The Maldives

Trouble in paradise

Print edition : November 25, 2016

President Abdulla Yameen. Photo: AFP

President Yameen is unlikely to mend his undemocratic ways as long as he enjoys the tacit or active support of India and China.

FOUR years after Mohamed Nasheed stepped down as President under questionable circumstances, the Maldives has been rapidly sliding into the dark ages. At least four prominent Maldivian politicians are in jail and many others have fled the country; a Bill criminalising defamation, which was passed by the People’s Majlis (parliament), effectively gags the press and commentators on social media; unemployment has reached new heights; and rising radicalism has seen some of the country’s youth reach Syria to fight along with the Islamic State (Daesh).

The country withdrew from the Commonwealth on October 13, after the organisation of former British colonies came down heavily on the current regime.

Politically, it has been a season of tumult. The ruling party’s patriarch, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, has publicly refused to endorse President Abdulla Yameen, his half-brother, for the 2018 elections, while a group of members of Parliament from the ruling party has decided to part ways with the government despite being warned that this could have serious consequences.

A presidential hopeful and the most important businessman in the Maldives, Gasim Ibrahim, pledged his support to Gayoom on October 30. The Election Commission, which was lauded internationally for the conduct of the 2013 presidential election, is now a partisan body and has even found adequate reason to disqualify a few of the main opposition party’s top-ranking politicians from the primary membership of that party.

The country was placed under provisions of the Emergency law in November 2015 (it was later withdrawn). The President himself is battling serious corruption charges.

Dramatic announcement

The most dramatic, if expected, announcement came in the last week of October from the Grand Old Man of Maldives, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. “I now believe that the current government is not one that respects the party’s values and ideology,” he told a meeting marking the fifth anniversary of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), speaking in the Dhivehi language. “I have decided to withdraw my support to this government from this moment on. I will not, my conscience does not, believe that I should bear any responsibility for what is happening. I do not want it to be said that I was the president of the PPM when a PPM government acted in such and such a manner. So I have withdrawn the support for the current PPM government. God willing, I will not support this government in the future,” he said, according to a translation on the “Maldives Independent” website.

“If Gayoom is serious about bringing about change, he should support and endorse the Maldives United Opposition [MUO] instead of talking to one party here and another party there,” former Maldivian Foreign Minister and Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Ahmed Naseem told Frontline.

“He has to make his commitment to the goal of restoring democracy in Maldives, and not think of the next presidential election,” said Naseem, who is now grounded in Colombo after his passport was cancelled by an incensed Maldivian government.

The key to making the next presidential election free and fair is to have an “interim arrangement” that has representatives from across the board. “In a situation where all independent bodies have been taken over by Yameen’s people, there’s no hope for a free and fair election. The first step is reforms, and anyone seeking to bring about any change has to first be committed to reforms at all levels,” he said.

When he officially withdrew his support for Yameen, Gayoom said the government no longer represented the “values of PPM”. He warned that the treatment meted out to him and his own party persons was a clear threat to other political parties too. Three days later, on October 30, the PPM faction owing allegiance to Yameen cleared out the party office of all its equipment: a picture published on the “Maldives Independent” website shows that even the name board outside has been taken away.

On October 28, six ruling party MPs cast their lot with the opposition, and Yameen’s support base in the People’s Majlis dropped to 47 from 53 in the 85-member House. The opposition now has 38 seats. As Yameen has control over almost all independent commissions and other arms of governance, the loss of majority in the parliament will not mean an automatic end to his tenure: the President is independently elected and hence unaffected by swings in the parliament. But this would reduce his vast influence over lawmaking; by extension, this could mean that his absolute control over institutions like the judiciary, police and bureaucracy will wane.

Yameen found one way to strike back, even as he got wind of the move: he annulled the primary party membership of some MPs. On October 27, the Election Commission announced the removal of MDP MPs Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and Eva Abdulla from the party’s membership list. “MP Ibu Solih is a founding member of the MDP and is also the Party’s Parliamentary Group Leader. Ibu Solih is currently serving his fifth term in Parliament, whereas MP Eva Abdulla is serving her second,” the MDP said in a release.

“Parties were given six months to re-register members whose fingerprints were not on file… Solih and Eva Abdulla have submitted fingerprinted forms twice to the Election Commission only to be repeatedly rejected. Their forms were submitted prior to the deadline and following the second submission they were not informed of the cause of rejection. Most surprisingly, rather than informing the party or the MPs themselves that they had been rejected, the Election Commission opted to immediately inform the parliament of their removal from the MDP’s register. The removal of the MPs from the MDP would result in further restrictions on the time allocated to the party in parliament as per the amended rules of procedure passed using the ruling party’s majority,” the MDP said.

Rising radicalism

The growth of fundamentalism is a serious issue about which the regime remains clueless. In a clear indication of how deeply fundamental ideologies have taken root in the islands, consequent to the influence of the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi school of thought, a local court last month sentenced a woman to death by stoning—a first of its kind in the country. The charge was that of adultery and the woman had admitted to the offence. The Maldives, one of the most open Sunni Muslim societies in the world, shocked the world with this judgment, which has been facilitated by a change in law.

Unemployment is another major worry. World Bank statistics showed that youth unemployment had risen from 21.4 per cent in 1991 to 26.9 per cent in 2014 (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS), and there are many who fear that increasing isolation will lead to even more radicalisation of the country’s disgruntled youth.

Two developments

On top of these, two recent developments made the embattled regime look towards its familiar support bases —India and China—for support. The first challenge comes from the opposition, which is regrouping in Colombo as the MUO and has declared its aim of overthrowing the “undemocratic” regime of Yameen. The second involves a huge payout that the Maldives has to make for former President Dr Mohamed Waheed forcing the India-based GMR consortium, which was operating the country’s gateway airport, the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), in Male, to hand it over to the government and leave the country.

An arbitration in Singapore ruled last week that the Maldives would have to pay $270 million to GMR Male International Airport Limited (GMIAL), a subsidiary of GMR Infrastructure, which was operating the airport. GMIAL, the government of Maldives and the Maldives Airport Company Limited (MACL) had signed an agreement for modernisation and operation of INIA in 2010. On November 29, 2012, the agreement was repudiated by the government alleging that it was “void ab initio”. The three-member international arbitration panel awarded the compensation covering debt, equity invested in the project and a return of 17 per cent. Speaking to Frontline from Male, Dr Waheed, who said he was “staying away from politics” now, described the verdict as a “reasonable settlement that was good for both GMR and Maldives”. In just under three years, Yameen has antagonised every important politician in the country and is now friendless as he wages a “civil war” to wrest the party from Gayoom. The country’s courts, now staffed with Yameen’s men, have given control of the party to him, but that is of little significance because no one in the country of nearly four lakh people believes that the courts are handing out impartial judgments.

Geopolitical realities dictate that both India and China will remain with Yameen as long as he continues to be President. China has heavily invested in infrastructure in the country and is planning to connect the “airport island” Hulhumale with the capital island, Male, via a bridge, and India is getting anxious with each passing day over China’s increasing presence.

However, India mostly maintained a studied silence in the past three years even as the trampling of democratic institutions continued unabated. While the MUO remains a formidable force, the fact that Gayoom refuses to be part of the coalition means that there cannot be a united campaign against the government. Unseating the President in the 2018 elections might not be possible unless a people’s movement forces Yameen’s hand.

Yameen has taken a leaf out of Gayoom’s rule book. Gayoom ruled the Maldives with a heavy hand for 30 years and used a carrot-and-stick policy to keep the small population in check. For the most part, although he was a dictator, he was periodically “elected”.

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