Maldives: Opposition Gets Its Domestic Act Together, Overseas Now – Analysis


By N. Sathiya Moorthy*

In the first major effort of its kind after a series of street-protests in Male in the first half of 2015, the political opposition against Maldives President Abdulla Yameen has formed a joint grouping at a London meet. In a tactical move, possibly aimed at seeking international recognition of whatever kind possible, they have also formed a ‘shadow cabinet’ headed by Yameen’s impeached Vice-President, Ahmed Jameel Mohammed, in self-exile since early last year.

It is the brain-child of ‘jailed’ former President Mohammed Nasheed, who was in the UK on ‘medical leave’ and whom the host-government has since granted ‘political asylum’. Even while contesting for the presidency in 2013 after laying down office in early 2012, Nasheed was known to have evinced an interest in becoming the ‘mentor’ of a future leadership.

Given his previous experience, it was unclear if Nasheed would take the brave new step of projecting someone else in his place – especially someone from outside his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), as is the case now with Jameel. However, in a February meeting in Male, the party passed a unanimous resolution, to work with other parties, groups and individuals opposed to the Yameen leadership. Subsequently in London, Nasheed indicated the MDP’s willingness to work with – and under – Jameel.

It may be too early to predict the success or hit-rate of the new combine, or their ability to stay together and project a common and acceptable candidate for the presidency, as and when elections are called – whether before or when due, in November 2018. Considering that Nasheed’s early return to Maldives could also involve the question of his pending prison term, Supreme Court appeal, et al, issues on the ground could be more complicated than could be made out to be.

The ‘Maldives United Opposition’, as the formation has named itself, has Nasheed, jailed AP leader, Sheikh Imran and another jailed leader, ex-Defence Minister, Col Mohamad Nazim, as its advisors. The ‘shadow cabinet’ under Jameel has MDP chairperson, Ali Waheed, another leader now in self-exile, as deputy, and a host of leaders from across the combined opposition as members of the ‘shadow Cabinet’.

Many members of the ‘shadow cabinet’ seem to be already overseas. If they are in Maldives, many of them have not been in the news since the end of the joint opposition’s street-protests in Male, in the first half of last year. It now remains to be seen how the ‘shadow cabinet’ and Nasheed as MDP president and the chief-architect of the opposition combine, expect to work and revive at the grassroots-level, back home.

It’s especially so, given the perception that their ‘global efforts’ may have hit a road-block just now, requiring the UK to grant ‘political asylum’ to Nasheed, at least in the interim. A lot on the ground will depend on how the United Opposition is able to inspire confidence in themselves and momentum to their overseas movement, locally – sustain it and take it forward, in the weeks and months to come. Identifying willing front-liners willing to risk their personal freedom and physical comforts may by itself could be a challenging task in the prevailing mood and methods of the Yameen leadership, in particular.

The MDP would still be the centre-piece of the ‘joint Opposition’ providing the institutional and organisational support, which only the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) in the grouping may otherwise have – but as a very distant second. Jameel, who was Yameen’s choice for the vice-presidency, has lost whatever remained for political organisation in native South after the ‘third front’ of which he was a part in the first multi-party presidential polls of 2008, got disintegrated.

The Yameen leadership has already pooh-poohed the London formation, with Foreign Minister Duniya Maumoon referring to the official British silence still on the Nasheed asylum. A section of the Maldivian media too has pointed to the incongruity of Nasheed’s stated positions on democracy, corruption and religious fundamentalism, and his choice for new allies. A lot would depend on the Maldivian voter’s acceptance of this incongruity, as visible in the 2008 polls, and denial, which again remains to be seen.

Apart from the AP, the list includes jailed and impeached ex-VP Ahmed Adheeb, facing massive corruption charges on the corruption front back home, not to mention the ‘boat-bomb blast’ in which Yameen escaped. For now, the government has spared Jameel of criminal charges of any kind – but it remains to be seen how things turn out for him — and hence for the combine — that he has been chosen to lead, in the days, weeks and months to come.

