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Published on Jul 05, 2018
Maldives: Joint Opposition back on track as Nasheed quits race

The four-party Joint Opposition (JO) in Maldives has fielded Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) parliamentary group leader, Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, as their common candidate to take on President Abdulla Yameen in the 23 September national elections. The choice of the candidate as also the continuance of the JO as a common electoral entity became possible after MDP boss and former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed unilaterally declared that he would not be contesting the presidency as though the party had chosen him unanimously as its nominee through a ‘primary’, the nation’s Election Commission (EC) would not approve it of.

In a none-too-unanticipated about-turn, Nasheed blamed the EC diktat for his decision. Coming as it did on the eve of the MDP’s conference to formalise the party’s presidential candidate, the national council’s nomination of Ibrahim Solih, or ‘Ibu’ Solih, has also saved the coalition. This is because a week ahead of Nasheed’s tweeted declaration, the conference of the Jumhoore Party (JP), the second largest in the coalition, had resolved to field a separate candidate. This owed to the party’s purported irritation as the MDP’s unilateral primary announcement and also the choice of Nasheed as the presidential candidate.

Now after the MDP’s declaration to field Ibu as the ‘all-acceptable’ party candidate, the JP too has reversed its interim announcement. Now, the party will field a vice-presidential running-mate for Ibu. Like the US vice-president, his Maldivian counterpart does not have any substantial administrative duties to discharge unless the presidency falls vacant and he has to step in for the residual period, with full powers. Likewise, names of the vice-presidential running-mates do not find their names in any ballot, but are expected to provide the ‘winning votes’ to the president-elect, wherever possible.

Straight fight

A personal confidant turned political aide of Nasheed, Ibu Solih’s choice, combined with the JP’s decision to go along with the MDP and thus the JO, has meant that the presidential poll might face a straight contest against Yameen, who is yet to name his running-mate. The exception could be for some non-serious candidates, or ‘electoral stooges’ of either political camp, entering the fray, but their impact might be minimal, if at all.

According to the electoral laws, the president-elect has to poll 50 percent-plus vote of those cast, or else there will be a second-round, run-off polling between the top two. As may be recalled, the two earlier multi-party polls under the current electoral scheme went into the second round. As coincidence would have it, the JP, founded by billionaire-businessman Gasim Ibrahim, now in self-exile after ‘jumping jail’ like MDP’s Nasheed, became the deciding factor, the two earlier multi-party presidential polls of 2008 and 2013.

Gasim Ibrahim was the JP’s presidential candidate on both occasions and polled 15 and 25 percent votes respectively in the two outings. Now with Gasim Ibrahim out of the presidential race for more reasons than one, and the JP otherwise wholly tied to the MDP-led JO, indications are that there might be a clear verdict in the first round itself.

Little choice

Incidentally, the other two parties/groups in the four-party JO have not made any specific announcement as yet on the presidential polls since the MDP named Ibu. They are with the major two and also have little or no choice otherwise in any which way. Of the two, a faction of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) – which is now Yameen-centric --  led by his half-brother and the nation’s longest-serving President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is out in the cold after the Government got the latter incarcerated on the allegations of plotting a coup, with help from two Justices of the Supreme Court.

The trial court that heard the case against the three has sentenced the Judges too to a numerically bizarre jail term of 19 months and six days each! The court had earlier declined Maumoon’s defence plea for transferring the octogenarian leader to ‘house arrest’ during the pendency of the trial. The courts have since sentenced Gayoom’s son and political-heir, Faaris Maumoon, to a jail-term in a related case, denying the party much chance to throw up any serious challenge to Yameen even otherwise.

The fourth partner in the JO, the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP), has been out of the news and electoral reckoning even more than earlier after the courts jailed party boss, Sheikh Imran, to ten years in prison under the ‘anti-terror’ law after he organised a massive anti-Government protest on 1 May 2015, which turned violent. If the AP thought that by being the focus of anti-Yameen consolidation early on and also lending a religious flavour to the same, they could succeed as much as they did while coordinating the famous ‘December 23 movement’ leading to then President Nasheed’s exit on 7 February 2012, it was not to be.

