Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 08, 2020
Maldives: Abdulla Yameen’s imprisonment escalates the race for leadership in PPM-PNC coalition

With Opposition PPM-PNC combine leader Abdulla Yameen completing one month in prison, pending his appeal in the ‘money-laundering case’ dating to the last month of his presidency, opposition leaders seems to be on the prowl, hoping to replace him if they can, or displace him, if they could not. Their respective needs have been urgent after the MDP Government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih gave up mentioning postponing the nation-wide island and atoll council elections, which are now expected in April, ending their existing three-year term.

Top on the list of this leaders are Yameen’s one-time Home Minister Umar Naseer, who had fought him in the PPM primaries for the presidential nominations ahead of the 2013 polls. Yameen won both the party nomination and the presidency under controversial circumstances. Others in the list include the first of Yameen’s two impeached Vice-Presidents, Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who then joined hands with self-exiled former MDP President, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, and was also the convenor of the joint Opposition combine that the latter floated, overseas – but only to become estranged, as ahead of the first ‘democratic polls’ of 2008.

On a TV programme after Yameen’s imprisonment, Naseer said that the Opposition was in need of a strong 'vulture or lion' to lead them and 'revolutionise' the party, clearly indicating his interest in leading the PPM-PNC combine. He had joined the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), when losing incumbent Maumoon Abdul Gayoom floated the party, breaking away from his own earlier creation, Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP). Heading the religion-centric Islamic Democratic Party (IDP), Naseer had crashed out of the first-round polling a dismal 1.4 percent vote-share.

Borrowed phrase

However, Naseer’s mention of ‘vultures and lions’ was a borrowed phrase from Yameen’s own words. Addressing PPM cadres a day before a five-judge trial court Bench unanimously ordered him to five-year prison term and $ 5-m in an embezzlement and money-laundering case, Yameen told his followers “not to “let hungry vultures take over our party just because I am not here. We must not allow them the opportunity"!

In his TV show, Naseer said that when they were in the DRP (still under Yameen’s half-brother Gayoom), “we were able to push the Government into a corner within three years. Ultimately, it led to (President) Nasheed resigning and stepping down on his own will. We do not see the same activism, or courage of the same calibre from the current PPM leadership.”

What he did not say was that Nasheed’s MDP dispensation at the time did not enjoy a parliamentary majority, as against incumbent Solih presidency’s high two-thirds in the 87-member People’s Majlis, or Parliament. However, by referring to ‘Nasheed stepping down on his own will”, possibly Naseer was also indicating a ‘people’s movement’ of the kind that the Nasheed-led MDP too launched against the Yameen presidency in 2014-15, in the company of other Opposition parties of the time.

Now after Naseer’s outburst, PNC president Abdul Raheem Abdulla has said that the party had ‘vultures and lions' capable of leading the party within the PPM-PNC coalition. Abdul Raheem said Umar was “searching for a political ally as he has not been able to side with either the Opposition or the ruling coalition to pursue a future in politics. Despite the fact that he is thirsty for a PPM ticket to contest in the 2023 presidential election, the ticket is reserved for and is a property of President Yameen, “and that will not change”, Raheem added.

Alliances, old or new?

Yet, there is no denying that the PPM-PNC combine is facing tough times, which could turn tougher with Yameen in prison, and his appeal-hearings not unlikely come up during the campaign time for the island-council polls. It remains to be seen how the MDP intends to goahead with the alliance, if any, for the nation-wide polls, and how the PPM-PNC combine and the rest of the ‘qualified’ Opposition would go about it. The initiative rests with the MDP still, and the divided Opposition can only ‘react’, but only after the former had indicated its mind.

By delaying its alliance for the 6 April parliamentary polls, the MDP left two of its three allies from the 2018 presidential elections, the party left them all a house divided. In particular, on-again-off-again ally in billionaire-businessman Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhoore Party (JP) and Gayoom’s third political creation in the Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM) were left in the lurch. The religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP), too, struck a last-minute uneasy and unsure coalition with the MDP, but drew a blank.

With JP’s chosen Vice-President Faisal Naseem and Minister Ali Waheed, one-time MDP Chairman and heading the all-important Tourism Department in the Solih dispensation, unwilling to join hands, all that Gasim could do at the last-minute was to put together a unpopular and unscientific tie-up with Yameen-led PPM-PNC combine. It is another matter that PNC itself became necessary ahead of the parliamentary polls as the Yameen camp was unsure of the courts handing over the PPM leadership to Gayoom, all over again.

Worse still in the parliamentary polls was reserved for Gayoom and the MRM. Contesting on ‘Independent’ symbols, only one MRM candidate won the parliamentary polls. Gayoom’s one-time heir-apparent in party and Government, Farish Maumoon lost from his Male seat after shifting from the family’s traditional island-stronghold. Farish’s brother, Ghassan Maumoon, who had chosen to stay with Yameen after the family estrangement when the latter was President, won his seat.

Keeping counsels

While the island-councils election can set the tone for the presidential pol that is not due before October 2023, pre-poll alliances can also determine the course for the future, beginning here and now. The MDP, for instance, won 65 of the 87 parliamentary seats, but its vote-share fell from 58 percent in the presidential elections only months earlier (October 2018) to 46 in April 2019.

The fall was attributable to the way the party leadership of Nasheed, now Parliament Speaker, handled the parliamentary poll alliance and talks in this regard. This in effect has meant that the non-MDP vote-share stands at a relatively high 54 percent. This has given hopes for the divided Opposition, otherwise under ‘strong’ leaders, to try and come together for the council polls, as well.

It is in this background, Naseer, with an unabashed eye on the presidency in 2023, has talked about ‘vultures and lions’ and so has Yameen. The real game-changer could be JP’s Gasim Ibrahim, who had once vowed not to aspire for the presidency, but may have changed his mind after the Solih Government lifted the 65-year upper-age limit for the nation’s top two jobs, imposed by the Yameen Government.

After the poor showing in the parliamentary polls, and also the unacknowledged ‘disloyalty’ of his in power under President Solih, Gasim seems to be keeping his counsels to himself. He would be 73 when the next presidential elections are held, possibly the oldest presidential candidate. In his last, failed outing, as incumbent President for 30 long years, Gayoom was 71 years during the presidential polls of 2008.

Through the three ‘democracy elections’ for the presidency (2008, 2013 and 2018), the one-man JP could at best become ‘king-maker’ without being able to make Gasim Ibrahim, the king. For the first time in 2018, a pre-poll alliance, of course with the JP as a partner, won the presidential polls. In the previous two, the presidential polls went into the second round, where Gasim’s substantial first-round vote-shares (15 pc in 2008, up to 24 pc in 2013) gave him a bargaining-chip. In both cases, the JP felt that the winners, namely Nasheed (2008) and Yameen (2013) ‘stabbed’ Gasim in the back.

Should Yameen lose his appeals for a clean acquittal and the higher courts confirm his conviction and sentence him even to a year-long prison term, then he would be ‘disqualified’ from contesting the 2023 presidential polls. It is in this context, the likes of Naseer have been making their advance moves, after having stayed quiet and on the side-lines during the highly-polarised presidential polls of 2018.

It is another matter that the PPM leadership question itself may be unsettled, should Yameen remain in prison through the coming years until the presidential polls. Will he want to promote half-brother Gayoom’s parliamentarian-son Ghassan in his place, or will the Maumoon camp stake claims for the party at the grassroots-level, projecting the other son, Faaris as the ‘rightful claimant’? That also raises the question for Yameen to retain the PPM and PNC (People’s National Congress) as separate entities.

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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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