Turning the clock back

Print edition : December 13, 2013

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Vice-President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed (left, partially obscured) walk past an honour guard during their swearing-in ceremony in Male on November 17. Photo: AFP

Mohamed Nasheed(right) and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom at Yameen Gayoom's inauguration. Photo: AFP

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan casts his vote in the first round of voting on November 9. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP

Supporters of Yaameen Abdul Gayoom celebrate at his campaign headquarters in Male as the results are announced. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP

Outside a polling station in Male on November 16 during the run-off presidential election. Photo: ADAM SIREII/AFP

The political crisis in Maldives over the presidential run-off ends with the surprise victory of a close relative of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the shock defeat of Mohamed Nasheed.

CHANGE, sometimes, seems like a closed loop. The more things appear to change, the more they remain the same. This is so very true in respect of Maldives, an archipelago nation with a population of over 300,000 people, which is normally in the news for climate change issues and its idyllic upmarket beaches.

On November 16, Maldivians queued up to elect a new President in a run-off round. The results shocked international observers. Five years after the country held its first multiparty presidential election, Maldivians chose to turn the clock back. They brought back to power a close relative of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country with an iron hand for about three decades.

Abdullah Yaameen Abdul Gayoom, the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), a party Gayoom founded after he returned to Maldives a few years ago, was elected to the top post, with an astonishing 51.39 per cent of the vote polled (111,203 votes). He defeated the former President and Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience, Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party. Nasheed got 48.61 per cent of the votes (105,181 votes). The polling percentage, at 91.41 per cent, was unbelievably high. A total of 218,621 of the 239,165 eligible voters exercised their franchise.

The wider coalition formed by the PPM with the Maldives Development Alliance, the Adaalat Party, the Jumhooree Party, the Gaumee Itthihaad Party and the Islamic Democratic Party made the difference. Nasheed had avoided alliances, insisting that they were a hindrance when it came to governance.

“The polling day went smoothly and ended without any major incidents. A total of 3,931 observers and 3,055 monitors, including 45 foreign observers and 22 foreign monitors, were active during the election to ensure its credibility and transparency,” a Maldivian government release said.

“The elections were credible, transparent and extremely well-administered, as were the two previous rounds,” said Transparency Maldives, the non-profit organisation which had the largest number of observers on the ground. Its observers and volunteers were based in 20 atolls and in overseas stations such as London, Singapore, Colombo, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram, where ballot boxes were maintained. “We are happy to report that this election has been peaceful with no reported incidents of violence inside a polling station,” it added.

Nasheed concedes defeat

Nasheed, who kept the battle alive for over 18 months after he resigned in controversial circumstances in February 2012, was graceful in accepting his shock defeat. “We must accept the results,” he told his supporters in Dhivehi language. “Our future is bright. A lot of elections are imminent [referring to the elections to the People’s Majlis early next year]. We must work hard and win majorities. We should never change a government any other way than by votes. Yaameen has won a majority, however small. It’s our duty to respect that. Over 104,000 Maldivians voted for us. We now have many responsibilities. We will now be the opposition, a loyal, responsible one. Keep in mind we are still the biggest political party with the highest level of support. When you fall, get up and run. When you lose, be courageous, and in victory, be magnanimous.”

With Nasheed conceding defeat, the decks were cleared for Yaameen to be sworn in as the sixth President at a special sitting of the People’s Majlis, the main legislative body, on November 17. The MDP is the largest party in the Majlis and could have easily behaved like a sore loser. That it did not was an indication of Nasheed’s hold over the party.

The inauguration of Yaameen brought to a close the uncertainty that had hung over the country since Nasheed vacated office under controversial circumstances. Soon after Nasheed quit, his Vice–President, Mohamed Waheed Hasan, was anointed President as per a provision in the Constitution. Waheed was to serve out the reminder of Nasheed’s five-year term. Waheed tried his best to form a “national government”, but a series of missteps, including his move to cosy up to Gayoom, and Nasheed’s own overbearing, even whimsical, ways meant that the concept remained a non-starter.

With support from Gayoom’s PPM and a rainbow coalition of parties, Waheed managed to sew together a government, which, more often than not, pulled in different directions. Waheed had little control over his Ministers. The Waheed era was an unmitigated disaster, as the country slipped from one crisis to another. With the international community demanding an early election, Waheed was more concerned about keeping it at bay. He had to fight a long battle to establish his legitimacy as the President. A Commonwealth report absolved him of engineering a coup to oust Nasheed, but he never gained the support or legitimacy due to an elected President.

Long drawn-out process

Maldives stumbled along. The presidential election was announced for September 7. As the requirement for a candidate to win was 50 per cent plus one vote, the Maldives Elections Commission announced that a second round, if necessary, would be held on September 28. A new President had to be in place by November 11, which was a constitutionally mandated date.

In the September 7 election, Nasheed polled 95,224 votes (45.45 per cent), Yaameen hung on to a slender lead to secure the second place with 53,099 votes (25.35 per cent), while the Jumhooree Party’s Qasim Ibrahim managed to poll 50,422 votes (24.07 per cent). Waheed polled 10,750 votes (5.13 per cent).