Apart from two vice-presidents in as many years, Maldives under Yameen also has had three defence ministers during the same period. Col Mohamad Nazim, whom the MDP had publicly accused of heading a ‘coup’ against President Nasheed in February 2012, was Yameen’s first defence minister. Like Adheeb later, Nazim was arrested for plotting to eliminate Yameen – and is a partner in the joint opposition.

Present-day defence minister, Adam Shareef, succeeded Nazim’s replacement in another ex-military official in Moosa Jaleel, Maldives envoy to Pakistan at the time of his appointment. The latter quit, owning up responsibility for the ‘boat blast’ that Yameen survived – and has not been in the news afterwards.

Though months have passed since the arrest and impeachment of VP Adheeb, President Yameen has not made any move to fill what essentially is a constitutional vacancy. Under the scheme, the VP fills any residual term to the presidency at any time, followed by Parliament Speaker, who can hold the presidential office only for 60 days, and (only) to preside over fresh elections to the highest elected office in the land.

Incidentally, the MDP and the rest of the opposition has not questioned Yameen, either from a political platform or in the Supreme Court, over the undue delay in filling up what seems to be a mandatory constitutional vacancy. Given his continuing majority in the People’s Majlis, it should not be a problem for Yameen. However, he seems to have developed an ‘institutional suspicion’ about the office of the vice-president, which possibly Nasheed too ha had almost from the start but seems to be ready to shed just now.

On paper, the new combine sounds just fine, and capable of upsetting and offsetting Yameen in a future presidential poll – as and when held. If Jameel is their common candidate, as is being possibly projected as of now, then it would be incumbent upon the MDP as the single largest and the most popular party in the country, to be able to transfer its vote-share to him – or, any other candidate of its choice.

If it still has to be Nasheed, who is the single-most charismatic and vote-catcher in the country and the party, then the legal and judicial hurdles would have to be cleared beforehand. How and how much can sections of the international community backing Nasheed, MDP and now the joint opposition, is willing to stake and is able to deliver would then become a deciding and possibly the decisive factor.

Yet, coalition politics of the Maldivian kind has not contributed much to the success of ‘western democracy’ in the country, since inception in 2008. It owes to pre-democracy, pre-election consolidation of personalised vote-shares than based on ideology, as the West in particular would still want to believe now. Loosely put, the two past presidential polls of 2008 and 2013, witnessed a consolidated division of the traditional vote-share for rival candidates belonging to ‘Male royalty’ and a parallel consolidation of ‘outsider’ votes for and of the non-elite.

It is the latter, identified with Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim, which continues to grow but only after that of Nasheed and the MDP, which made the difference to the poll results in 2008 and 2013. A new law has since barred Gasim, for instance, to contest the presidency after reaching 65 years – again a measure that the MDP supported in Parliament.

Gasim’s 25 per cent vote-share from the first round in 2013, up from 16 per cent in 2008, will be closely watched for new trends. To this, Yameen is now seeking to add a ‘development vote-share’, helped by large-scale Chinese/Saudi funding ahead of the next presidential polls. The next presidential polls, whenever held, would thus be more complicated than what the joint opposition is seeking to make out – whatever be the final outcome.

As leader of the Maldives United Opposition, Jameel told The Hindu that they had “no doubt they will support our purpose to restore democracy” in Maldives. Though not known to be a willing friend of India in the past, Jameel said that as Vice-President in the Yameen regime, he had “noted with concern’ how Maldives’ contradicted our long-standing ties with India.

In particular, Jameel referred to China in this context and said, “I was worried at the way he purposefully tried to alienate India by giving a more undemocratic nation limitless access,” The Hindu quoted him as saying. It’s not however clear if Jameel was placing greater focus on India, China or democracy, per se, and, if so, why, how and in which way he expected the MDP’s continuing strategy of the past two years to work better for him than for Nasheed, before him.

*N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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