for more than seven hours,” a friend said after voting. “We all stayed. And we voted because we wanted to get this done,” he added.

The process of polling was strangely delayed, leading to many people spending six hours or more across multiple polling booths. The opposition saw a conspiracy in this, but the Elections Commission (E.C.) clarified that each voter detail had to be manually verified because of a glitch in the computer systems. The E.C. also extended the polling time to 7 p.m. Transparency International Maldives, which had about 400 volunteers across booths in the Maldives, announced that the process was largely free and fair and kept issuing updates as the day progressed.

At the end of polling, exit polls of the joint opposition showed that Ibu was winning 63 per cent of the votes. In the Maldives, votes are counted as soon as polling closes in each booth. Unlike in other democracies, the ballot boxes are not taken to a central counting centre. Each polling booth announces results at the end of counting after they are certified by the counting agents of political parties. This system is followed because the islands are far-flung and it is not practically possible to bring all ballot boxes to a central location.

Although a few former Indian Election Commissioners, who had been in the Maldives during the last election, found flaws in this method, the Chief Elections Commissioner of that time, Fuwad Taufeeq, had stood firm. “That has stood us in good stead this time around. If the counting was centralised, I am not sure what would have happened,” he told Frontline in Colombo, where he lives in self-imposed exile.

Around 8:30 p.m. on September 23, as the first results came in, it appeared that Ibu was headed for a sweep. The first two read like this: Booth, Holiday Inn resort, Kandooma; Votes polled: 112 (out of 125); Ibu managed 92, while Yameen got just 19; Cheval Blanc, Randheli; of the 107 votes polled (out of 113), as many as 92 went to Ibu, while Yameen got 15.

From there, catching up seemed an uphill task for Yameen. At 9:30 p.m., after 233 of the 472 boxes had been counted, Ibu had managed 58.1 per cent of the votes (52,279) to Yameen’s 41.9 per cent (37,763). At 11:30 p.m., almost all media houses and civil society groups called the election for Ibu, after he had strengthened his lead to 30,000. In achieving this feat, Ibu has created history: never before in the Maldives since multiparty electoral democracy took root about a decade ago has a candidate won so convincingly in the first round of a presidential election. (If no candidate gets a 50 per cent plus one vote in the first round, a second round of polling has to be held between those who came first and second in the first round.)

In the first multiparty presidential election in 2008, Nasheed led the race but fell short of the magic 50 per cent plus one mark. He then teamed up with the rest of the opposition to win it in the second round. After he was forced to resign in circumstances often described as a bloodless coup in February 2012, his Vice President, Mohamed Waheed, took charge, as mandated by the Constitution.

In the next election too, in 2013, Nasheed, who firmly rebuffed the attempts of some like-minded parties to come together, led the race but fell short of the Constitution-mandated mark, necessitating a second round. In that fateful election, the man who paved the way for multiparty elections in the Maldives after ruling over the country with an iron hand for about three decades, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, decided to support his half-brother, Yameen. Gayoom managed to swing the influential but smaller political parties to his side and ensured Yameen’s victory.

“This is a moment of happiness. This is a moment of hope, this is a moment in history,” Ibu declared, just past midnight on September 23, even though the E.C. had not announced the results. “The message is loud and clear,” a normally soft-spoken Ibu thundered in the Dhivehi language. “The people of the Maldives want change, justice and stability,” he added.

Soon after this electrifying speech, the E.C. said that it would announce the results in seven days, as mandated by the Constitution. Although there was no doubt about Ibu’s electoral victory after 11 p.m. on September 23, the fact that the E.C. had not announced it soon enough was a cause for concern. This was because the E.C. had to tally results from all booths; there is also a provision that gives it seven days to complete this process. But the decision of the E.C. not to make an official statement sowed the seeds of fear in the minds of the leaders of the combined opposition.