Qasim Ibrahim, a millionaire resort owner and a member of the powerful Judicial Services Commission, approached the Supreme Court, contending that the election was not held in a free and fair manner and that Nasheed’s party had managed to manipulate the election. In an incredible ruling just before the second round was to be held, the Supreme Court, on the basis of questionable evidence, annulled the first round and ordered a fresh first round to be held by October 20.

The Elections Commission set October 19 as the new date for the election. But with candidates not cooperating on signing the voter registry, and the police armed with a sanction from the National Security Council, blocked the election on the scheduled day. Finally, the election was held on November 9, the third attempt at holding the presidential election, two days before the expiry of the presidential term. With no candidate again crossing the halfway mark, a run-off was necessitated. Originally, the run-off was scheduled for November 10. Yet again, the Supreme Court intervened, on a plea by the Jumhooree Party. Qasim Ibrahim, who came third in the November 9 election, contended that he did not have enough time to tell his people which way to vote. This time, the court extended the term of the serving President to November 16, and announced November 16 as the date for a fresh election.

Implications of the result

India has welcomed the results. “The high voter turnout in every round of presidential election is indicative of the strong desire and determination of the people of Maldives to participate wholeheartedly in the process of choosing their President,” a statement released simultaneously in Male and New Delhi noted. The statement added:

“We welcome the acceptance of the verdict of the people of Maldives by all sides and commitment expressed to take the country forward on the path of stability, progress and development.

“India and Maldives have traditionally maintained the closest ties of friendship and cooperation that extends to people-to-people contacts, economic and developmental partnership and defence and security cooperation. India will continue to partner Maldives in this endeavour and looks forward to cooperating closely with the new President and his government.”

The results are a setback for India, which was seen as backing Nasheed. Although India had made it clear that it was ready to do business with anyone who was elected to power, Nasheed, who had sought refuge in the Indian High Commission in Male fearing arrest, and the now-on, now-off role of the Indian High Commission in the GMR Group-Ibrahim Naseer International Airport fiasco, had turned the PPM and other political parties against India. Mohamed Jameel, the person who was most vocal in throwing out the Indian infrastructure company from Maldives will be the new Vice-President.

When Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh visited Maldives on October 17, she met all the presidential candidates barring Yaameen, who was not in Male on that day. When this correspondent asked her if she met Yaameen, the Foreign Secretary replied that she had met Gayoom, Yaameen’s mentor. As of now, it does not appear that anyone in South Block has an equation with Yaameen.

Yaameen has been vocal on the issue involving the GMR Group, which was contracted to develop and operate the Male international airport. He told this correspondent before the aborted run-off round that there was no question of allowing GMR to come back. Yaameen appeared to differ with Gayoom on this issue. Gayoom appeared more accommodative of GMR in his comments in New Delhi. Yaameen, in the middle of an election, was not in a position to concede any ground.

Fundamentalists, including representatives of the Adaalat Party and the Islamic Democratic Party, will be represented in the new Maldivian Cabinet. This is a cause of worry for India, as Minicoy, the southern-most island in the Lakshwadeeep string, is just 30 nautical miles away from the northern-most atoll of Maldives.

Larger question

From the point of view of Maldives, there are several concerns, barring the economy and fundamentalism. In an exclusive interview at his official residence, Waheed agreed to the suggestion that rushing through with the democratic process without the capacity to handle the peculiar problems that democracy threw up was partly the reason for the current state of affairs.

When the transition to a multiparty democracy happened in 2008 with the presidential election, some concerns were expressed over the fact that the judiciary was populated with judges who had hardly finished school, let alone law school, and that the police and the defence forces were still loyal to Gayoom. Political parties sprang up by the dozen. Though it was impossible to sort them out in terms of ideology, they all had indistinguishably similar agendas.

Unsurprisingly, Nasheed, who was elected in 2008 with the support of political parties whose agendas and concerns varied with individual likes and dislikes, found the going difficult. He tried to break loose by snapping ties with the allies who had propelled him to office, creating more enemies in the process. He alienated almost all the political parties owing to a lack of interest in consensus-building, his impulsive ways, and his disdain for sticking to the script on many sensitive issues. In an earlier interview to The Hindu, Gayoom had described Nasheed as a cult leader incapable of leading a country.

It was only a matter of time before the elite, who were loyal to Gayoom, got together to guide the country in a direction that they thought would be in its best interest. Leaders of political parties in Maldives are now at a stage where they will not talk to one another. It can get as petty as one leader refusing to shake hands with another ahead of a televised debate on the national channel.

Democracy is a work in progress in Maldives. The international community guided Maldives in its transition to democracy in 2008 and tried to put in place measures that would help strengthen its institutions. The gains made between 2008 and early 2012 have been lost after the pause button was hit with the change of power in February 2012. All efforts made towards institution-building and reforms took a back seat as backroom manoeuvres—first to form a government, and then to share the benefits of office—dominated the agenda.

In a situation where no Maldivian national is seen as impartial, kick-starting a dialogue among political parties has to be done from outside. That dialogue is more important in the long run to preserve democracy in the archipelago nation.

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