Politics can be as simple as “what goes around comes around”. In 2015, when Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), was the President of the Maldives, a court sentenced Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected President of the archipelago nation, to 13 years in prison, on what was widely acknowledged as a trumped-up terrorism charge.
In December 2022, just ahead of the presidential election next year, Abdulla Yameen was found guilty of corruption and money laundering by a lower court and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Nasheed’s party, is the President. On both occasions, the respective political parties alleged that the courts were influenced by politicians in office.
Nasheed was convicted in 2015, but he could not overturn the conviction through the courts in time to contest the presidential election held in 2018. Solih, his friend and party senior, contested instead and won, becoming the third democratically elected President of the Maldives. This set in motion a series of events that eventually led to a falling out between Solih and Nasheed.
Ironically, Solih and Nasheed are now part of a bitter power struggle within the MDP, but in opposite camps. Nasheed, now Speaker of the Majlis [parliament], announced on December 18 that he would contest the MDP primary, the process to elect the presidential candidate of the party. Solih, who has the support of Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail and a host of other Ministers, is the hot favourite to win. It helps that Ismail’s writ runs in the MDP’s echelons too.
Nasheed has been open about issues with Solih and those helming the MDP now. In a tweet on December 21, he said: “MDP is about free and fair elections. Integral to this is a pre-decided voter list. But Pres Solih has expelled over 39k members from MDP in the past year. While the list needed cleaning up, he has removed all the original party members less likely to vote for him.”
Solih supporters claimed that the list had members from other parties and that the list of members given to the Elections Commission would be used for the primaries. Nasheed was criticised for tweeting in English (and not in the national language Dhivehi), with some partymen now aligned against him alleging that he was merely trying to catch the attention of the Europeans and the Americans.
Minister Shauna Aminath, a former Nasheed supporter but now in the Solih camp, tweeted her support even as the battle within the MDP heated up: “President @ibusolih has my unwavering support in the upcoming MDP primaries. I’ve had the privilege of working closely with him, first as his Policy Sec & now as a Cabinet Minister where I see firsthand his commitment to a Maldives that is resilient, prosperous & democratic.”
Only a few, such as former MDP international spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, are with Nasheed. Ghafoor supported Nasheed after the controversy over the MDP voter list surfaced: “Conducting an MDP Primary after removing forty per cent or 39,000 members under suspect circumstances is likely to throw the only remaining trustworthy party to the dustbin of political history…. It appears a cartel has taken over! Members must rise to the occasion.”
By January end, the MDP will decide on its presidential candidate. In case Nasheed does not win, that will mark a massive shift in the power centres within the MDP because Nasheed has been the face of the party for the past few decades. His options, too, after a defeat, will be severely limited.
Abdulla Yameen had one move left to make ahead of the lower court order on money laundering, and he chose to do it in the latter half of 2022. He got the PPM to announce him as the presidential candidate. The ploy did not work; the court read out the sentence on December 25. Yameen has made it clear that he intends to appeal as early as possible against the conviction.
Earlier, in 2019, he was convicted for embezzling state funds, held under house arrest and released later, in what appeared to be a series of judicial processes that left people puzzled. The latest conviction is a big blow to his plan of contesting the 2023 presidential election. The Elections Commission of Maldives will announce the date of the presidential election in January 2023.
Yameen’s next strategy will involve a quick hearing in the courts or relief from the higher court. Former Maldivian Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed was quick to condemn the sentencing of the former President. He said: “Political interference in the judiciary is the biggest threat to the independence of the judiciary in the Maldives. It’s further exacerbated by vengeance-seeking individuals with personal motive serving as members of JSC [Judicial Service Commission].”
Yameen’s case cannot be classified as political vengeance as Ahmed would want people to believe because the investigation was about a massive corruption scandal involving the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation when Yameen was President. The prosecution had submitted that the price for an island on sale, Aarah, was decided as $5 million. This was inexplicably reduced to $2 million on the orders of Yameen. The kickback was paid, blatantly, into Yameen’s account.
The Vice President at that time, Ahmed Adeeb, who was later jailed in an outrageous and foisted case to kill Yameen, was a witness in the case. Adeeb spent nearly seven years in prison on various charges, including corruption. With Adeeb turning a witness for the prosecution, it was relatively easy to prove the case. Yameen’s legal team protested against Adeeb giving testimony in the case. “It was an open and shut case,” one person who was closely associated with the proceedings told Frontline.
PPM’s anti-India stance
One PPM member questioned the timing of the order in the case and claimed that India was behind the conviction. Yameen and his party are known for their anti-India and pro-China stance, while the MDP is perceived as pro-India.
The PPM had earlier launched an #IndiaOut campaign, which had more traction on social media than on the ground. The campaign claimed that India had stationed military personnel in the Maldives and that under the current regime, the country was a puppet of a “Hindu India”. The PPM demanded that all Indian military personnel leave the country.
In fact, Abbas Adil Riza (@AbbasRiza), a journalist who is part of the PPM, had tweeted an image of the Indian High Commission in Male in flames and had incited people to destroy the Indian Mission. The tweet, posted on December 23, is yet to be taken down as on January 5. By then, it had been seen by nearly 58,000 people.
Although most political parties in the Maldives condemned the images and the content, the PPM has not made any comment so far. The Maldivian government, too, condemned the “incitement of arson and terrorism targeted at the High Commission of India”. The government claimed that it was “investigating the threat”.
The PPM’s immediate worry is to put together a Plan B in case the Yameen conviction is not overturned. There appear to be three contenders at this stage: former President Mohamed Waheed, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s son Faris Maumoon, and the Male city Mayor Mohamed Muizzu.
Of these, Muizzu created history in 2021 by becoming the first Mayor of Male to be directly elected by the people. He has the ground connect and is well entrenched in the party. Maumoon, being a perpetual insider of the first family of the Maldives, has insights into the palace intrigues and is capable of running a tight ship. Waheed was once Nasheed’s Vice President and part of the MDP, and was sworn in as President in February 2012, after a bloodless coup. At best, Waheed can hope to be the consensus candidate.
Others in fray
While the President will be chosen from either the MDP-led coalition or the PPM-led coalition, the smaller parties will decide if there is a run-off. A political party which has acquired some prominence in recent times is the newly formed Maldivian National Party (MNP). It has nominated former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, an India baiter, as its unanimous choice.
A third party has ensured a run-off in each of the three democratically held elections in the past. In the second democratically held election it was the Jumhooriee Party which held the wild card and forced a run-off. There are a few other smaller parties, too, with pockets of influence in a nation with about 200 inhabited islands and a total population of 5.64 lakh. A candidate should receive 50 per cent plus one vote to win. No candidate has managed this in the first round in the elections held so far.
- In December 2022, just ahead of the presidential election next year, Abdulla Yameen was found guilty of corruption and money laundering by a lower court and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
- He intends to appeal against the conviction.
- Mohamed Nasheed, now Speaker of the Majlis [parliament], announced on December 18 that he would contest the MDP primary, the process to elect the presidential candidate of the party.
- Abdulla Yameen is ther presidential candidate of the PPM.
- The Elections Commission of Maldives will announce the date of the presidential election in January 2023.