The Maldives

One-horse race

Print edition : February 16, 2018

Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, a file photograph. Photo: AP

Mohamed Nasheed, former President. He will not be allowed to contest. Photo: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former President and half-brother of the current leader. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

With most leaders of the opposition parties either in jail or in exile, President Abdulla Yameen appears set to win the approaching presidential election.

It is another election year in the Maldives, which is to hold its third presidential election since becoming a multiparty democracy. However, there are clear signs that the days of multiparty democracy are over in the archipelago nation.

Almost all the leaders of the major opposition parties are in jail or in exile. It appears certain that this time there is one person who wants to make sure that there is only one player left in the field—President Adbulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. He won the last race in 2013 merely because far too many influential Maldivian leaders did not trust President Mohamed Nasheed and backed him instead. A couple of years after he took over as President, almost all those who backed Yameen are out of the charmed circle, including his own half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who ruled the Maldives with an iron hand for almost three decades before he decided to do the right thing in 2006.

Maumoon, who went back to the Maldives in January this year, suddenly found that he had a posse of policemen at his residence. On enquiry, he was told that this was for his own security since there were death threats against him. Maumoon persisted in asking who made the death threats. So far neither the police, who had posted the personnel, nor the government is willing to clarify the source of the purported threats. In the small island of Male, a city of very narrow roads in which over a third of the entire Maldives population lives, threats are not new. But there has never been any threat against established political players.

It is easier to put together the puzzle when you add the fact that Maumoon’s daughter, Dunya, is no longer in the Cabinet, and his son, Faris, is in jail. “Visited my son @afarismaumoon MP at Maafushi prison today,” Maumoon tweeted on January 20. “187 days in detention without a sentence. His appeal against his warrant & detention is lying in High Court for more than 5 months without a ruling. What political tyranny! What a travesty of justice.” Maumoon, now 80, is a deeply unhappy man and has been a vocal critic of President Yameen.

Maumoon and a millionaire resort owner, Qasim Ibrahim, have been ruled out of the next presidential election because they are over the specified age limit. Mohamed Nasheed, who is now a fugitive from law in the Maldives, will not be allowed to contest. Ironically, it was because Qasim was in the race for the 2013 presidential election that Nasheed could not muster the 50 per cent plus one vote required for a victory in the first round of that election. Qasim, who was arrested and later allowed to go abroad for treatment, is in for more trouble: his resorts were raided recently.

“Obviously, these three people cannot contest,” Mohamed Shareef, the Maldivian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, told Frontline. “Nasheed’s people are not in touch with reality. They don’t seem to have a plan even though the elections are nearing,” he said at a meeting with this correspondent at the Maldivian Embassy in Colombo. Nasheed and most of the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) active leadership face one charge or the other in the Maldives. Most of them are now in Sri Lanka, which has anyway been a second home for many Maldivians. Most Maldivians have studied in Colombo’s elite schools and own property in Sri Lanka.

The MDP is hoping that international pressure will ensure a level playing field for all parties in the 2018 presidential election. They do have some support. James Dauris, British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Ambassador to the Maldives, tweeted:

“Today members of all Maldives opposition parties shared concerns with me that this year’s presidential elections aren’t shaping up to be free or fair and that parliament is being stopped from working as the people need it to.”

Atul Keshap, the United States’ Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, who is at the end of his term, tweeted: “For free and fair elections to occur this year in [the] Maldives it is essential that all members of Parliament be able to attend all sessions and exercise their full rights and duties as elected representatives of the people and defenders of democracy.”

But the odds are stacked against the MDP. The West, which has been a firm supporter of the re-establishment of a multiparty democratic system in the Maldives, is now straddled with too many other issues. The U.S. is too distracted by its President Donald Trump, and Nasheed’s best friend in the United Kingdom, David Cameron, is no longer in 10 Downing Street.

The biggest player in the region, India, has been making overtures to Yameen after the Maldives signed a free trade agreement with China. The Maldives despatched its Foreign Minister to New Delhi to explain its recent moves, and, surprisingly, he had an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “We were upset with India because Prime Minister Modi did not visit the Maldives, whereas he had visited all the countries in the region. This would have been a problem for any President in the Maldives,” said Mohamed Shareef. “But we are very glad that this phase is passed. The Maldives Foreign Minister managed to clarify many things to the Prime Minister. Hopefully there will be a reset in relations. The [Indian] Prime Minister has promised to visit [Maldives].”

India’s decision to cosy up to Yameen has left the MDP distraught. “This is reward for bad behaviour,” said former Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem. “They [the Maldives government] have signed all kinds of deals with China. They are bartering the sovereignty of the country and in the process putting at risk the whole Indian Ocean security,” he told Frontline.

The MDP leadership has been meeting world leaders to get them interested in the Maldives. They are being helped by a variety of friends in high places, including the likes of the celebrity attorney Amal Clooney and a major public relations firm. The strategy so far has been to influence Britain, the U.S., Japan and India so that Nasheed is allowed to contest again. But this strategy has not found any success so far.

If Nasheed is not allowed to contest, does the opposition have a viable alternative strategy? “Of course we do,” said Naseem. “But if we reveal who our candidate is, or even give a hint of our strategy, those people will be arrested and put behind bars. That is what Yameen has been doing throughout his tenure.”

The government, on the other hand, says that the opposition does not have a strategy. “What strategy? There is no one who is acceptable to the whole opposition. Even in the MDP the leaders are all at the junior level because Nasheed does not want anyone to rise to leadership levels,” said Shareef. In his reckoning, the tallest leader in the Maldives now is President Yameen and he will win hands down in the very first round.

The MDP believes that this is a possibility, but not because Yameen is a tall leader. Its international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Gafoor, said: “Every single institution has been made subservient to the presidency. The Election Commission has been compromised. How can there be free and fair elections in this atmosphere? I doubt if there will be elections at all in the Maldives, ever.”

India, Japan, the U.S., Sri Lanka and the U.K. were among the countries that hand-held the Maldives as it took the first baby steps towards a multiparty democracy about a decade ago. The very same countries do not appear especially concerned or interested as the Maldives turns the clock back and adopts a system of governance that has become all-too-familiar in the Third World: that of a person hanging on to power with all the means at his disposal.