Two years shy of the next presidential polls in Maldives, it’s still advantage Abdulla Yameen as no viable opponent capable of winning over the masses against an incumbent President is yet visible, writes N Sathiya Moorthy for South Asia Monitor.
By N Sathiya Moorthy
There is only one way to describe the events and developments in Maldives during 2016 and it’s this: Maldives-2016 was the ‘Year of Yameen’. It was so the previous year, too, in a way, yet 2016 alone consolidated the ‘gains’ of 2015 for President Abdulla Yameen. The same, however, cannot be said of Maldives as a nation, per se.
The year for Maldives is marked by two major developments, one in domestic politics and the other in foreign policy. The former related to the split in Yameen’s ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), with his half-brother and former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, splitting away. The latter, and even more important, relates to Maldives quitting the Commonwealth. Both centred on Yameen’s moves and/or decisions.
True, before Gayoom and the PPM faction led by him, criticism and protests against Yameen had commenced with the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the official Opposition led by former President, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed. Nasheed made more news in the previous year than this one. Where he was in the news, Nasheed left Maldives for the UK for ‘medical treatment’, and sought and obtained ‘political asylum’ there. He could not have helped Yameen more, as he ceased to make any more news even as the year wound to a close.
Where Nasheed and the MDP made news, it was in the context of their high-profile ‘last-ditch’ battle of the year, when he sought to identify the Gayoom faction with his own efforts to return home on his terms, and to become President. The ‘old fox’ of Maldivian politics would have none of it, and made his first major move only after the Nasheed efforts, based out of neighbouring Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, had bombed -- and he himself had denied any link.
It suited Yameen immensely, and for two reasons. One, it meant that there was no imminent threat to his leadership. Two, in turn, it meant that he had enough time to consolidate his power and position even more than already. Ultimately, the Gayoom split went nowhere. If anything, two of the PPM parliamentarians who had sided with Gayoom returned to the Yameen fold even before the dust had settled down on the split.
Yameen is thus as cosy as the day he commenced the presidency, after weeks of controversies over the 2013 poll process, and months of uncertainty over his possible election. If anything, he might be better placed than earlier, but then that’s all there is to it. He needs to win the presidential polls, due in November 2018, and the clock has started ticking towards the deadline, whether or not for his presidency in electoral terms.
Otherwise, Maldives’ quitting the Commonwealth was nothing like any foreign policy decision that the nation had taken ever. Even at the worst of times, Gayoom, who also got lampooned by the Commonwealth on the one hand, and the UK leader of the erstwhile British colonial grouping on the other, had not considered the move -- leave alone deciding the way Yameen did a decade or less later. Even Nasheed, who felt cheated by the Commonwealth-overseen ‘National Inquiry’ into his exit in February 2012, did not promise or propose anything of the kind.
In the 21st century, the world started looking at the Indian Ocean archipelago owing first to the ‘democratisation’ process and the preceding protests in the first decade. Alongside, the first democratic President Nasheed made global headlines in his fight for the environment through his eye-catching initiative in holding a Cabinet meeting under water.
Nasheed and his MDP thus became the centre-piece of whatever media-attention that Maldives got through the period -- and in a way, since then. True, his predecessor President Gayoom was the first to raise his voice as far back as the late 1970s about the threat of the archipelago-nation ‘going under the sea’.
Yet, he was too old-fashioned to imagine the kind of propaganda-tactic that Nasheed very imaginatively adopted to publicise a ‘noble cause’. True, there was no media of the kind as Maldives itself came to enjoy around the time Nasheed began emerging as a strong leader, capable of replacing Gayoom after the latter had been President for 30 long years. Yet, hosting an ‘under-sea Cabinet meeting’ should have come naturally to Gayoom, under whose care the nation developed into a ‘tourism economy’ big-time, from being a poor, sleepy fishermen’s enclave.
