Jaishankar,Maldives,Yameen

Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar

East-West Center

In what is seen as a none-too-unsurprising yet unscheduled visit, Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was in Male, and met with President Abdulla Yameen, Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim and senior officials. The visit came in the midst of the West criticising the government of President Abdulla Yameen for continuing crackdown on the nation’s combined Opposition even in the midst of inviting them for reviving the forgotten political negotiations.

India was silent on Secretary Jaishankar’s visit, and the limited Maldivian press statements mentioned only about his talks covering bilateral cooperation in fields like trade and economy. There was no mention about the visitor talking domestic politics.

The Yameen government has been facing criticism by the West for arresting businessman-politician Gasim Ibrahim, founder of the Jumhooree Party (JP), for allegedly trying to bribe Yameen camp MPs ahead of the failed no-trust vote against Parliament Speaker Abdulla Maseeh. However, citing procedural infirmities, the High Court granted him bail. With the fast-tracked commencement of the trial against Gasim, the criminal court too refused to order his trial. The court had earlier denied him bail.

Meets Indian envoy

Few days after Secretary Jaishankar’s visit, leaders of the Opposition combine met with Indian Ambassador Akilesh Mishra. The team  comprised JP’s Gasim Ibrahim and the party’s deputy leader and the nation’s ex-police boss, Abdul Riaz, and MDP’s Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih and Yumna Maumoon, one of Gayoom’s twin-daughters. The other, Dunya Maumoon, quit the Yameen Government as Foreign Minister after Gayoom’s side-lining in the party began. However, she returned to the Government, this time as a junior minister for Health.

Gasim told the Miadhu that they discussed political, social and economic problems in Maldives with the Indian envoy. India is always a close ally of the Maldives, he said, and noted the assistance that nation provided in terms of medicine and education. “Always we share information about Maldives with the Government of India” said Qasim. Qasim noted that India was always a close friend in all the administrations of in the country, the Miadhu said.

MDP’s Ibu Solih, the newspaper said, mentioned how India always assists Maldives and especially in promoting democracy in Maldives. “Hence we believe that we should share about the current ongoing happenings in Maldives with Indian ambassador in Maldives,” he added. The Indian side did not comment on the meeting.

Call for talks

In keeping with the past, the Yameen leadership also revived the call for political negotiations, after the defeat of the no-trust vote and before Gasim’s arrest. Ahead of the vote, the Government and courts had also revived proceedings against Gasim’s Villa Group of companies. Undeterred, Gasim continued to swear by the four-party combine and declared that nothing would deter him.

Following Gasim’s arrest, which was supposedly based on intelligence inputs rather than proper investigations, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohammed Nasheed promptly condemned the same. Their parties also scheduled a protest rally even as their lawyer-members, including prominent MPs such as MDP’s ex-chairperson, Mariya Didi, joined hands to argue Gasim’s case in the courts and also address news conferences, jointly.

Gayoom is the unseated chair of Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Nasheed heads the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), acknowledged as the single largest political outfit in the country. The three leaders, along with jailed religion-centric Adaalath Party (AP) chair, Sheikh Imran, had signed in to a pro-democracy combine, ahead of the no-trust vote against Speaker Maseeh.

Nasheed has sought and obtained political asylum in the UK, where he went as a prisoner for medical treatment. Gayoom has been away from Maldives. With Sheikh Imran too in prison, serving a long jail-term, on the charge of ‘inciting terrorism’, the intervening arrest of Gasim meant that no front-line leader of any of the Opposition parties was even accessible and available for participating in any political negotiations.

No party in the Opposition combine is willing to talk to the Government without its leaders. It applies to Gayoom, whom his faction of the PPM insists, should alone have the right to nominate the once-undivided party’s representatives for the talks with the Government. It used to be the case until the Yameen group sidelined him first and unseated him as party chair, later on.

Criticism delayed?