Inspiring the cadres

The quick resolution of the intra-JO discomforts and disturbances almost since the commencement of the alliance a year ago has given fresh impetus to their hopes of a clear, first-round victory. Alliance leaders tag along every such declaration with the condition that the poll should be ‘free and fair’ at least from now on.

For their part, if they have to make good their hopes, the JO leadership has to translate it all into cadre-motivation to the levels of Elections-2008, which saw 18-year-old, first-time voters going with Nasheed in a big way. According to reports, Nasheed continues to be a huge draw among ‘woman voters’, but Ibu’s victory chances hinge on the former’s ability to transfer ’em to the MDP-JO candidate.

Likewise, all of Gasim’s first-round votes were his personally. He was able to ‘transfer’ them all to a candidate of his choice both in 2008 and 2013. He will now have to be able to do so this time too, but in the first round itself. The Maumoon faction and the AP have little option, but they do not have strong campaigners, nor big vote-share. Yet, apart from their cadres, whatever ‘non-committed’ voters remain in an extremely politicised and polarised society could be swayed towards the JO, if they are seen as united and working with a larger purpose.

This is because the MDP has already – and again unilaterally – released its election manifesto, possibly without any serious attempt to work out a common minimum programme. The MDP has thus promised to change the presidential form into Westminster form of parliamentary democracy by 2020. The party has promised to work with the existing allies in the parliamentary polls, normally due by March 2019.

This apart, the MDP manifesto has continued to harp on ‘transitional justice’, the same way it had done after Nasheed exited the presidency in 2012 and ‘lost’ the controversial Elections-2013. This has can put Nasheed still on the top of the national agenda. The JO as also the nation need to be as united around the cause of democracy as the MDP’s ‘indirect projection’ of Nasheed if ‘Team Ibu’ has to win – or, so goes the argument.

Face of reconciliation

Ibu, a successful parliamentarian who has kept the party and the JO united through these difficult years since Nasheed first went to prison and then in self-exile, is seen as the MDP’s ‘eternal face of reconciliation’. Even before his candidacy was announced or even before Nasheed announced his exit from the presidential race, cadre-opinion was in favour of Ibu, if it came to that. Former Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid, who otherwise was seen as among the MDP’s presidential aspirants if Nasheed could not contest publicly proposed Ibu’s name even before the party congress, where the decision was taken.

If the going gets tough for the JO candidacy in the run-up to the presidential poll, swinging the ‘non-committed voters’ to Ibu’s non-controversial image and also his ‘Mr Clean’ image could become the clinger. But for those votes to be cast, and cast in Ibu’s favour the MDP-JO may have to project Ibu’s strong-points, with Nasheed and Gasim working from outside the country to ‘transfer’ their ‘committed votes’.

Likewise, Yameen’s treatment of Maumoon Gayoom and the latter’s family members over the past years may be another factor weighing with many of the former’s cadres and voters, particularly in the older age-groups and from the islands.  Despite the successful political campaign centred on Gayoom’s democratic credentials among a new-generation of voters especially, he is still near-universally respected for ushering in ‘tourism economy’ in a big way and along with it, better living-standards, education and health care across the nation.

Interestingly, the Yameen camp has readily welcomed the MDP fielding Ibu as the presidential candidate and had ‘promised’ fair elections. The Government has invited the international media to be ‘observers’ of the election, and the Maldivian EC too has formed an ‘international observers’ team’ of its own. However, the Government is yet to clarify the ‘visa procedures’ for media observers and reporters, who have to go through a new and difficult process, which was introduced last year.

For their part, Yameen camp leaders have focussed on the MDP manifesto’s ‘self-limiting’ deadline for effecting constitutional changes. They say that it was aimed at facilitating the Nasheed’s early return to power, and not for that of ‘democracy as the MDP defines it’. Tackling such political attacks still centred on the personality of Nasheed, who is still the MDP-JO’s tallest leader and vote-getter, the coalition should also address all the imaginable issues attending on its continuance for the parliamentary polls.

It is here that MDP’s allies, including Gasim’s JP, felt ‘cheated’ after they had pledged their first-round votes to Nasheed in the successful run-off, second round in 2008.  That was a decade ago, and the MDP has done precious little through the past years to change the party’s image as a ‘self-serving’ leadership capable out turning out partners once their immediate purpose had been served.

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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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