Maldives: Inching Again Towards Political Showdown? – Analysis


By N. Sathiya Moorthy*

With the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Jumhooree Party (JP), one-time ally of President Abdulla Yameen’s ruling combine, deciding to work together in ‘defence of the Constitution’, the stage seems set for another political showdown of unprecedented proportions, if the government does not take appropriate correctives at appropriate time(s).

Adding spice, and possible urgency, to the show at present is the revived high court hearing on MDP leader Mohammed Nasheed’s suspended plea, challenging the constitution of a three-judge criminal court to try him on charge of illegally detaining Criminal Court Chief Judge, Abdulla Mohamed, in January 2012, when was president.

It had begun with the Yameen government having parliament amend the Judicature Act to reduce the Supreme Court strength from seven justices to five. It was followed in equal haste by the removal of then Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz and another. Though there was no love lost between the MDP and the two judges, and Nasheed had continually targeted Justice Faiz, the two ‘impeached’ judges had actually given dissenting observations when JP leader-cum-presidential candidate Gasim Ibrahim challenged certain decisions and directions of the Election Commission (EC) as a prospective ally of fellow candidate Yameen during the two-stage presidential polls of 2013.

It’s thus a continuing irony of Maldives’ infant democracy that Gasim should now be turning against Yameen and his government, after the latter denied him parliament speaker’s post, a job he coveted after being the speaker of the Special Majlis which drafted the ‘democratic Constitution’ of 2008. The Yameen camp possibly had other suspicions as the speaker is the second in line of succession for presidency after the vice-presidency, should a contingency arose.

Yameen and his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) alliance did not have to wait too long, as the MDP went ahead and passed a unilateral resolution at its central committee late last year, asking the president to hand over charge to Gasim. How it could have been done without both the president and Vice-President Mohammed Jameel Ahmed quitting on their own (or are ‘impeached’) and Gaism himself had been elevated speaker remains a mystery. Though as speaker under those circumstances, Gasim could be ‘president’ only for 60 days, when fresh presidential polls had to be held.

Obviously, the Yameen camp seems to suspect that Gasim would then be wooed to back Nasheed in a fresh presidential poll. It would make electoral sense as Gasim had polled 24 percent of the popular vote in the first round of presidential elections in 2013, and his ability to transfer almost all of them to Yameen in the second run-off round alone helped the latter win the presidency over Nasheed (contesting without non-MDP political backing) by a narrow margin. Gasim’s support thus for Nasheed, if at all things came to such a pass, could make a huge difference.

Disqualification and more

According to local media reports, the MDP and the JP have “agreed to cooperate in the defence of the Constitution, both inside and outside the Majlis”. News reports have also indicated that the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) was considering the MDP’s call for joining the other two, after the former failed to enthuse President Yameen with a call for him to call an all-party meeting to discuss various issues facing the nation. Though not a formal member of the ruling PPM-led coalition, the AP has a senior leader functioning as the Minister for Islamic Affairs and others occupying different positions in the government.

Between the MDP’s call for Yameen to hand over power to Gasim and the JP’s decision to work with the party – and closer to the latter – the high court has revived hearing on Nasheed’s petition. The then presiding judge suspended the hearing in the case 2013, and thus caused a delay in the pending trial against Nasheed in the ‘Judge Abdulla detention case’. In fixing the hearing for Jan 28, the high court however declined Nasheed’s defence request for further time to study the case. But they have since agreed to have the hearing on Feb 5.

A conviction then or now could disqualify Nasheed from contesting elections for at least three years. Under Article 109 (f) of the Constitution, a person (to be) elected president, should “not have been convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to a term of more than twelve months, unless a period of three years has elapsed since his release, or (presidential) pardon for the offence for which he was sentenced”.

Nasheed has the right to contest any ruling of the high court just now – or even seek a Supreme Court stay of the proceedings – and also contest any trial court conviction, if at all it came to that, right up to the Supreme Court. It could cut both ways for him, if he were to be convicted and sentenced beyond 12 months. He would then stand disqualified, particularly if the higher courts refused to grant a stay of the lower court conviction and sentencing, pending hearing on his possible appeals.

