Maldives: The Stranglehold Of Coalition Politics Continues – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By N Sathiya Moorthy
At the end of weeks of competitive, though not confrontational, politics on the streets and precedent-setting constitutional calculus in court rooms, Parliament and elsewhere, the ‘numbers’ have prevailed. Reflecting the dynamics of coalition politics in the Maldivian context, visible since the first multi-party presidential polls of 2008, Abdulla Yameen, officially the candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) but supported by a near-equal number of voters from outside, won the nation’s presidency by a wafer-thin majority against former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, leader of the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in a closely-fought second-round run-off polls on Saturday, 16 November 2013.
“We will work to make Maldives a peaceful nation, a nation that achieves progress. Will work for an all-inclusive economy,” Yameen said in his maiden national address immediately after being sworn in President by Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain, along with his Vice-President, Dr Mohammed Jameel Ahmed. “We will appoint capable people to the government, establish a small government, a government that achieves its goals,” the local media quoted President Yameen, who also said that the welfare of women and youth would be given special focus, with economic recovery and lessening government spending as the immediate goals. “We will work to promote nationalism,” President Yameen said.
The final results showed Yameen polling 111, 203 votes, or 51.39 percent vote-share, against the required minimum of 50-percent-plus-one vote. Nasheed got 105,181 votes, or 48.61 percent vote-share. In a total turn-out of 218,621 votes from an electorate of 239,165, or the highest-ever 91.41 percent under the multi-party electoral scheme, Yameen’s victory margin added up to 6,022 votes. In percentile terms, it was a 2.78 percent difference between the winner and loser – or, a mere 1.39 percent over the mandated minimum vote-share.
Clearly the support of Jumbhooree Party’s Gasim Ibrahim and his coalition partners for Yameen made the difference. Coming third with 48,023 votes (23.07 percent) in the first-round of the court-ordered re-poll on 9 November, a reluctant Gasim changed his ‘neutral’ stand to back the PPM nominee after his coalition partners from the first-round, particularly the religion-centred Adhaalath Party (AP). The arithmetic proved right, with only minor variations and without affecting the final tally.
Thus, Yameen, who had polled 25.35 percent vote-share in the annulled poll and improved it to a substantially high 29.82 percent in the first-round re-poll after incumbent President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (5.13 percent) ‘retired’ from contest, benefitted from Gasim’s ‘transferrable vote-share’, possibly the only one of its kind in the Indian Ocean archipelago at the moment. The arithmetic is boxed in such a way that from Gasim’s first-round re-poll figure of 23.30 percent vote-share, a high 21. 57 percent has gone to Yameen in the second-round, and the remaining 1.73 percent to Nasheed, making up the final tally.
Leave aside the contribution of the Adhaalath Party (AP) and other alliance partners of the PPM in the second-round, the results clearly show that it is Gasim who matters to the voters of the Jumhooree Party. His one-time aides, including former president of the JP and MDP, Dr Ibrahim Didi, did not fit into the JP voters’ calculus. Didi and a few others had joined the MDP on the very eve of the second-round vote, but could not contribute much to Nasheed’s final vote-share. Or, so it would seem.
A succession of polls, instead of causing ‘voter-fatigue’, and ‘politics-fatigue’, as may have been anticipated, brought the best out of average Maldivians. From the then highest voter turn-out of 88.48 percent in the annulled polls to a marginally low 87.16 percent, the figure moved up by 4.25 percentage points – high under the circumstances — to 91.41 percent in the final round. The irony is striking as MDP’s Nasheed, who could have won the presidency with an additional 6,000 votes (approximately) in the first round of the re-poll, got an 8,500-plus votes more in the final round, yet lost.
It only goes to explain the continuing stranglehold of ‘coalition politics’ in the contemporary Maldivian context. It became visible when Nasheed defeated incumbent Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the second round of the 2008 polls, after securing only 25 percent vote-share in the first round. It will be even more visible in the upcoming local council polls in December, followed by the more-important parliamentary polls in May next.
Yet, the question will remain if the presidential candidates and/or their parties could ‘transfer’ their votes to the candidates chosen/backed by them in the two rounds of upcoming polls – or, would they be able to ‘identify’ candidates who could make up for possible losses, island or constituency-wise, as the case may be. Given that the MDP coalition has an absolute majority in the People’s Majlis’ just now, and has behaved in some questionable ways on some questionable issues – and others, too – the parliamentary proceedings from now on, and hence the polls next year, assume greater significance.
There may be a message or two for those outsiders harbouring anxieties about the return of Gayoom’s ‘autocratic rule’, though by proxy. To Gayoom should go the credit of democratisation of the Maldivian polity, that too when the otherwise divided opposition to his leadership was united only at the fringes. With the addition of close to 30,000 new voters in five years (209, 294 in 2008 to 239,165 in 2013), most of whom are first-time voters after turning 18 years of age, the dynamics of, and priorities in electoral politics in the country may have already begun shifting away from democracy-related issues, unknown to the outside world and not fully acknowledged by domestic players. This time around, President Gayoom was not the election issue – President Nasheed and his MDP instead were.
