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Published on Oct 10, 2018
Maldives: Smooth transition likely, multiple issues seek Ibu’s attention

With the 15-day Constitution-mandated deadline for incumbent, presidential poll-loser Abdulla Yameen running out, MDP-JO’s President-elect, Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ibu’ Solih, can now look beyond transition hiccups, if any, and also look beyond his mid-November Inauguration, in to issues that should be concerning, and at times cornering, his Government. There are both internal and external political and diplomatic issues that his leadership would have to address before settling down to what is euphemistically called the ‘business as usual’ phase.

Doubts and fears had persisted about Team Yameen challenging the results of the 23 prolls after the incumbent publicly charged the Election Commission (EC) with ‘rigging’ the election (in favour of MDP-JO candidate, Solih?). On his public call, Yameen followers also staged daily protests outside the EC office. According to reports, very few gathered each night, indicating that the leadership was only setting off a trial-balloon to read the cadre-mood.

The greater worry for the Solih transition came in the form of the truncated, three-Judge Supreme Court Bench quashing a unilateral EC order, cancelling the by-elections announced for 12 parliamentary constituencies. These seats belonged to one-time members of Yameen’s PPM, whose ‘disqualification’ became a controversy, as a part of the equally controversial, omnibus SC order of 1 February. The 1 February court order in turn had led to Yameen proclaiming a ‘state of emergency’, which was in force for 45 days.

As may be recalled, the Yameen Government arrested two of the five SC Justices, seen as leading the five-member Full Bench, which had passed the unanimous verdict of 1 February. The truncated Bench then re-wrote the unanimous verdict into another, rescinding the earlier order almost in toto. The post-poll SC order setting the EC’s bid to restore membership to the 12 ‘disqualified’ MPs, who have been with the Opposition since before ‘disqualification’ thus caused eyebrows to rise.

Even without it, the EC was caught in the eye of a ‘storm in a tea-cup’ following Yameen’s ‘poll-rigging’ charge. The five-member Commission stood its ground, went on a verbal offensive against political critics. The EC also petitioned the police to initiate action against a junior Minister attached to Yameen’s President’s Office, for calling Chief Election Commissioner Ahmed Shareef ‘thief’. Shareef was considered a loyalist and an ‘outsider’ to the Commission when Yameen made him CEC overnight, in March, when the presidential poll was already around the corner.

In this background, the Supreme Court’s more recent serial verdicts, restoring the membership of some of the sacked 12, on their appeal, should cool the hearts of Team Solih. In doing so, the court pointed out that at least one of the ‘disqualifications’ was not linked to ‘floor-crossing’. Regarding the rest, the EC and the Yameen Executive had not enforced the court’s orders of last year, on the need for anti-defection laws the way they should have been, the Bench observed.

Nasheed’s return?

Even without the SC clarification and orders, Solih’s transition team, headed by one-time Foreign Minister and Parliament Speaker, Ahmed Shahid, has been having its hands full. They have been quietly meeting with senior officials of various Government departments to update themselves on the state of the economy and other issues of policy-making and national administration, to help the President-elect to make his choices.

Post-poll and especially after Yameen formally conceding defeat in public, things have been moving fast and positively for individual MDP-JO leaders. All four of them had prison terms against them, and two of them were also on self-exile. For political normalcy to return, their cases have to be disposed of earlier than later.

While Sheikh Imran, jailed anti-Yameen leader of the religion-centric Adhaalath Party, a member of the four-party Joint Opposition coalition, was transferred from Maafushi prison to house-arrest, courts have since granted bail to Yameen’s half-brother and former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his parliamentarian-son, Faaris Maumoon, among others.

Jailed and self-exiled Jumhooree Party (JP) founder Gasim Ibrahim has since returned home after obtaining bail from the courts. This has encouraged/compelled Solih’s political boss and MDP leader, ex-President Nasheed, now in self-exile, to declare that he too would return home on 1 November, ‘come what may’. Nasheed’s defence, as also lawyers for his co-convicts in the ‘Judge Abdullah abduction case’ (2012), have since moved the Supreme Court, for their freedom, if only to help the former to return home sans controversy.

There is no denying a future role for Nasheed in the governmental affairs, more so on the political front, which anyway he has already been discharging from overseas. With sufficient time at his disposal between election and Inauguration in mid-November, Solih has to have his Cabinet ready.

