Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 24, 2018
Maldives: Ibu wins big, has his tasks cut out

In a historic and unprecedented poll, Maldives voted yet again the (Joint) Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohammed ‘Ibu’ Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) as the nation’s third, democratically-elected President. Ibu defeated the controversial incumbent Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, polling a steady 58:42 percent vote-share, almost from the start and mostly across the country.

With tentative official results yet to be announced, and final results expected anytime within the mandated seven days, the Haveeru Online  maintain a minute-by-minute poll webpage, put the figures at 58.3 percent for Ibu as against 41.7 percent for Yameen. As expected, urban ‘population centres’ like capital Male (42,000 voters) and southern Addu City (21,000 voters) gave the ‘liberal, democratic’ candidate in Ibu higher 68-32 leads in an election in which 88.8 percent of the nation’s 262,135 voters cast their lot on 23 September. With this, Ibu became the highest vote-getter in the history of Maldives’ multi-party poll-scene, while Yameen became the worst loser, with the lowest vote-share in the decisive round.

Despite Opposition apprehensions of a possible cancellation of the polls, near-permanent extension for the incumbent, and massive poll-day rigging, the voting went on smoothly and steadily. When the Election Commission’s plans to introduce computer-tablets for voter-verification in far-flung booths were reportedly affected by poor internet signals, leading to long queues, authorities readily extended polling time by a flat two hours, to end at 7 pm.

This election will also be marked for the direct, single-round contest as against the earlier ones in 2008 and 2013. With none of the multiple candidates being able to cross the mandated 50-percent vote-mark in the first round in those two elections, the top-two moved into a second, run-off round. The consequent trade-offs meant not only an acceptable result, but also unacceptable compromises and commitments, which the victor, in his wisdom, refused to meet in the end.

‘President for all’

“This is a moment of happiness, a moment of hope, a moment of history,” Ibu declared from his campaign office in Male, when his victory became assured and irreversible for all practical purposes. “For many of us, this has been a difficult journey, a journey that has led to prison cells or exile,” he added. Obviously, he was recalling the commitment and contributions of his party boss and former President, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed and billionaire-politician, Gasim Ibrahim, founder of the Jumhooree Party (JP), the two leading partners, in the four-party Joint Opposition (JO).

“It has been a journey that has ended at the ballot-box. I must thank all those people who have struggled for this cause,” the President-elect declared. Like his victorious predecessors – Nasheed in 2008 and incumbent Yameen in 2013 – Ibu   pledged to be “President for all Maldivians, regardless of who they voted for”, even as his supporters took to the streets all across the country, demanding the loser to concede the polls.

Though left unmentioned, the cadre-demand was not out of context. Under the 2008 Constitution, the transfer-of-power needs to take place only on 11 November. No one is expecting Yameen to create technical or legal difficulties as in 2013 and hope to reverse the decisive, popular mandate. However, his conceding the popular mandate would smoothen out things for the transition, too. The interregnum between now and 11 November is meant for the ‘transition teams’ from the two sides to work out the details, as in the US, from whose constitutional practice, the 2008 Maldivian statute borrowed the presidential scheme.

First things first

For the President-elect, ensuring a smooth transition and then selecting an all-acceptable, multi-party Cabinet would (have to) be the first priority. He needs to convince his voters, and those that had voted against him, not to leave out his international backers and even more within his MDP, that he means business – and how. The four-party coalition accord, mentioned in Ibu’s delayed poll manifesto, is expected to give some clue to the division of powers and/or responsibilities in the new Government. However, inter-party and intra-party negotiations within with JO can prove to be a tough task.

As is only to be expected, either as President-elect and more so as President, Ibu would have to facilitate the return home of both Nasheed and Gasim Ibrahim, who are in self-exile. There are others like them, who too chose self-exile, to escape arrest by the Yameen regime. Ibu will also have to ensure that along with them all, the leaders of the two other JO partners, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) leader, Sheikh Imran, are freed of court convictions and prison-terms. The latter two are still in jail, long with scores of other Opposition leaders and cadres, including Gayoom’s first-born, Faaris Maumoon, a presidential aspirant, himself.

Needless to point out, party cadres and other supporters of these leaders would like to have them walk the streets of Male, and also cheer Ibu at his inauguration. Though it may be too early, and equally improper to mention it at the party’s celebration time, freedom for Nasheed, and also a few others serving prison-terms, either in the nation’s jails or in their respective homes, may depend also on the way their purported victim(s) in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’ from 2012 wants to proceed with the matter, as and when the Maldivian State seeks to withdraw them.