Scuba-diving, for instance, was already known during Gayoom’s time, too. But capturing the imagination of the masses nearer home, and the world outside, required ‘moving with the times’, which Gayoom lacked with advancing age and he too got used to the power of power, and nothing else.
Nasheed was the right man at the right place at the right time. If a Nasheed had not been born at the time he emerged, one would have got made. Rather, Maldives would have made one – or, another. If one had not clicked, another would have still emerged, may be not as slow and distant from the first, as the Gayoom era had witnessed almost throughout.
It was so with Yameen, too. There was need to balance development with democracy, so to say – or, if one is charitable enough to describe his presidency thus far only in kind words. Gayoom put development before democracy, not that a mixture would not have helped. Nasheed put democracy before development in his short span in office.
Yet, both sounded insincere at best even in the course and direction of their own choosing, at least after a time. Gayoom did not notice that the world around him had changed and that the new-generation Maldivians especially had become ‘enlightened’ by the education that his leadership provided to the last islander in the most distant atoll -- however small a beginning it still continues to be.
Gayoom still got a long innings as individual Maldivians got to smell, touch and feel the benefits of the developmental agenda that he pursued with great vigour and commitment, especially in the early years and decades. But he did not notice, understand or accept the peripheral ‘fall-out’ of his development agenda. Democracy thus became a burden for him, and a mill-stone around his neck, rather than he using it, too, to consolidate his own political gains for a still longer innings.
Nasheed did not have time on his side the same way. Worse still, he did not see the telescoping of time from the Gayoom era. The political benefits that Nasheed and his MDP reaped owed also to the extension and expansion of the media-reach in the country, going as far up to the present-generation of ‘social media’. He forgot that two can play the game, and he too got the wrong end of the stick, maybe well before his time.
The analogy ‘Transition President’ becomes necessary because Yameen’s is a combination of both, and he himself has telescoped the time-factor even more for the self. In between Nasheed and Yameen, President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik provided the inevitable ‘transition’, to an admixture of development and democracy – but much too in a negative sense of both terms after a point.
Again, if a Waheed presidency was not possible under the democratic Constitution for the Vice-President to inherit the Presidency for the reminder of the term as and when a vacancy had arisen, one would have been made. It did not happen in the case of Gayoom, but had to prolong into street-protests and global diplomatic efforts by the Nasheed/MDP camp (even before he ‘took over’ the leadership) because Gayoom took care of his second-line even while forgetting his tail-end altogether.
To the present-day detractors of Yameen, he is no developmental messiah like Gayoom, though he too has been attempting a repeat of his half-brother’s achievements in a limited time available to him. Rather, he has made only a limited time available to him. The irony is that almost all three leaders, namely, Gayoom, Nasheed and Yameen, came to power almost around the same age, yet Gayoom alone from among them proved that he was not a man in a hurry.
In the process, Gayoom also suffered the consequences of institutional lethargy. It was also his creation. Nasheed was in too much of hurry to consolidate power before performance. He could have chosen the other way round – but it was alien to his nature. If anything, his detractors knew his weaknesses better during his presidency and exploited it. It was just like Nasheed exploiting the inherent and institutionalised weaknesses of Gayoom when the latter was in power.
Again, it’s so with Yameen, or so it seems. Only that he has been as slow as Nasheed in pushing his performance agenda, and too fast as Gayoom in pushing away the legitimate democratic aspirations of a population that he has become unfamiliar with. It’s not clear as yet if Nasheed could re-emerge from the MDP’s failures just now, or Gayoom at his advancing age could rekindle development goals and promises in a new generation, but a better combination of Yameen could emerge if he did not re-engineer his forms and methods.
Such a course, now or later, could or could not be in the Waheed footstep. At least Yameen seems to be apprehending such a course for himself, after playing matron for the birth of the Waheed presidency in his own way. But it could still be in the more popular precedents set by Nasheed when he climbed to power. In a way, Gayoom too had reached there the same way in his time but under radically different circumstances.
