The Maldives

Three-horse race

Print edition : June 14, 2013

Former President Mohamed Nasheed arriving at a Maldivian Democratic Party meeting in Male on February 9, 2012. Photo: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS

Mohamed Waheed, who took over as President after Nasheed's resignation on February 7, 2012. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed said Gayoom was a co-conspirator in his ouster. Photo: R.K.Radhakrishnan

Yameen Abdullah. He lacks the political acumen of his mentor Gayoom but may not be a weak force. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP

Voting in the run-off election in the first multiparty democratic election in the Maldives, on October 28, 2008. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP

Mohamed Nasheed’s performance in the presidential election in the Maldives will depend on how well he can take people with diverse views along.

AN unusually long campaign marks the PRESI- dential election in the Maldives, which has been slated for September 7. Campaign began a year and a half ago, more specifically, in February 2012.

On February 7, 2012, Mohamed Nasheed quit as President under controversial circumstances. A day later, he claimed that he was ousted in a coup and that Vice-President Mohamed Waheed (who was subsequently elevated as President following a provision in the Maldivian Constitution) had conspired with Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who ruled the country for three decades, and some influential businessmen to throw him out. A war of words ensued and the “opposition”, consisting of Waheed and leaders of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) and a few smaller parties, came together to counter this campaign.

Initially, Nasheed focussed his energies on trying to get back his “rightful” seat—as President. When he was convinced that this was not possible, he concentrated on getting the international community on his side. But he had to change tack when the report of the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) declared, after elaborate examination of the evidence before it, that Nasheed had not been ousted in a coup.

Just as Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were trying to comprehend the enormity of the CoNI report, the Waheed administration began to hound Nasheed. Many in the administration, especially Home Minister Mohamed Jameel, had been arrested by the earlier Nasheed government on a variety of charges. They all wanted to get back at him. Many charges were slapped on Nasheed. One of them related to his ordering the arrest of a criminal court judge.

For the Nasheed camp this was a godsend. Just as the MDP was wondering how to launch an effective campaign post the CoNI report, the move to arrest Nasheed became a great launch pad. He and the MDP hit the waterways yet again, to reach the people on the islands that constitute the archipelago and also the international community. Nasheed, the champion of climate change issues and the darling of the international media, managed to stay afloat.

The dramatic act of his seeking refuge in the Indian High Commission in Male fearing arrest last February completed the season of theatrics. The international community, led by India, intervened and delivered a stern message to the Waheed administration. It told the Maldivian government—wrapped in diplomatese—that Nasheed should be allowed to contest the election for it to be recognised as free and fair.

Size and complexity

Though democracy in the Maldives, one of the smallest countries in the world (about 2.4 lakh voters), is hardly a decade old, elections here are as complex as anywhere else. A run-off will ensue if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the votes, which is mandated by the Constitution. By the end of September, the Maldives will have a new President.

A compact Muslim population, almost all Sunni and nearly fully literate, should mean an easy election process and pave the way for a stable chief executive. The Maldivian polity is as complex as in any multiparty democracy. It hardly matters that the multiparty system came into existence in the country only in 2005. In just over half a decade, at least 16 political parties emerged, some of which had hardly a few thousand members. According to the Maldivian Election Commission, a political party had to have at least 3,000 members for it to be recognised.

All this changed in 2013, when the big parties in the People’s Majlis (parliament) got together to preserve their exclusivity. They passed a Bill that mandated a membership of at least 10,000 for a political party to be recognised. Though President Waheed was against the move and sent back the Bill once, he finally signed it.

In more ways than one, the Maldivian presidential election will be historically significant. Though the President is shackled by parliament and though no party has a majority in the House, the manner in which people vote in this election will decide the direction that the Maldives takes.

The choice before the people is a man who says he has been wronged, Nasheed, and two others who have run the country since February 2012, Gayoom’s half-brother Yameen Abdulla and former Vice-President Waheed.

Until early May, it appeared that the race for presidency was limited to two parties: Nasheed’s and Yameen Abdulla’s. The MDP is the biggest party in the Maldives in terms of membership (45,666). The second is Gayoom’s PPM (22,383).

But Waheed’s party, the Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP), though small (membership: 3,930), has attracted diverse political parties that did not want to be part of an alliance with either the PPM or the MDP. It has so far managed to get the support of the DRP, the DQP and the ultra-religious Adhaalath Party. Waheed, who was chosen as Nasheed’s running mate in the first presidential election under the multiparty system in 2008 only because he was a political lightweight, has proved to be a smart politician. With a combined membership claim of over 50,000, Waheed’s “five-star alliance” is a serious contender in the race.

Yameen Abdulla might not have the political acumen of his mentor and half-brother Gayoom, but this hardly matters. Gayoom’s people are firmly entrenched in the Maldivian administration and the system in general, and they can be called upon for favours. Hence, even though the PPM candidate looks the weakest on paper, this might not be reflected in the first round of the election. In the 2008 presidential election, Nasheed managed a mere 24 per cent of the votes in the first round. His opponent at that time, Gayoom, got over 40 per cent of the votes.

All this points to a fact: despite being the most popular leader in the Maldives, Nasheed is on shaky ground. His success will depend on how well he can take people with diverse views along. In short, Nasheed will have to look for allies if he has to put up a fight in this election.

Nasheed believes he will win the election in the first round. And now he is pushing for an interim government to take charge of the administration during election time. He wants the PPM to be a part of this new set-up.

Well, this is actually a throwback to the old days. Soon after Nasheed quit in February 2012, one suggestion that came up was the formation of a national government with representation from all political parties. Nasheed’s party refused to be a part of such a set-up. Now Nasheed realises the value of such a government.

For his own sake, one can only hope that he does not rue the day he declared he did not want allies.

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