Maldives

Resisting autocracy

Print edition : August 18, 2017

President Abdulla Yameen. Photo: REUTERS/NAVESH CHITRAKAR

The opposition makes yet another serious attempt to break the shackles put on it by the government.

July 3, 2017, will go down in Maldivian history as a day of considerable importance. After several failed attempts to mount a challenge of note to President Abdulla Yameen’s absolute control over the archipelago nation, a united opposition led by the Grand Old Man of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and the charismatic Mohamed Nasheed cobbled together the support of 45 MPs to unseat the Speaker, a staunch Yameen loyalist.

The motion, whose signatories included 10 MPs from Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), was submitted to the People’s Majlis. The Majlis has to take up such motions after 14 days.

A jubilant Nasheed and Gayoom did not hide their glee at the victory. In fact, they were convinced that this was the first step to bring down Yameen. Nasheed, who divides his time between London and Colombo, tweeted: “Everyone come to Male on July 24 to assure a system of government with separation of powers.”

In a country where the President wields absolute power, it is not easy to unseat his pointsman in the House. A series of events, bizarre even by Maldivian standards, followed: a couple of PPM MPs claimed that they had not signed the motion; a Supreme Court intervention disqualified a few more MPs; and the Election Commission declared that the signature of the disqualified MPs could not be counted with retrospective effect. Yameen seemed intent on bringing the number of MPs who supported the motion to below 43, the number needed for a simple majority in the house of 85. Confident of his support from the Maldivian National Defence Forces and a coterie of lawmakers, Yameen worked overtime to make sure that the embarrassing session of the Majlis did not happen on July 24. The Speaker announced that the next sitting of the Majlis would only take place on July 31 and said that security arrangements ahead of Independence Day on July 26 were the reason for the delay. The opposition MPs found the Majlis locked on July 24 and, despite trying to force their way in, could not hold a legitimate session so that a vote could be taken.

The July 31 date set by the Speaker gives more time to Yameen to threaten MPs. Four lawmakers have already been illegally stripped of their seats, and the rest of the opposition is now aware that Yameen will stop at nothing to keep his power. In his bid to consolidate power, he has found new allies in a section of religious leaders in the country, and in Saudi Arabia and China.

Maldives has been simmering since the February 2012 transfer of power in which Nasheed was unseated. The presidential election the next year saw Nasheed lose narrowly to Yameen. Since he assumed office, Yameen has been consolidating his control over all branches of governance and, in the process, has made enemies of most of the seasoned politicians, including Gayoom, his half-brother and former President.

Emboldened by a few meetings with the Chinese leadership in 2014, after his country signed up to become a partner in the Silk Route Initiative and handed over the development of the airport to China, Yameen went about jailing all his political adversaries, including his own Vice President, Ahmed Adeeb. Nasheed too was jailed in 2015 for 13 years. He was allowed to travel to Britain last year on medical leave, where he received asylum. Gayoom’s son, Faris Maumoon, is among those currently incarcerated. More than 10 prominent critics of Yameen either have been killed or have disappeared.

While many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, and the European Union have expressed concern over the developments, there has been no significant statement from India. That India is unhappy is no secret. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited all neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, since he assumed office in 2014. Maldives is the only country that he has chosen not to visit. But this does not mean that India is pro-Nasheed either. Nasheed, who was in New Delhi recently, could not meet the Prime Minister. So, while the Indian machinery takes its time to come up with an appropriate response to events in its backyard, the sand is shifting beneath its feet. The time to act is already past.

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