The Maldivian Opposition parties had recently made a significant breakthrough by agreeing to back Ibrahim Mohamed Solih alias Ibu of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) as the common candidate for the 23 September presidential election in which the powerful incumbent President, Abdulla Yameen, is a candidate.
The Joint Opposition had also agreed that Solih’s running mate (the Vice Presidential candidate) will be from the Jumhoory Party (JP) led by Gasim Ibrahim. The JP is yet to decide who it should nominate as the running mate.
Solih is generally seen as a good candidate who can take on Yameen. He has fewer angularities than Mohamed Nasheed who he replaced because Nasheed had been legally barred from contesting. Nasheed, who is in self-exile, told the party convention that elected Solih, that he would fully back the chosen candidate.
It is said that Solih is ideally suited to carry the other Opposition parties with him as he has been a good negotiator believing in give and take. On the day he was elected as the MDP candidate Solih told party members that the MDP should be ready to make amendments to its election manifesto to accommodate the views of the other Opposition partners.
Seeing an opening for a compromise on contentious issues, the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) declared its intention to re-open the stalled All-Party Talks on divisive issues. Fisheries Minister Dr. Mohamed Shainee invited Solih to help re-start the All-Party Talks.
But even as it seemed that the Maldives is going to have a hard fought but a free and fair election, murmurs of discontent were being heard both in the MDP and the JP.
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih alias Ibu
Stirring in MDP
There is an element of uncertainty in the MDP camp over the candidacy of Solih because an undertaking had been given to Nasheed that Solih would step down and allow Nasheed to contest, if, at any stage, the Yameen Government lifts the ban on Nasheed.
Nasheed is said to have included this clause because he was unsure about Solih’s stepping down after 18 months which the MDP election manifesto would expect him to do.
It is recalled that in 2008, ahead of the first democratic Presidential election, Nasheed had promised to the other parties in his group, that a fresh Presidential election would be held after dictator Mamoon Abdul Gayoom is defeated by the united Opposition. But after he defeated Gayoom, Nasheed forgot about the promise he had made to hold a fresh election in one and a half years.
Nasheed has been barred from contesting the 2018 election because he is yet complete his 13-year prison sentence for terrorist activity. He had misused his medical leave from imprisonment to seek asylum in the UK and is yet to return to complete the prison term.
But Nasheed hopes that even at the eleventh hour, Yameen might yield to international pressure, release him and lift the ban on his contesting elections. He believes that a lifting of the ban is entirely possible if the US, EU and India step up pressure on Yameen.
India mounts pressure
Sure enough, India came out with a statement on Thursday asking Yameen to restore democracy. The Spokesman of India’s External Affairs Ministry Raveesh Kumar said that India has been “closely monitoring” the situation in Maldives, and added that “the announcement of elections in the Maldives comes at a time when democratic institutions including the Majlis (Parliament) and the Judiciary are not allowed to function in a free and transparent manner. This is indeed a matter of concern.”
India has called on the Government of Maldives “to return to the path of democracy and ensure credible restoration of the political process and the rule of law, before the elections are conducted”, Kumar said as he emphasised the importance of a conducive atmosphere to hold a free and fair elections.
Therefore there is an off chance that Yameen might agree to pardon Nasheed and enable him to contest the election in the nick of time, that is just before 9 August, when the final list of Presidential candidates will have to be released.
But this possibility could stymie Solih’s campaign. It might adversely affect his ardour and also hurt the prospects of the MDP and the Joint Opposition.
Uncertainties in the Opposition
The Opposition coalition hit its first snag on Wednesday after the Jumhoory Party (JP) appeared to disagree on the manifesto announced by the MDP.
Some of the 11 pledges which the JP leader Ibrahim Gasim had made, differs in some key respects from the MDP’s manifesto. There are differences over allowing foreign judges to probe internal matters, and on changing the Presidential system to a parliamentary one. Gasim had also proposed that the Maldives re-join the Commonwealth which it quit in 2016 and lift the age cap on Presidential candidates to enable him to contest. Clearly, there has been a lack of consultation among the Opposition parties.
There are rumblings within the JP too. There is opposition to the possible nomination of Gasim Ibrahim’s youngest wife Aishath Nahula. She is a fresher to politics and would be chosen only because of her marriage to Gasim. She will also be difficult to control on account of her closeness to Gasim.
This could be the reason why the JP is still to make up its mind on who it should put up as Solih’s running mate.
Meanwhile, President Yameen has started his election campaign, hopping from atoll to atoll inaugurating water supply and other infrastructural and welfare schemes. He has asked the Chinese to complete the bridge between Male and Hulhumale where there is a massive housing scheme. He has inaugurated new flights between the islands to link them with each other and with Male.
Wherever he goes, Yameen stresses his contribution to improving infrastructure and making the Government in Male implement promises made to the people. He describes the Opposition’s dependence on foreign power to overthrow his Government as an “anti-national mindset” which goes against the grain of Maldivian nationalism.
He criticises the Opposition’s dependence on Western liberal democracies, which want the 100% Muslim Maldives to allow non-Islamic places of worship, and non-Islamic cultural practices like same sex marriage. Yameen propagates adherence to the moderate Islam as practiced in the Maldives traditionally which, while not being Wahabi, is conservative in certain matters.
Maldivian opposition leaders
New election law
To defend the national interest, Yameen’s Government has brought in a law to bar people who have, or had had, dual citizenship or who had got political asylum in a foreign country.
Even if these people had surrendered their foreign nationality or had given up foreign asylum, ten years should have passed before they can become eligible to fight elections in the Maldives.
Explaining the reason for this restriction, a source in the ruling PPM said that many rich Maldivians take foreign citizenship and live abroad for many years and then parachute into Maldives to become an MP or the President, throwing money to find their way through the system.
“The measure has been taken with the interest of Maldivians in mind. We want people who have stayed put in this country, interacted with and served the people to be our MPs or our President,” the source said.
However, the law was passed in the typical Yameen way. The ruling party did not have the 43 MPs needed to pass the bill. It had only 35. Therefore it used an earlier Supreme Court ruling which allowed bills of national importance to be passed without the required majority using the “Doctrine of Necessity”.
The Opposition was, as usual, not present in the House, as it has been boycotting Parliament in protest against Yameen’s road-rolling tactics. The bill was passed uncontested.