By N. Sathiya Moorthy*
Reports that at least seven or eight of the 53-member ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) combine in the 85-seat Parliament defied President Abdulla Yameen leadership’s whip to vote in favour of some controversial legislative measures in recent days should make Maldivian-watchers sit up. After two instances of alliance-partner Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (JP) going off track after the parliamentary polls of 2014, but with little consequence, the present rebellion identified with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother and PPM’s founder and chairman, could cut either way.
The MPs who defied the party-whip did so “in line with the PPM’s principles and objectives”, Gayoom said in a statement. “My hope is that other PPM MPs will follow the example of these MPs and work genuinely with courage for the sake of the nation and the public,” he added. Consequences-ridden parliamentary opposition to the Yameen presidency has thus far been confined to the ‘Minority’ group. Both Gayoom and Yameen are great, and now competing political strategists par excellence. This apart, will the internal rebellion tempt Yameen now to target the monolith 21-member Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) group that has stood by former President, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed all along, after losing a couple in the days/weeks immediately after the 2014 parliamentary polls.
Defying party whip or even defeating a government bill or two has lost all meaning in contemporary Maldivian context. The one exception could be the possible voting out of the annual budget, to be presented in November. It requires only a simple majority (43) compared to a more dramatic ‘impeachment motion’, requiring two-thirds majority, or 57 votes. Put together, the divided opposition, including the Gayoom faction, has only 28 MPs, enough to move an impeachment motion, but not even the simple majority required for defeating government bills, motions or the budget.
Yet, even for the next step in this direction, MPs on either side of the political divide and multiple fractures need a lot of reassurance. It’s easier said than done, considering that in the ‘democratised’ Maldives, promises have been kept mostly as promises – be it to fellow-politicians, including MPs, or to the voters. This could raise the stakes as and when the nation heads for fresh presidential polls, whether or not Yameen continues to be in office at the time. Theoretically, Yameen has the incumbent advantage viz Parliament members and the larger political class, but may suffer from anti-incumbency when it comes to the nation’s voter.
Any or all of these anti-Yameen initiatives would imply floor coordination between the Gayoom and Nasheed camps, apart from their ability to retain their respective strengths. Gayoom may seek to improve upon it, too, and naturally so. Granting that they are able to agree upon a coordinated floor strategy, how would they want to go about it? What would be the implications for it among their cadres and traditional supporters? Having fed them on an anti-Gayoom menu all the past years, would Nasheed be able to now convince them that Yameen was/is a stand-alone product of the times, and not a by-product of ‘Gayoom dictatorship’?
There are more practical issues that Nasheed and company would have to weigh in having to re-evaluate Gayoom. Apart from resignation and impeachment, the Constitution also provides for a President’s exit, if charged with a criminal offence. Whether impeachment, or criminal charge, the Supreme Court has a crucial role to play. If one were to go by MDP’s unsubstantiated yet reiterated claims from the past, near and afar, Gayoom may have a better say in and understanding of the matter, possibly after Yameen – the latter more so as the incumbent.
The constitution provides for the Vice-President to serve out of residual part of an incumbent’s five-year term if a President is impeached. Should Yameen exit office, whatever the form, his current choice and third VP, Abdulla Jihad, could take over, unless he exits voluntarily or is similarly ousted. Then alone an early presidential poll becomes possible. The alternative would be for the opposition, divided or otherwise, would have to wait out Yameen’s five-year term. If they are able to build on the current mood, without any Yameen wanton encroachment into their parliamentary strength(s), the opposition could hope at least to check term-extension for him without fresh polls.
Other things being equal, or unequal, the options before the divided opposition too are limited – or, unlimited — as the case may be. Given the history of multi-party presidential elections since 2008, Yameen’s adversaries may stick together until creating a situation for his constitutional exit, and test their mutual strengths in the first round of a presidential poll, before further realignment. There could still be the distant possibility of Yameen taking them all by surprise and ordering early polls, with his resignation and that of VP Jihad. Speaker Maseeh, a loyalist thus far, would then hold the presidential office for 60 days, to facilitate the conduct of fresh polls.
In either case, there will be stout demands for free and fair elections that are also inclusive (from the view of Nasheed and his international backers). That would require further domestic changes, especially on the legal and judicial fronts, as Nasheed is at present a prisoner under Maldivian law and political refugee in the UK at the same time. Three of his colleagues in the larger Maldives United Opposition (MUO), including two possible alternate or mainline candidates, who went on self-exile, have also obtained political asylum in the UK. Of the two, Ali Waheed is the loyalist chairman of the MDP while the first of Yameen’s two impeached Vice-Presidents, Ahmed Jameel Mohammad, is Nasheed’s choice to head the MUO.
In the other camp, a Yameen-initiated age-law, backed by the MDP, bars Gayoom from contesting the presidency. Elder son, Faris Maumoon, sacked from PPM parliamentary party by the Yameen camp recently, is the heir apparent, but Gayoom’s sulking brother-in-law, Ilyas Ibrahim, may want to try his luck again, his personality predictions about Yameen having purportedly proving correct since. A surprise choice from the Gayoom camp could be daughter Dunya Maumoon, who recently quit the Yameen Government as Foreign Minister. She has global exposure and contacts, and as the first woman candidate for the presidency could help offset the Nasheed charisma and democracy-campaign.
The age-law also bars JP’s Gasim Ibrahim from contesting the presidency. In between, he also hobnobbed with the Nasheed camp in anti-Yameen street-protests, but a series of Government notices on his Villa Group of companies, have since straightened him. Gasim’s transferrable first-round votes helped Nasheed (15 per cent) and Yameen (24 per cent) win the presidency, in 2008 and 2013, respectively. The imponderable(s) would thus include any change of ‘leadership’ ahead of presidential polls, or of attitude on the incumbent’s part. The latter could mean that Gayoom and Gasim could contest the presidential polls, when held. The former relates to the trajectory of the decisive Gasim votes from 2013. Linked to this in particular would be the Maldivian voter desire to give common man Gasim, too, a chance; after all they having tried out Gayoom, Nasheed, Waheed and Yameen in the past eight years or even less!
*N.Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]