By N Sathiya Moorthy
In a none-too-unexpected move, the three-party ruling coalition, led by President Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), split on the very first day of the very first session of the People’s Majlis, or Parliament, elected in a nation-wide polls only on March 22 this year. This follows Gasim Ibrahim, leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP), the second largest member in the ruling coalition with 15 MPs in a total of 58 in the 85-member House, entering the fray for the Speaker’s position, defying the PPM leader with 38 members.
In the final analysis, Gasim lost to PPM’s Abdulla Maseeh, 43-39. Interestingly, the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) nominee and former party chairperson, ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, won the subsequent election to the Deputy Speaker’s post, 42-41. The Constitution prohibited pro tem Speaker from casting his vote unless there was a tie. However, there were two invalid votes in the Speaker’s election, as the members had used pens ‘not approved’ for the purpose, and one for the Deputy Speaker’s polls.
At the end of Majlis’ elections in March, the ruling coalition had won 53 seats – 33 PPM, 15 JP and five for the newly-formed Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA). The Opposition MDP bagged 26 seats. Independents won five seats, and the religion-centric Adhalaath Party (AP) got a single seat. The AP had broken the alliance with the JP and thus the PPM combine from the November presidential polls, after seat-sharing talks with the former went awry. It’s unclear whom the AP member had voted for in the two elections, or had ‘invalidated’ her vote. The alternative would be to assume that the ‘invalid’ vote came from a member of the ruling combine.
Ahead of the Speaker’s poll, four of the five Independents joined the PPM. Immediately after the parliamentary election, an MDP member had switched sides. Yet, Gasim could garner a high number of 39 votes and MDP’s Moosa Manik could win the Deputy Speaker’s post only through a possible tie-up between the MDP (25) and the JP (15). Clearly, the MDP under former President Mohammed Nasheed, was not the one to lose an opportunity to weaken the ruling coalition when one presented itself.
While one of the two ‘invalid’ votes for the Speaker’s election could explain why Gasim got one less than the total 40, there is no explanation still on how Moosa Manik, a popular parliamentarian himself, could add two more votes to his tally than the total. The fact that the PPM nominee lost two from the combined coalition tally of 43 would prima facie indicate cross-voting from the Government side.
Calculative or fidgety?
The nation’s best-known rags-to-riches man, Gasim Ibrahim, has displayed both qualities in no small measure. He has excelled in business and investments for long. In politics, he has moved from strength to strength through the past five-plus years of democratisation.
As critics, particularly political adversaries are not tired of arguing, Gasim is not a man to shy away from deploying his money power and political muscle to create electoral constituencies to call his own. Supporters say that a true philanthropist who has not forgotten his needy past, Gasim’s ready outpouring of sympathy and financial help for the needy has helped create the constituency. His sympathy and support are not confined to the election-time, unlike that of others, and is for the asking, all the time, they add.
It was thus that all political parties agreed to have him as the Speaker of the Special Majlis that drafted and passed the current, democracy pro-democracy Constitution. Deploying maturity, sagacity and his businessman’s persuasive skills, he saw the process through. At the same time, he has not hidden his political ambitions and goal – the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Maldives (even if it for a day!)
Gasim contested the 2008 presidential elections, and came fourth but with a substantial 15-percent vote-share. In the more recent 2013 presidential polls, he polled close to a fourth of the nation’s votes. The ‘full transferability’ of his first-round votes, at his behest, contributed in no way to deciding the victor in the second, run-off round – MDP’s Nasheed in 2008 and PPM’s Yameen in 2013.
In between, his grit and determination also worked overtime, to see through former President Nasheed’s early exit, and the induction of Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, to complete the residual two-plus years’ term in February 2012. More recently, he put them to work again, challenging the original first-round polling for the presidency in 2013, and getting a favourable order and re-poll from the nation’s Supreme Court.
For all the controversies attending on the processes he has employed in politics in particular, Gasim has proved to be a team-player in his own way and style. Calculative to the core, with an eye on the future – his own political future at that – he has had no hesitation in backing mutual political rivals in the second round of two successive presidential elections, five years apart. He did not have to employ great political logic to convince his already-convinced constituency, with the result he is both respected and feared as ‘king-maker’ and ‘one-man demolition squad’ at the same time.