Inter-dependable, not inter-changeable
It should be said to the credit of President Nasheed and the MDP that they have almost doubled their vote-share over the past five years, against adverse circumstances in conventional political terms – displaying the fire and fight still retained in them. That they came very close to breaking the stranglehold of ‘coalition politics’ but failed does not mean that the presence of a strong, single party in the country can be wished away.
A lot will however depend on how the MDP relates to the existing and emerging circumstances – and how individuals within the party address their changed circumstances, from being the government-in-waiting to the reality of being in the Opposition for full five years, even if they returned to Parliament after next year’s elections. The question is who blinks first, between the party and the leaders, viz the new government and the new leadership, to create the kind of ‘comfort zone’ from within which all stake-holders can continue to don their new and due role in the nation’s political administration and/or politics.
Today, the MDP is not only the single largest party in the country in terms of registered membership but it is also the single largest party in electoral terms. The proven poll results have thus justified post facto, the international calls for ‘inclusive polls’ when Nasheed was faced with possible disqualification, in the name of the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’, which is still pending. ‘Inclusive’ the poll was also may have made it peaceful, free and fair.
Presidential Polls-2013 has shown that the leadership qualities of the party and its nominee were not a ‘democratic freak’ in 2008. President-elect Yameen was the first one to acknowledge it. Addressing the media with coalition partners, including PPM founder Gayoom, he cited the poll results and said that close to a half of the electorate was not with him, and he needed to carry them all with him.
In political and electoral terms, the MDP and President Nasheed have once again proved that the two are inter-dependable, yet may not be inter-changeable. In the coming days and weeks, as the party and the leader braces up to face the upcoming elections, the MDP may be introspecting on what (all) went wrong with its strategy and tactic, where personality and policy had become one and the same – did deliver a lot in five years and more, yet not just enough on their own.
For one thing, the new-generation voters of 2013 did not seem to have embraced the party and its democracy credentials as much as their earlier generation in 2008. For another, the party constitution does not now provide a designated position for President Nasheed, but it cannot afford to let him go just now. He himself will have to decide on his future course before the party can consider its. How the MDP negotiates this patch will be both interesting and inspiring to watch.
‘No harm to Nasheed, MDP’
In the post-victory news conference, every PPM coalition leader, from Gayoom onwards, stressed that they should put the past behind them and work for national reconciliation. Local media reported Gayoom as saying that the “future PPM government will not continue with a sense of retribution and that the coalition government will not harm Nasheed or the MDP”. It was possibly a reflection on the attitude and approach of the Nasheed presidency after Gayoom had lost power after 30 long years in office – but did not work through and through, contributing to the current unease and unsureness.
Every other speaker on the occasion spoke in reconciliatory tones. Among them, the religion-centric Adhaalath Party leader Imran Abdulla asked the President-elect “to work for unity”. He said that “opposition ideologies should also be granted due respect in the future”. All speakers thanked God for the electoral victory and swore by Islam, indicating where the ideological hitch may lie for being smoothened out.
‘Gracefully’ conceding defeat, President Nasheed indicated after an emergency meeting of the party’s national council that about 5,000 voters had made the difference to the final results. Nasheed extended the ‘grace’ further, to be present at President Yameen’s Inauguration with his wife, clearly reflecting the national mood for rapprochement and reconciliation for the larger good of the nation, its polity, democracy, development and population. Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid, now in the MDP, was present as the prime-mover behind the swearing-in ceremony, so were many party MPs.
Notable among the absentees was outgoing President Waheed, whose much-criticised early and silent exit from the country on the very eve of the second-round polling, citing his wife’s health condition as the reason, too may have caused the contesting parties and their cadres to ‘behave’ once the results were known. With the court-ordered continuance in office behind him after the conclusion of the second-round poll, Waheed’s early exit from the country meant that any re-poll hereafter would have to be conducted by Speaker Shahid, as per the constitutional provision. On the reverse side, the nation would have been forced to live with a ‘constitutional void’ and ‘political uncertainty’, which would not have bee to the liking of the people and polity of the country.
In his midnight news conference after the results were known, Nasheed also said that the MDP “should now focus on becoming an opposition party loyal to the State” – thus, leaving the past behind and focussing on the future. “The MDP will also focus on winning the parliamentary elections,” he said and promised that the “MDP will not incite violence” – a promise that the party has kept since the unsavoury events nation-wide, on 8 February 2012, a day after Nasheed’s untimely exit as President.