Under the circumstances, it’s inevitable that Yameen would not trust anyone likely to replace him through a ‘constitutional coup’, as Nasheed had described the Waheed succession. Independent of criminal conspiracy cases and a bomb-blast on the presidential boat, Yameen got two of his own vice-presidents impeached by Parliament, the first one with the blessings of sworn-rival MDP and President Nasheed.
It had begun almost from the day Yameen became President. He could not thank the billionaire-business man and Jumhooree Party (JP) founder, Gasim Ibrahim, for backing him in the second, run-off round polling for the presidency in 2013 against Nasheed – and transferring almost entirely the former’s 25 per cent vote-share. But he would not let Gasim, with his own political ambitions, poll-plank and ‘transferrable’ vote-base, to become the Speaker of Parliament.
Under the 2008 Constitution, should the posts of President and Vice-President fall vacant, the Speaker would be the next in line to fill in the vacant. Unlike the Vice-President, who would get the reminder of the outgoing President’s five-year term, the Speaker could be in the President’s shoes only for 60 days, when his sole job was to fill in the vacuum for 60 days, for fresh polls to be held and a successor to assume office.
Yameen would not trust Gasim even with that remotest possibility, as things stood when he assumed office. Naturally so, Gasim would be his first target to be squared-up over huge credits that the former’s Villa Group owed State entities, before he would turn greater attention on the likes of Nasheed and Gayoom. It’s possibly in this process that he could not but target his own vice-presidential choices, two in a row.
In a way, Yameen’s threat to Gayoom – or, was it meant to be seen the other way round – also owed from the possibilities of the latter’s family turning against him ahead of Elections-2018. The ‘Maumoon rebellion’, if the Gayooms’ threat to Yameen could be termed so, owed mostly to purported understanding over the former President backing his half-brother whole-heartedly in 2013, with the promise/expectation that he would not run a second term, and would back a Gayoom son, instead, for the nation’s top-most position.
It was possibly the case with the Nasheed camp, but independent of any Yameen threat or initiative. Not long after the 2013 presidential polls, the Nasheed camp within the MDP had begun talking in low voices about his concern and consequent plans for the future. Accordingly, in any future election, Nasheed would campaign to amend the Constitution, to have a Westminster-type democracy, with Parliament and the Prime Minister at the Centre, and away from the existing presidential form on American lines.
The implication was that Nasheed would become the Head of State without Executive powers and would promote younger elements to prime ministerial and ministerial positions, for them to mature in office so as to shoulder greater national and political responsibilities in future. Noble thoughts, yes, but Nasheed’s approach did not measure up to the promises, as was expected of him.
It was thus that December 2014 witnessed Nasheed and the MDP making a sudden push for Yameen to hand over power to Gasim, who was neither the Vice-President, nor the Speaker, not even an ally of them. Instead, Gasim, despite licking his wounds from the Speaker’s polls that he had lost, was an ally of Yameen and the undivided ruling PPM.
Gayoom himself repeated the same folly when he called on Gasim (obviously with appointment) and appeared together before the local media after parting company with Yameen during the year. That was enough to embarrass and harass Gasim, who once again did a U-turn towards the Yameen side, just as he had done vis a vis the MDP following the State’s demand for $90 million in unpaid dues -- a lot of money, especially in Maldivian economic context.
Maldives-2016 once again reiterated even in its very own context the limitation of international diplomacy and big-power politics to control and conduct events and developments in smaller/tiny nations than had been possible in an earlier era. The Commonwealth, for instance, and the US albeit indirectly in context, could not do much through threats of sanctions and all, to make the Yameen leadership fall in line.
It would have been the same case had there been anyone else in his place in similar circumstances. It was thus left to neighbours like India and Sri Lanka – the latter at a more personal level – to negotiate Nasheed’s ‘prison leave’ for spinal treatment in the UK. The latter did not acquit himself well in the early weeks of his stay overseas, by making political statements and meeting with the political class.
