The Maldives

A new chapter

Print edition : May 10, 2019
The landslide win of the Maldivian Democratic Party in the parliamentary election is unprecedented, yet it is no guarantee that there will not be trouble for the new government.

The Maldives embarks on a journey into uncharted territory yet again, with the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) controlling both the People’s Majlis (the parliament) and the executive presidency after its landslide win in the April 6 parliamentary election. This is the biggest win for a single political party in the history of the Maldives. The Members of Parliament will be sworn in on May 28.

On April 12, the Election Commission of the Maldives formally announced that the ruling MDP had won 65 of the 87 seats in the parliament. Former President Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives and its ally, the People’s National Congress, together won eight out of the 46 seats they had contested. Former Speaker Qasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (J.P.), which had an understanding with Yameen’s party and contested 41 seats, secured five seats. Another minor party, the Maldives Development Alliance, won two seats. Independents won the remaining seven.

For the September 2018 presidential elections, almost all the opposition parties had come together. In the negotiations, the MDP contested the presidency while the post of the Vice President was given to the J.P. For the April 6 elections, the MDP decided to contest alone. In fact, the MDP’s abhorrence of alliances in the past was the primary reason why Yameen came to power in 2013.

Although Yameen controlled fewer institutions (than is possible now, with the MDP’s brute majority) after coming to power in 2013, he made a mockery of the country’s democracy, jailed all political opponents on trumped-up charges and ran the country like a dictator. This forced political leaders who had not been arrested to travel abroad and live in forced exile.

The MDP, the largest party in the country, has waited for long for this kind of a majority, and the temptation to bulldoze its way with its agenda for change over the manner in which the country is structured and governed is immense. There is also enormous anger, and the urge to get even, among many MDP leaders who had been at the receiving end of the two regimes since 2012.

But Mohamed Nasheed, president of the MDP, assured people that he did not want the brute majority to steamroller opponents. On April 8, he tweeted: “Had the pleasure of speaking with Indian Prime Minister @narendramodi, and yesterday with External Affairs Minister @SushmaSwaraj. I assured them we will use our Majlis majority responsibly: implement manifesto pledges; consolidate democracy; ensure Indian Ocean stability.” Changing status quo

A brute majority is no guarantee that there will be no trouble for the government in the Maldives. At one end of the spectrum, this could be the creation of conditions that could lead to the 2012-like daily protest situation when Nasheed resigned in a bloodless coup. The next threat is from the existing power centres, most of whom are no longer represented in the corridors of power. These power centres include former Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Abdulla Yameen, as also business tycoon and former Speaker Qasim Ibrahim. The Maldives National Defence Forces, which have grown in stature and power over the Yameen years, pose a distinct challenge if any attempt to shift the status quo is ordered.

And Nasheed wants to change the status quo. He has waited for one frustrating decade to garner the numbers in the parliament and bring about the changes that he wants. In an earlier interview to Frontline, he had stated that the presidential form of government, where the President does not have powers congruent with an executive presidency, was not suited for the Maldives. He had suggested a change to the parliamentary form of government.

Nasheed made the same point again on state media on April 10. According to a translation posted in the website “Maldives Independent”, Nasheed said: “I have always believed the parliamentary system is the best system of government. The MDP is a party that believes that philosophy. At the moment, any talk of changing the system must be initiated by the President. I would never try to do anything like that in a way that would make things difficult for the President. We are in power now. The President is the MDP and the People’s Majlis is the MDP. Considering the present, there is no difficulty for us. Nonetheless, I still believe the best form of government for the Maldives is the parliamentary system. The system should be introduced to us after discussions within our party’s various branches, discussion at our congress, discussions by all our organs, and after the issue reaching the People’s Majlis and a referendum is taken, after a lengthy effort. Any of these efforts must only be started with the President’s approval, consent and heart in it.” 

Alhan Fahmy, former MDP vice president who had been expelled from the party, claimed that any move to change the system of governance amounted to a violation of the Constitution. “Thirteen years back, people decided to have a presidential system of governance. It should not be changed to a parliamentary system by the parliament unless a public referendum turned in favour,” he noted in a tweet on April 10, soon after Nasheed’s interview was aired. There are many people who subscribe to this view.

This discussion on presidential form versus parliamentary form has the potential to take the focus away from all other concerns and development needs. This could become a point on which the opposition parties, which are searching for an issue to push the government on the back foot, now come together and attempt to cripple the functioning of the government. Secondly, this could be used by elements inside the Maldivian polity and by outside forces to drive a wedge between Nasheed and President Ibrahim “Ibu” Solih.

Minicoy issue

The first signs of trouble from various quarters are already visible. It is not clear if MP-elect Abdulla Jabir, who is a Special Envoy in the President’s Office with the rank of a Cabinet Minister, was speaking his mind or if he was prompted to raise the issue of Minicoy, an island in India’s Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Jabir, who is also a noted businessman in the Maldives, wanted to start an inquiry to find out how Minicoy island got “detached” from the Maldives.

The residents of Minicoy speak Dhivehi, and Nasheed had raised the issue of Minicoy being culturally part of the Maldives chain with the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011. Dr Singh’s tact in handling the situation reportedly ensured that this did not become an international incident.

Jabir’s comment forced the President’s spokesperson to clarify with a tweet on April 13: “President @ibusolih has asked me to clarify that comments made by Mr Abdulla Jabir, MP-elect with regard to Minicoy, Lakshadweep islands in India on @tvmaldives on 12 April 2019 are his personal views and NOT in any way sanctioned or endorsed by the Government of Maldives.”

Many in the Maldives see this explanation as a sign of Indian arm-twisting. For once, India has a competent envoy in the Maldives, who was posted to Male recently, and who has been given some credit for the all-round improvement in ties between India and the Maldives. 

There are larger issues as well. There are people within the MDP who believe that if India had been proactive enough, Nasheed could have contested the presidential election. This has two implications: one, that India did not do enough because it did not want to, and two, that it did not try hard enough. Both are problematic as both seek to create an image that India did not want Nasheed as President. Officials within the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and security agencies insist that there was no move to keep Nasheed away from the contest; just that the situation could be managed at that time only with a compromise candidate.