Following Gasim’s arrest, the envoys for Maldives, for countries such as the US, the European Union and Canada, all based in Colombo, issued a joint statement against the ‘crackdown’ on the Opposition. Interesting additions to the list of pro-democracy signatories to the joint statement were the envoys of Norway and Switzerland. Customarily, the two countries have stayed neutral in such controversies, national or international, to be of help as possible facilitator of future negotiations.

The joint statement called upon the Yameen Government to respect fundamental freedoms and to allow opposition politicians “to conduct their activities without fear of intimidation or incarceration”. If, however, the Maldivian Opposition had earlier expected a similar reaction ahead or immediately after the no-trust vote, which they claimed was flawed and fudged, it was not to be.

In a prompt response, the Maldivian Foreign Ministry urged international partners to ensure that statements issued about the Maldives are “balanced and reflect the actual situation prevailing in the country”. Observing that the Government “fully concurs that legitimate, organised, and most importantly, a credible opposition is a vital part of any healthy democracy to thrive”, the Foreign Ministry statement reiterated that the Opposition should act in accordance with Maldivian laws and regulations.

Shifting goal-post

The foreign ministry statement also referred to the recent Government invitation for political negotiations. In doing so, the Government might have bitten too much of the same, without giving a second-thought. It remains to be seen as to what response the Government would offer if cornered on this part of the statement, which in turn reads like an offer and a commitment at the same time.

“Finding amicable solutions to the issues facing the country today should not be a responsibility that falls exclusively on the Government,” the foreign ministry statement read. However, it is precisely the kind of role and responsibility that the MDP as the official Opposition from day one has been demanding. Others too have joined since, and also at it together.

In the past, the Opposition, especially the majority MDP, had complained of the Government constantly shifting the goal-post and changing the rules of the game, especially on Nasheed’s participation in the political negotiations. The Government had also then insisted on one-on-one negotiations with individual political parties, but now they would want it together.

Another no-trust move

The Opposition has since announced their intention to move another no-trust vote against Speaker Maseeh. Promptly, the Government got Parliament to amend the relevant law. Accordingly, a minimum of 42 MPs in the 85-member House would have to sign the no-trust motion, for it to be considered. Earlier, it used to be 31.

Yameen PPM’s Majority Leader, Ahmed Nihan, claimed that the Opposition could not muster more than 35 signatures for a future no-trust motion. However, after his release from prison, Gasim declared that they now had the numbers. As may be recalled, the last time round, the Opposition blamed the loss of the vote to the Government side’s avoidance of electronic voting.

Even if they now have the numbers, there is now no knowing how the Opposition intends demonstrating it on the floor, going by their past experience. It is another matter that if the Opposition has the signatures, a vote itself could become infructuous, as the Speaker cannot participate and vote on the no-trust debate, and the Government would lose.

Should that happen, the Opposition would feel stronger, and want to have Yameen impeached, requiring two-thirds majority, under the existing and constitutional provisions. In such a situation, the shoe could be on the other foot. The Yameen leadership could then require political negotiations, and the combined Opposition might become lukewarm.

External facilitator

Issues such as these have dampened the enthusiasm and stomach for political negotiations, possibly without an external initiative and facilitator. During the short-lived regime of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (2012-13), international facilitators proved more effective in ways than domestic counterparts, who were even more sincere and non-partisan and equally well-accepted by all stake-holders.

Over the past decade of democratisation process and post-democratisation, the UK and the Commonwealth had played a significant role in the process, with all-round acceptance as facilitator. Yet, there is no gainsaying the fact that Nasheed and the MDP accepted facilitation proceedings, processes and findings, only when suited them. They would reject it if it went against them, or their perceived political interests.

The UK might have burnt the boat already by granting political asylum to Nasheed, and also providing hospitality to all political leaders opposed to Yameen. For his part, Yameen also pulled Maldives out of the Commonwealth. His Government has also been lukewarm towards all peace initiatives of the UN.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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