It also remains to be seen how the new President, and the coalition that he heads seeks to handle the Yameen-initiated legislative measure that barred Gayoom and Gasim from contesting presidential polls, after they had crossed the 65-year age-limit. As may be recalled, the MDP had then voted with the Yameen MPs, when Government members moved an amendment in this regard, in the People’s Majlis, or Parliament.

Translated, this could also mean a comprehensive transition plan, which guarantees Yameen at least against post-presidency court cases, the kind of which continued to haunt two of his three predecessors, namely, Gayoom and Nasheed. Yet, Yameen may still have to face inevitable rebellion of the kind that he had master-minded against half-brother and his PPM party founder, Gayoom. This was followed by the Yameen Government hauling up octogenarian Gayoom in prison on ‘conspiracy charges’ flowing from the Supreme Court’s equally controversial 1 February 2018 verdict on freedom for Nasheed and the rest.

This apart, the Ibu presidency will also be tasked with leading the nation through the parliamentary polls that are due in the coming months, but whose advancement may have been necessitated by President Yameen’s short-changing of legislative procedures and constitutional expectations. A lot however will depend on the kind of cooperation he can obtain from Yameen, whose 42 percent vote-share cannot be wished away, at least until the parliamentary poll results prove otherwise or a ‘transition compromise’ provides for it, too. 

Nasheed’s return

In between, Ibu may (or, may not) be called upon by the party and/or the coalition about Nasheed’s pre-poll call/promise for converting the presidential form of government to a parliamentary scheme (like in neighbouring India?), and also having fresh presidential elections within 18 months. As may be recalled, a hint of early polls after 36 months against the total 60, on Nasheed’s election as President in 2008, was said to be among the causes for his controversial exit, marked by ‘coup charges’, on 7 February 2012.

Eighteen months is a long time, especially in the politics of ‘democratic Maldives’. The past notwithstanding, the JP lost no time in running down Nasheed’s proposals for early presidential polls and a switch-over to the parliamentary scheme, when he made them from the neighbouring Sri Lankan capital, only weeks before the presidential polls. From his German exile, Gasim caused the JP claim that the undisclosed details of the JO accord did not provide for such situations. The JP also clarified that the party stood for the continuance of the presidential form, even more.

The two issues become significant as they have the potential to de-stabilise the nation more than it was under incumbent Yameen, and through the ten years since the Indian Ocean archipelago became a democracy, 10 full years ago. Indications thus are that JO constituents, barring possibly a section of the MDP, may want such controversial issues not taken up even for consideration, until the Ibu presidency was ready for such detailed discussions and national discourses of the kind.

Unwelcome precedent

Nasheed’s massive rank of personal loyalists in the MDP, and at times from outside the party, would naturally like to have him back as President, even if only for a day, if only to ‘avenge’ the circumstances under which he exited in 2012.  Nasheed’s conceding Elections-2013 to Yameen in the midst of controversial Supreme Court injunctions was equally unwelcome to his cadres and backers alike.

However, for Nasheed to return to power, whatever the timing and the term, it would require Ibu stepping aside as President along with the resignation by all Cabinet members, for Parliament Speaker to hold charge for 60 years, and hold fresh elections for the presidency during the interregnum. This one, again, is easier, said than done, if one were to go by the unwelcome precedents in this regard.

Under the 2008 Constitution, should a President quit, the Vice-President gets to fill the remaining period in the former’s five-year term. As may be recalled, when Nasheed in office sought to force fresh presidential polls over an issue flowing from the India-centric ‘GMR row’ and sought the resignation of all his Cabinet colleagues, Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik refused to play ball. The rest is the matter of contemporary Maldivian political folklore -- as Hassan Manik went on to take Nasheed’s place, when the latter quit on 7 February 2012.

President-elect Ibu will have JP’s Faisal Naseem as his Vice-President, he and the MDP-JO having adopted the latter as his running-mate through the poll-campaign. Given Nasheed’s experience with VP Waheed in his time, even the strongest of his loyalists in the MDP would think a thousand times before provoking a situation that could have consequences far beyond their comprehension, now or later. The one exception is unanimity in the JO, which can be obtained only through greater accommodation of the alliance partners on the part of the MDP leader of the coalition and also President Ibu. This again may come with a price of its own.

The same situation applies to Nasheed’s call for conversion of the presidential scheme into a parliamentary government. As became clear ahead of similar attempts made by the anti-Gayoom parties and groups during the final stages of the drafting of the multi-party Constitution of 2008, this may require a national referendum, apart from a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This may not happen immediately as there is a need for a new Constitution draft to be voted upon. If nothing else, this will take time, and hence possibly also Nasheed setting an 18-month deadline for the purpose – and thus keeping cadre-hopes alive without kindling them even more!

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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