In 2013, international opinion was against Nasheed being tried in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’, leading to possible disqualification. The lame-duck government of then president Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, one-time vice-president under Nasheed, possibly looked the other way when the judiciary took its decision on suspending the hearing on Nasheed’s petition, causing in turn the current delay. Whether the Yameen presidency would be a passive spectator likewise if the situation so demands is debatable, particularly considering that the international community has now not offered any comments on the MDP’s demand for the president to step aside for Gasim to wield power.

‘Head’ you win, ‘tail’ I lose…

Politically, however, it may still be a win-win situation for Nasheed, both before a point and also after a point. Known as a street-fighter from his early entry into pro-democracy politics under former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed is known to have converted a political challenge into a great opportunity. In between, however, he might not be ready to take on the Yameen presidency politically, until court proceedings take a clear turn, either way.

It remains to be seen what shape would the trial take, or what position, the state as the prosecutor would take. As the irony of the ‘Judge Abdulla case’ would now have, present-day Defence Minister, Maj-Gen (retd) Moosa Ali Jaleel, who was the chief of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), the army, is a co-accused along with Nasheed. Having been called back from Pakistan, where he was the envoy, Jaleel replaced retired Col Mohammed Nazim as defence minister last fortnight after a midnight police raid found ‘dangerous weapons’ from the latter’s wife’s residence. Nazim’s passport has since been seized under court orders.

On paper, it’s ‘Heads I win, Tail you lose’ situation in favour of Nasheed and the MDP. Yet, with presidential polls ordinarily due in 2018, there are as many aspirants in the MDP as there are in the various other camps, too. Of them, parliament’s Deputy Speaker, ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik is the only one to proclaim his intentions in the open. The Election Commission has since ruled that the MDP could not bind MPs like Moosa to a three-line whip on parliamentary voting, which in turn was the basis for the party sacking him from membership.

Also, in practice, Nasheed’s street-smart politics and days and weeks of protests for the cause may have found a match in President Yameen and his half-brother President Gayoom, who is also the founder and head of the ruling PPM. It needs only to be recalled that Gayoom after losing the presidency to Nasheed in 2008 after 30 long years of one-party rule, still managed to bounce back to have his nemesis replaced without an election and defeated in an election.

According to news reports, Yameen and Gayoom have met and discussed the current political situation in the country. President Yameen also had a separate meeting with his immediate predecessor, Waheed, though details of the two meetings are not known. But surely they too may already have their game plans cut out to meet any emerging situation(s). It could include encouraging more cross-over from the other camp, as has been the case since the 2014 parliamentary polls. At least on one occasion, over the ‘impeachment’ of two Supreme Court Justices, the government leadership has also proved that they could still muster a two-thirds majority at will – the kind of majority that the opposition would require if they needed to proceed against the president and the vice-president.

Tempting radicalisation?

Should it snowball into street protests and more, as has been the wont since pro-democracy demands hit the roof, it can impact on the nascent democracy as much as it affects the economy, still reeling under the stress of past decades. With that President Yameen’s hopes of finding jobs for Maldivian youth in his dream-project of SEZ sector and possibly China’s Maritime Silk Route (MSR) could take a beating. Independent of who is the winner or the loser in this game of political one-upmanship, Maldives and Maldivians would have lost – and may be forever.

The possibility of the new generation youth, who had tied their hopes and aspirations to democratisation, and did not like what they saw – it was visible in the 2013 presidential polls when MDP cadres resorted to violence and arson on Male streets on Feb 8, 2012, a day after president Nasheed was replaced by his vice-president Waheed – could begin to look inward or elsewhere for succour. Worse still, their generation and the earlier ones may come to conclude that continual political instability, street violence and consequent economic downturn are not their idea of ‘liberal democracy’ or ‘market economy’.

In a nation where religion plays a dominant role in shaping individuals’ views (despite the relative modern outlook of the average Maldivian), it could mean greater and faster radicalisation of the youth, who now constitute over 50 percent of the nation’s population! It’s the kind of temptation that neither radicalisation as a concept, nor the youth as an individual can resist for too long. That all this should shape up at a time when the nation continues to be rocked by frequent reports of Maldivian youth joining self-styled jihadi groups in distant Syria, those nearer home, mentioning continual hacking of government websites and the like, all in the name of such groups, supposedly operate from outside the country!

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

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