Gasim is as suspicious of his allies as they are of him – but is also as fidgety as none else. After losing the Speaker’s election, he said that he had not been told about the JP had not been informed of the dissolution of the ruling combine. Clearly, the PPM and the MDA, the other two partners, would want the coalition to stay, but without the JP.
Critics say that Gasim is fidgety or untrustworthy, all the same. There are however those who say that like a good and possibly the nation’s most successful businessman, he is not the one to miss an opportunity when one presented itself – in politics, too. Critics concede supporters’ argument that ‘Gasim does what is good for him and good for the nation’ – but add with a sly: “The dividing line between the two is thin, if not non-existent, in his case.”
It’s a combination of such characteristics and consequent approach that has made successive political partners feel as unnerved by him, as he too seems to be unnerved by them. After he lost the Speaker’s election on Wednesday, an MDP member of the Majlis said that Gasim had left the Nasheed Government on his own, but the Yameen dispensation had ‘oppressed’ the JP founder.
The truth in both cases lies somewhere in between, but it is the fear of Gasim being able to turn the table against the incumbent, and on his terms and time of his choosing, seems to have worked against him. The apprehension just now, as in the past, may be that if elected Speaker, Gasim had the inherent capabilities and knack not only to knock out the Government’s legislative moves in Parliament.
In theory, had he been elected Gasim could also use the opportunities attaching to the parliamentary high office to have the Government continuously dis-credited, and work his way up within the existing circumstances but within the four walls of the Constitutions. Or, so has remained apprehensions by political allies and detractors, alike. It’s also in this line his camp seems to be looking at the MDP support for Gasim in the Speaker’s election, in return for his JP’s backing for the party’s Deputy Speaker candidate.
Post-poll, Gasim declared getting 39 votes was a victory for him. Apart from the additional numbers that he could attract from the MDP Opposition, he also seems to be hinting at the consequent weakening of the Yameen Government in the Majlis, and the simultaneous strengthening of the Opposition Bench. In a House of 85 members, including the Speaker, the Treasury Bench now has only a total of 43 members.
In a way, it’s a mid-way split, as the Speaker is not entitled to vote unless there is a split verdict on Bills and resolutions. No Government can survive thus for too long, walking on such a razor’s edge, eternally. The temptation for ‘poaching’ from each other side can only be natural. It can become vigorous in the days and weeks to come, without anyone having to wait for months, which is what was to have been expected in the natural course of coalition politics of the kind.
Ahead of the Speaker’s poll, the PPM general council decided to expel JP from the ruling combine if Gasim stuck to his pre-announced decision to contest. He having contested, and lost, President Yameen’s office announced that the three Ministers for Transport – Cabinet, State and Deputy – have all been advised to ‘stay at home’. Other JP-nominated ministers have not been disturbed, maybe owing to governmental expectations that their loyalty does not lie with Gasim.
That is little consolation for the Government, in real terms. Following the US model of Executive Presidency, Ministers in Maldives do not come from Parliament. Retaining or sacking one or more does not impact on the parliamentary strength of a government, one way or the other. However, alongside picturing instability in the Majlis, sacking/replacing one too many ministers when the new government was just settling down to work, after three rounds of elections in five months, could also render administrative work ineffectual, at least for some more time.
Party with a difference
It’s not only the political careers of President Yameen’s government and that of JP’s Gasim Ibrahim are at the cross-roads just now. Having painted Gasim as a great opportunist, an ally who cannot be trusted, and a money-bag who had contributed in no small measure to compromising the hard-won democracy and processes, the MDP will now have to explain the logic behind backing him in a Speaker’s election that he was anyway destined to lose – and possibly working with him in the future.
The hard-core MDP cadres, who number the single largest registered membership for any political party in the country, may be able to appreciate the tactical gain that the leadership has made since the conclusion of the triple polls to the presidency, local councils and the Majlis in quick succession. Beyond the core, there are any number of ‘non-party supporters’, who continue to see the MDP as Maldives ‘party with a difference’, and President Nasheed as the mascot and defender of value-based politics and practices.
Any possible re-thinking on the MDP’s part could thus mean that Parliament could be divided three-way, with the MDP staying neutral politically, initiating legislative measures or voting on others, on a case-by-case basis. The JP would then be left with little choice but to adapt a similar strategy, so would the ruling coalition be happy to do so for its part. Yet, manoeuvring the Government’s initiatives, if not a majority all the time, would not be easy or possible all the time. It could mean another round of political instability, from early or, horse-trading, or both – and more.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)