Battle continues after victory

Soon after the election results were unofficially announced, it was clear that Yameen was in no mood to concede. Realising this, India welcomed the verdict, the first country to do so, even though the results had not been announced. The United Kingdom, the United States and Sri Lanka followed suit, in a bid to pre-empt Yameen from subverting the verdict.

On September 24, India welcomed Ibu’s victory. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to President-elect Solih over the phone. The Indian statement called the election results a “triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives”. “The United States congratulates the people of Maldives, who peacefully raised their democratic voices to determine the future of their country,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.

The night of the victory itself, a confidant of Yameen approached the High Court. It is not clear if this was to annul the verdict, but the sudden increase in visible police presence across Male made it seem ominous.

Yameen conceded the election the next day, after a meeting with Ibu. “The citizens of the Maldives had their say yesterday. I accept that result. I have served the Maldivian public sincerely,” he said in a short televised address. Despite this, the fact that almost all the opposition leaders were still in jail and the fact that the police were out on the streets made it seem as if Yameen had made the announcement to buy time.

It was only after the Maldivian National Defence Forces (MNDF) announced that they would protect the will of the people that Yameen backed off. Soon after this announcement, Yameen realised that the crack commando force of the Defence Forces, numbering just over 100, were firmly on the side of the combined opposition and were prepared to implement the verdict.

Yameen’s antics did not end there. Realising that he was pushed into a corner, Yameen announced a meeting of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) for September 28. The aim was clear: take over the party from his half-brother Maumoon Gayoom and be the clear leader before demitting office. Maumoon Gayoom could not prevent this as he has been jailed by Yameen. In fact, all the male members of the Maumoon family who are in politics were behind bars until September 30 on one trumped-up charge or another.

The E.C. finally announced the results after a whole week. The Commissioner, Shareef Rangondi, announced the results and said that the E.C. members had been receiving death threats after the election. This public statement, too, was viewed with some suspicion.

A relieved Ibu tweeted on September 29: “Thank you to the people of the Maldives for your unwavering spirit and strength in our struggle for justice and democracy. Today we are victorious. Congratulations to all who made this happen. I aspire to be a President for all Maldivians and look forward to working with you all.”

But the problems are far from over. The President continues with full powers until the swearing-in of the President-elect, and this can be held only on November 17. Right now, the combined opposition believes that everyone in the ruling establishment is covering their tracks and destroying much of the paper trail on what they have been up to, similar to what happened in Malaysia soon after the upset victory of Mahathir Mohamad.

The delay in the swearing-in is because of constitutional provisions. The time given from the date of the first election, September 23, to November 17 is to accommodate a possible run-off round of election in case no candidate got the 50 per cent plus one vote.

On October 1, taking many by surprise, Yameen appointed a new police chief, ACP Hamdhoon Rasheed. “A SoE [State of Emergency] is also likely,” tweeted Ahmed Mahloof, spokesperson of the joint opposition and a Member of Parliament. Later in the evening, Yameen joined a puzzling protest organised by the PPM, the party he had taken over a few days ago. The protest was against the election that Yameen lost. Yameen took part in the protest despite the fact that he had conceded the election and that it was his hand-picked Elections Commissioner who had overseen the election.

Ibu’s challenges

Managing a disparate opposition and staying together until the time of parliamentary elections will be crucial to the success of an MDP presidency a second time. The President can be checkmated by the Majlis (parliament), as was seen during the tenure of Nasheed, and this is the trap that Ibu would want to negotiate deftly. For this, he has to manage at least three seniors—Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has had a hand in all democratic governments that came after his three-decade rule; Gasim Ibrahim, who was instrumental in propelling Yameen to the presidency; and Mohamed Nasheed himself, who is the face of Ibu’s party. “Let us see how long this combine lasts,” said a diplomat, who hopes that the coalition will focus on implementing a common minimum programme before infighting begins.

Then there is the question of revenge. Scores of MDP leaders that this correspondent spoke to in person or interacted with over phone and social media believe that the MDP erred in not taking action against the losers of the 2008 election. “You have seen what happened to us after 2008. We followed everything that a mature democratic party is expected to follow. And then they ousted Nasheed in a coup,” said a senior MDP leader.

