The main contestants could be the ruling party’s warring leaders, Nasheed and Solih, as the opposition stalwart, Yameen, is in jail sentenced to an 11-year term for corruption.
Colombo, December 31: The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which rules the Maldives, is likely to split before the September 2023 Presidential election. And with the opposition stalwart, Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), in jail for high corruption, the contest is likely to be between sitting President Ibrahim Solih and the parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed, both of the MDP.
Solih and Nasheed have reached a point of no return in their quarrel. That does not allow the MDP to present a united front at the polls. The rift over ideology and governance issues runs deep.
The long-simmering rivalry between Nasheed and Solih reached a high point at the end of December when both announced their intention to contest the MDP’s primary on January 28 to choose a candidate for the Presidential election later in the year.
Both Nasheed and Solih are against the PPM’s dictatorial outlook. They also prefer India over China in regional geopolitics, unlike Yameen and the PPM. But they are sharply divided on domestic issues.
Having been in power since late 2018, Solih can justifiably claim to have restored democracy and steered the country away from the influence of authoritarian China. Indian financial aid and projects brought by him have matched China’s largesse extended during Yameen’s rule. To mention only one, there is the US$ 500 million Great Male Connectivity Project, a 6.74 km-long bridge and causeway connecting Male with several islands like Villingli, Gulhifalu and Thilafushi. India has also given a coastal radar system that will enable India and the Maldives to watch several hundred islands and archipelagos in the Indian Ocean.
While having no quarrel with such foreign policy achievements of the Solih government, Nasheed has been pointing out key deficiencies at the domestic level, principally in the matter of the adherence to MDP’s ideology and carrying out promised constitutional reforms.
Nasheed has pointed out that Solih has been soft on Islamic extremists partly because he is in alliance with the Islamist Adaalath Party and partly because Islamism has a base in Maldivian thinking. But the MDP is wedded to establishing a secular Maldives based on moderate Islam. Nasheed fears the further inroad of Wahhabi Islam because many young Maldivians had joined the Islamic State (IS) and committed terrorist acts in Maldives itself.
The Solih government had established a Presidential Commission on Deaths and Disappearances to investigate suspicious deaths and disappearances, including the murder of Yameen Rasheed, the liberal blogger in April 2017, by Islamic radicals. The Commission assured the public that all 27 cases falling under its mandate would complete investigations within two years. But there has been no conviction yet.
On May 6, 2021, Nasheed himself had survived an assassination attempt by the Islamic extremists. There was criticism by his followers that the police did not pursue the case vigorously because the police force was infiltrated by radicals.
Changeover to Parliamentary Democracy
Further, Solih and Nasheed had agreed before the 2018 Presidential election that within 18 months of coming to power, Solih would hold a referendum on changing the country’s Presidential system to the parliamentary system. But Solih has failed to hold the referendum, ensconced as he is in the powerful Presidency. This has irked Nasheed, who believes that the Presidential system will lead to concentration power, dictatorship and unbridled corruption, while the parliamentary system will be more democratic. He also believes that inter-party coalitions, which are natural in Maldivian politics, will work better in a parliamentary system.
And, as an MDP original member and International Spokesman, Hamid Ghafoor, points out, the MDP’s organizational structure is geared to operating in a parliamentary system.
For Nasheed, fighting against religious extremism and seeking reform of the constitution form the ideological core of the MDP. His campaign is therefore named “restoration of MDP’s ideology” or Fikurehge Dhirun in Dhivehi.
Soft On the Corrupt
Nasheed also accuses of the Solih regime of corruption and changing or using rules to suit its interest. According to Ghafoor, the government initially made a rule that any minister against whom a case was lodged in court would be removed until the court ruled in the minister’s favor. Later, this rule was altered to say that removal would only follow conviction. “This way corrupt minister will stay on till the case is decided,” Ghafoor commented.
Accusing Solih of being lenient toward corrupt high-ups, Nasheed recalled that multiple charges had been proven against former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb and the then Managing Director of a State Enterprise, Abdulla Ziyath, but both executed plea agreements with the State to receive minimum sentences. In 2019, Adeeb and Ziyath were also transferred to home confinement.
Manipulation of Party Membership
As the Supreme Leader of the MDP, Solih had removed almost 40,000 of the 93,000 party members of the party’s voter list because their fingerprints were not there in the party records. He had done this under a rule introduced by the Election Commission under former President Yameen. According to Ghafoor the list of the “removed” had a good number of followers of Nasheed and opponents of Solih. “Even I have been removed though I am a founding member of the MDP,” Ghafoor said.
In a letter to the MDP’s Chairperson Fayyaz Ismail objecting to the removals, Nasheed said: “I do not believe a primary held under such circumstances would be an independent and a fair election.” A primary held after infringing the rights of 40% of members of the party will adversely impact the Presidential election, which contradicts the interests of the party.”
Nasheed Confident of Winning
Although Nasheed is handicapped by the fact that 40,000 of the 93, 000 members have been disqualified from voting in the January 28 primary, he is confident of winning the primary. He has publically stated that if Solih was nominated as the party candidate, the MPD will not win the Presidential election as he would get only 20% of the popular vote.
But Solih has weapons in his armory too. In 2021 Nasheed’s younger brother, Ahmed Nazim, was arrested for allegedly indulging in homosexual acts with a Bangladeshi. A furious Nasheed charged that the arrest was improper and was done to please the Islamic radicals. Nasheed in turn alleged that Solih had extra marital relations.
However, while Nasheed has been in the public eye raising issues consistently, Solih has not been interacting with the public. “At the press conference in which Solih announced his candidature, journalists asked him why he took so long to hold a press conference.”
India and China both have deep geopolitical interests in the Maldives. Sources say that while India will have no problem because both Solih and Nasheed are pro-India, and Yameen is out of the race, China will be anxious about the developments. The horse that it had been backing to the hilt, Abdulla Yameen, has been locked up for 11 years and his party PPM, is leaderless.