What role the coalition leadership would play in government-formation, as a part of their four-party accord, which predates Solih’s nomination as their common candidate, remains to be known/seen. If nothing else, the Cabinet as also other governmental changes would have to reflect the coalition spirit from the presidential poll and have upright ministers who are also equally efficient and effective.

The question of the four coalition party leaders becoming ministers does not arise. Front-liners like Solih’s transition team leader Shahid, an MDP senior, and Gayoom’s son Faaris are incumbent Parliament members. The coalition is faced with so much legislative work, including laws required to restore the civic rights for Nasheed, if and where required, and freedom for Gayoom and Gasim to contest polls, as they have passed the Yameen-set 65-year age-limit, and freedom and restoration for the two jailed SC Justices are a few among them.

During the long run-up to the presidential poll, the four-party coalition leaders signed a (secret) accord on the post-poll arrangements and programmes, if only to live up to the promised made to, and expectations of the nation’s electorate. Many voters are already tired of the political instability ‘intrinsically’ (?) attending on ‘democratic Maldives’ after a thousand years of one-man rule under successive sultan, and later through the unbroken 30-year elected presidency of Gayoom, till 2008.

In this background, it remains to be seen if the coalition would want to spare incumbent MPs of ministerial responsibilities, with parliamentary polls anyway due by March next. However, there may be some whose services in the American model of non-parliamentary Executive, the incoming President may (or, may not) seek from the coalition leadership. The latter may (have to) take a holistic picture of the politico-electoral compulsions and realities ahead of them, before taking such crucial/critical decisions that may have a long-term impact.

Yameen’s future

For now, the four-leader accord, as Candidate Solih said in his manifesto, provides for their joint commitments to be placed before Parliament within 30 days (where legislations or resolutions) are required. Only then would the nation and the international community can get a feel of what they are up to, and how all are they going to deliver on the people’s aspirations – and also stay together, at least up to and after the crucial parliamentary polls.

Otherwise on the political front, the Solih Government and the coalition leadership would need to decide on how best to handle Yameen. Their political back-room boys should be already analysing Yameen’s 42 percent vote-share, to decide on its composition, for strategising for the parliamentary polls.

The Government team would be required to proceed legally against Yameen and his select team members, on charges pertaining to ‘democracy issues’ and corruption – but the coalition would need to take a call on the same, considering larger issues that they may identify and over which there could be differences, though not dissent and dissidence.

Striking the balance

Upfront, Solih has been meeting with all important Government leaders, including army and police chiefs. The latter two promptly declared their support for the poll results. They are important in the misunderstood Maldivian context, where both sections of domestic public opinion and of the international community often mistake the institutions’ loyalty to the constitutional authority for personal/political loyalty to the person of the President, whoever he is.

On the crucial diplomatic front, President-elect Solih has begun receiving foreign dignitaries, starting noticeably with Indian Ambassador, Akhilesh Mishra, followed by Chinese envoy, Wang Fukang. He has also been receiving foreign dignitaries, including a junior minister from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and also a European Union (EU) delegation.

Both India and China envoys have invited the President-elect to visit their respective nations/capitals. The indications are that Solih, like his predecessors, including Yameen, may make India his maiden overseas destination after Inauguration. It may happen possibly in the first month of his presidency or thereabouts. It was the case with his three ‘democratic’ predecessors, since his MDP party boss, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, who came to power in November 2008. No such firm ‘visit window’ for China can be predicted, likewise.

It is not going to be easy for the Solih presidency to strike the ‘right balance’ between the two Asian giants. India has been Maldives’ traditional friend and largest and closest neighbour. Under Yameen, there were clear indications that Maldives was moving away from India wantonly and surely into China’s new sphere of Indian Ocean influence, warming up the neighbourhood waters, if not setting them on fire, thus far.

For starters, the Solih presidency moving away from China step by another careful step is what India could expect. The Indian strategic community, or sections thereof, should be wrong if they concluded that a Solih presidency would throw China, and also Saudi Arabia, Yameen’s other (Islamic) big-brother and backer, into the Ocean, overnight.

A reality check would show that Maldives moving to the middle-path on the strategic front should be a good start from an Indian perspective, considering that the nation owes its Yameen era development to China, and also to Saudi Arabia, and also owes them huge sums in debt. If nothing else, the Solih team would have to first lay its hands on the China and Saudi documents in this regard and also consult with friends, before working out its future strategy, if any.

In the larger context, the Solih presidency may require to ponder over Yameen’s new ