Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 07, 2017
Little over a year away from presidential poll, Maldives politics hotting up

After ‘defeating’ the joint Opposition-sponsored no-trust motion against Parliament Speaker Abdulla Maseeh, the Government of President Abdulla Yameen has revived the call for the forgotten all-party political negotiations. However, the Opposition rejected the Government’s offer.

“If it is democracy they want, they should adhere to democratic principles and use this opportunity,” Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee, the government’s chief negotiator, told newsmen only days after the failed no-trust vote against Speaker Maseeh. Invitations have been sent out urging opposition parties to revive the failed talks, he said adding, “The government does not hesitate to negotiate with the opposition. We are confident that our actions are in accordance with the laws and regulations for the benefit of the people.”

However, the Opposition had a different tale to tell. “It has become a big joke,” the Leader of the Opposition in the People’s Majlis, Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, belonging to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), told a joint news conference. “Whenever the opposition steps up our activities of holding the government to account, they start talking about talks,” he said.

Speaking for the Gayoom faction of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), parliamentarian Faaris Maumoon clarified that the Opposition would not decline an invitation for dialogue. However, his father and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom should be allowed to nominate PPM representative for the all-party talks, he said. Against this, Ibu Solih clarified that they would consider joining the talks if and only former Presidents Gayoom and MDP’s Mohammed Nasheed were allowed to participate in any political negotiations. This has also been the one-point on which the MDP has been holding back on joining the negotiations, though Ibu himself had held preliminary negotiations with then Home Minister Umar Naseer, now in the Gayoom faction of the PPM.

Specifics, not generalities

In a way, the Government’s call for political negotiations was not entirely unexpected. The Yameen leadership has been sort of taunting the Opposition from a position of proven political strength, from time to time – and whenever they had seemingly won a showdown of some kind or the other. It is mainly a communication to the international community, though not necessarily an earnest attempt at convincing them.

The Opposition, too, has been reacting on predictable lines. So, even without having to commence substantive negotiations of any kind, the Government keeps hoping to indicate to the international community that the shoe was on the other foot. To them, anyone in the international community (read: the West) does not take such offers for political talks any more seriously.

What however matters – and should matter – to the combined Opposition are specifics, not generalities. None of the popular leaders of the four parties that have an agreement “to unite against President Abdulla Yameen’s increasing authoritarianism,” can challenge Yameen in the presidential polls, due by November 2018.

As may be recalled, of the main leaders of these four parties, religion-centric Aadhalath Party (AP) leader Sheikh Imran is in prison, on ‘terrorism charges’; MDP’s Nasheed cannot set foot on the nation without being imprisoned for ‘jumping’ jail-leave for medical leave but obtaining political asylum in the UK; having crossed 65 years, Gayoom and Jumhooree Party’s (JP) Gasim Ibrahim are age-barred, for contesting the presidential polls.

Adding to the woes of the combined Opposition, the Yameen camp has sacked his half-brother Gayoom, not only from PPM chairmanship but also as a primary member of the party. The Gayoom camp argues that it could be done only by the party general council, and not by the national council, and that they would go to the courts, if required.

Read also | Maldives: Yameen ‘wins’ first floor-test against strong combine

For all practical purposes, it means that Gayoom would have to float a new party, register 10,000 members to the satisfaction of the Election Commission, for obtaining a name and election symbol, in time for the next round of polls. The local council polls are due way ahead of the presidential polls, and the Government has already got the former postponed thrice over the past six months.

One positive sign in all this is the crossover of PPM parliamentarian Saud Hussain from the Yameen camp to the Gayoom faction, in the days following the failed no-trust vote. He was one of the national council members who had voted for Gayoom’s removal only a few days earlier. The Opposition claims that more would follow suit, especially if electronic voting was restored, whenever Parliament voted next on any substantive matter.

Free bird or not

According to the Opposition, the harassment of their leaders continued unabated. Of the leaders of the four alliance-partners, JP’s Gasim Ibrahim is one of the two leaders staying on in Maldives and the only ‘free bird’, as AP’s Sheikh Imran is in prison. Soon after his joining the four-party alliance, the courts and the Revenue authorities ruled against Gasim’s Villa Group of companies in pending cases.

After the no-trust vote, Gasim has since been charged with offering bribes for corss-voting in the no-trust vote. On a court order, he has also been barred from travelling overseas for a month, with his passport, too, seized. In between, he was summoned to the police headquarters twice, for what was said to be ‘voice verification’ in a video-recording.

A senior political aide of Gasim, parliamentarian Abdulla Riaz, too was taken in, on the charge of spreading false rumours. Riaz is a vice-president of the party and a former Commissioner of the Maldivian Police, the highest rank in the Service. He joined the JP after retirement, was immediately made party vice-president.

Democracy vs Development?

In this climate of what they claim ‘ramped-up crack-down’, the Opposition does not seem to have a Plan-B or C, to take on Yameen in the presidential polls. Their present-day unity, too, with come under a lot of stress, even if all leaders were allowed to contest, and they ended up challenging one another in the first round.

Importantly, they need to study the mood of the GenX voters more closely than the MDP did during the long run-up to the 2013 polls, which Nasheed lost officially. At the time, the Nasheed camp took the young voters who had supported him big-time in the preceding 2008 polls for granted. Nasheed ended up losing substantial numbers of JP’s Gasim, in the national capital of Male.

In particular, they cannot afford to give the impression to the majority (of young) voters that they were fighting their personal and personality wars under the cover of democracy. To some of them at the very least, incumbent President Yameen was trying to bring in unprecedented development, jobs and big money to their poor dispersed and desperate archipelago-nation, already facing the threat of submersion.

The Opposition, combined or divided, cannot conclude that they are back to a 2008 scenario, in which it was ‘Democracy vs Development’, and democracy won. They having done their duty by democracy, it’s not clear if the very same voters just 10 years down the line, and their succeeding generations, have the same appetite for democracy, or want development, jobs and family incomes, even more.

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