Another demanded to know whether he had suffered in vain. “We have been hounded, and we have fought. It has been a long six years. How can we let them [those who created trouble for us from within the government] so easily?” asked another. Topping the list of names is Yameen, the new Chief Justice, Maldivian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Mohamed Sharieff, and the Chief Elections Commissioner. Ibu’s stand on the issue will be watched closely by MDP cadres and the international community.

Within the MDP itself, Ibu’s place has changed from that of a man on the sidelines to one of its top leaders. Ibu is now President-elect, but he has much more on his plate than merely restoring democracy in the Maldives. The first person that he has to keep on his side is Nasheed, whose personal struggle has made the MDP what it is today. “Rees [President] Nasheed was jailed 21 times. We should always remember that,” said Ahmed Naseem, former Foreign Minister and a mastermind of the 2018 campaign, at a meeting convened on September 29 in Colombo to celebrate the victory. The closed-door meeting of MDP cadres, to which this correspondent was invited, recognised the efforts of many who had toiled in the days leading up to the election.

Keeping Nasheed on his side might not be a huge problem for Ibu if he is willing to be the silent force that he has always been in the party and allows Nasheed to be the face of the Maldives. Ibu and Nasheed grew up together in the same house and share innumerable childhood and adolescent memories. In fact, Nasheed wanted Ibu in politics. Ibu, who wanted to lead a quiet life, had no choice but to agree.

Then comes the India-China question. Although Nasheed has held China responsible for land grab in the Maldives, no government in the Maldives can speak the language that Nasheed has spoken. Some of the Chinese projects, such as the runway at the Ibrahim Nasir Airport in Male and the bridge connecting Male and the airport island, are complete and a slew of projects are on: this is increasing the debt on the Maldives to a level the country will not be able to repay.

Managing India is the other issue. Only one Maldivian leader has managed to keep India happy for a long period—Maumoon. In his 30-year rule in the Maldives, Maumoon visited India as often as required, sometimes several times a year, and briefed anyone in government who wanted to know on the situation in his country.

“Maumoon set his ego aside. He would meet any official who had a query on the Maldives. And he personally explained each issue because he was on top of all issues,” an Indian officer who spent considerable time in Maumoon’s Maldives said. “He was so effective that some in New Delhi thought that we did not need a High Commissioner in the Maldives,” he added, on a lighter note.

That period is long over. India has strategic concerns, and Ibu’s office has made the right noises so far. An MDP spokesperson said that the question of extension for India’s Dhruv helicopters on the archipelago nation will be considered in the light of the fact that these two helicopters have saved 164 lives so far. This, in effect, underlines the practical approach that Ibu wants to pursue in international relations.


Sooner rather than later, Ibu will be confronted with the powers of the only institution that has been a constant in the Maldives, the Maldivian National Defence Forces. So far, the MNDF has remained neutral even in the face of intense pressure, but the temptation to attempt a larger role in the country cannot be overruled. The MNDF’s support is coveted by all political parties, and as such, it cannot be immune to the pulls and pressures of everyday polity. If the bickering among political parties continues, the MNDF might be tempted to bring order to the country with the support of some from within the country and some international players. That will be a bigger danger, far larger than the damage Yameen has inflicted on the system.

But for now, not many think that far ahead. Zaheena Rasheed, who had to flee the Maldives because she worked on a story of governmental corruption, said it in four words: “Guys, I’m going home.” Almost everyone who lives in Colombo in self-imposed exile shares her sentiment. This includes Nasheed, who has announced that he will attend the oath-taking ceremony of Solih.

When Nasheed enters the Maldives on November 17, he will still be a fugitive from law unless the Maldivian courts quash the terrorism conviction against him before that date. Either way, Nasheed wants to be in the Maldives when history is being made yet again.

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