Reflecting the national mood, post-poll yet sounding as politically-guarded as President Nasheed, MDP parliamentary leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih too said that the party would “show a fine example of an Opposition party?Unlike in the past, the people will see the difference of an effective Opposition in holding the government accountable”. Ibu Solih also “assured that the MDP will in no way try to stymie the functioning of the government? We will show that a multi-party democracy can be effective in this country?We will observe the pledges made by President Yameen to the people and ? definitely support and cooperate with such efforts.” The MDP was in a minority in the Majlis during the short-lived Nasheed presidency and had problems that the Opposition was not cooperating with the Government in giving effect to the party’s poll pledges.
Given the member-strength and cadre-spirit of the MDP, for any true reconciliation of the kind to occur on the ground will have to be initiated by the new Government and President Yameen. The MDP’s response too should be positive. There are clear first issues that they can and should address if the situation were not to regress to past levels, something that Maldives cannot afford and Maldivians would not relish either. All political parties and leaders will need to remember that the voter is watching, and he has in him the right to punish them here and now, in the two rounds of elections that are now due within the next six months.
The Government has to provide the political space for the MDP to mainstream itself even more. The latter, given its current majority in the Majlis, should provide the required space and cooperation for the Government to operate within the four walls of the Constitution – as generally understood and accepted, and not as interpreted by the party over the past five years in general, and since President Nasheed’s exit from office in February 2012.
It can begin with the new Government reviewing the pending court cases against President Nasheed and some of his party colleagues, both parliamentarians and others. President Yameen having conceded, though in the reverse, that close to half the voters in the country had backed Nasheed, should go by the spirit of his mandate than the letter of the law. The MDP in turn should refrain from hijacking Parliament and parliamentary committees, where all they also have a majority, to sub-serve their political campaigns that may not hold legal and/or constitutional water, otherwise.
The continued Majlis ‘refuge’ of MDP parliamentarian Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, wanted in a criminal offence pertaining to liquor consumption, despite a court order for his appearance, is only a case in point. Under the changed circumstances and the nation’s appetite for peace and harmony, post-poll, the MDP parliamentary party and leadership may also have to review some of the committee proceedings that it had initiated at a different and difficult time for the party, so as to help the nation open a new chapter in political co-existence between the Government and the Opposition on the one hand, and the Executive and the Legislature on the other. Among the more recent of such decisions could the parliamentary resolution authorising the Speaker to appoint a separate security force under his care, in violation of the specific constitutional provision, entrusting the job to the nation’s Defence forces. If a review is needed and for valid reasons, it may have to be taken up separately and all over again.
The incoming Government will have to address issues pertaining to ‘Independent Institutions’ under the Constitution and take the political Opposition along – and in ways that facilitate the deepening and widening of the limitations of the democratic scheme, as they have understood its benefits, the latter as much from experience now as expectations earlier. In the present case, the perceived over-independence of sorts by some of these institutions may have rendered the Maldivian State over-dependent on such other institutions – contributing to constitutional challenges, if not outright calamity.
If there is an area where both President Yameen and the MDP Opposition with its parliamentary majority can start working together, it is on the nation’s frail and fragile economy. A one-time Finance Minister under President Gayoom, President Yameen can be expected to have a hands-on role in the economic management of the country, unlike his immediate predecessors even while retaining Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad of the Adhaalath Party (AP) in the job.
Hearty congratulations: India
As the closest and strongest neighbour with concern for Maldives’ stability all along, India has reiterated at every turn that it would do business with whichever government the Maldivians elected. Extending “hearty congratulations” from the Government and people of India to Yameen on his election, a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi did “welcome the acceptance of the verdict of the people of Maldives by all sides and commitment expressed to take the country forward on the path of stability, progress and development”.
The Indian statement recalled the high turn-out in the run-off polls, and also its peaceful manner of conduct. The US too has since congratulated Yameen on his election. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which had placed Maldives on its ‘agenda’ after President Waheed decided to stay on under Supreme Court advisory pending second-round polls on 16 November, restored by the nation’s highest judiciary against mid-stream advancement to 10 November, has since removed the nation from the said ‘agenda’. Incidentally, PPM founder and former President Gayoom went hammer and tongs against the CMAG once Maldives was put on the ‘agenda’, saying that the country should consider quitting the Commonwealth as it interfered with the nation’s sovereignty.
In his post-victory news conference, Yameen assured the “Maldivian people that a PPM government will foster relations with foreign countries similar to the good relations held during former President Gayoom’s administration”. Though Yameen did not mention India specifically, bilateral relations had blossomed under the Gayoom presidency, the high-point of which was India dispatching armed forces to thwart a coup bid in November 1988. The ‘stability’ of Maldives had influenced the Indian decision then as now.
Along with these are reports in recent years of the emergence of religious fundamentalism in Maldives, which is of concern for India’s own socio-political stability and internal security. Individual Indian’s perceptions of democracy, which India had tweaked over time to suit local conditions and conditionalities is another aspect. Maldives needs time and space to indigenise what essentially is a ‘hybrid, template model’ of democracy. Five years of democratic elections have already begun changing perceptions about their past for Maldivians. It takes time for ‘outsiders’ to understand and begin appreciating the same.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)