In a way, Nasheed’s going against the court-granted ‘medical leave’ and also the later-day political asylum that he obtained from the British hosts would have suited Yameen well. By jumping the court orders to return after medical treatment, he has brought upon himself another criminal case, whose political consequences could be worse than the legal one. Whether they succeed in their mission, his detractors could well tell the Maldivian voters that such a man who defied court orders and the Constitution should not be trusted with the nation’s presidency.
On the one hand, Yameen also has had his biggest electoral challenger of 2018 out of the way, what with Nasheed having defied Maldivian court orders in over-staying his ‘medical leave’ and refusing to return, and serve much of the 13-year prison term in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’. On the other, Nasheed’s anticipated refusal clearly put India and Sri Lanka on the defensive vis a vis the Yameen leadership.
The Commonwealth too got it wrong. If they thought that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s (CMAG) ‘threats’ to penalise Maldives for non-compliance of commitments made on the democracy front, with particular reference to ‘political prisoners’ and ‘judicial processes’ (read: viz Nasheed in particular), for the medium term, Yameen has thumbed his nose at them by quitting the organisation outright.
Now, Commonwealth has nothing on the CMAG Agenda for their meeting in the early weeks of the New Year, when they were either to verify compliance, or initiate penal measures, whatever it could have been. Instead, there is a stronger message that ‘lesser mortals’ in the global polity have a better way of expressing themselves and strongly than had been credited with in the past.
Yet, the question remains what the future holds for Yameen and Maldives, not necessarily in that order. Post-Brexit, the UK and post-polls, the upcoming Donald Trump presidency in the US would take time to settle down to usual business, especially on foreign policy front involving tiny nations caught in their domestic politics than with the ‘China’ bogey. They may not have as much time for Maldives as the Nasheed camp, among others, might have hoped for. At least, it may not happen in the immediate.
Yet, Maldivian people remain the final arbiter of politics and presidency in the country. There is nothing to indicate that Yameen would consider putting off the presidential polls of 2018 one way or the other – and the ‘constitutional’ way. The greater chances are that he would see greater legitimisation of his regime for a longer period than the other way round – but then the political processes available to Gayoom in the form of a ‘Parliament-nominated, one-candidate’ polls are all in the past.
It’s still advantage Yameen, as no viable opponent capable of winning over the masses against an incumbent President with additional salvos for the political opponent is yet visible. Nasheed is out of the country, and thus out of the reckoning. His inherent suspicions about his own ‘trusted’ second-line got a boost with the ‘Waheed episode’ even as he refuses to reconcile his own contributions to creating enemies of friends and allies.
Gayoom and Gasim cannot contest owing to an MDP-backed constitutional amendment, barring persons above 65 years from contesting the presidency and vice-presidency. Minus Gayoom, there is no other person in his camp just now who can throw up a bigger challenge to Yameen to make the average Maldivian trust the opposition to an incumbent more than in 2008, to campaign openly and vote overly against him.
Neither can the Yameen leadership forget the way Gayoom lost the 2008 polls to a combination of factors – and a combination of Opposition candidates, who were ‘divided when it suited’ Gayoom, and ‘united when it suited’ them. The two-stage presidential polls, with a minimum 50-per cent vote-share for the victor, has been tested in the country both in 2008 and 2013, when the seeming victor from the first round was not the winner in the second.
Gayoom and Nasheed, instead, lost at the end of the second, run-off round, with no candidate having crossed the 50-per cent mark in the first. By hoping to impress the new-generation voter through development of the China-funded kind, and distancing himself from the ‘democratic processes’ of the 2008 variety, Yameen may have re-positioned himself, the voters and Maldives as a whole, between now and Elections 2018. The results would show which way would the nation sail from there, choosing one over the other or an admixture of both, which is what it should be.
(N Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter, of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org )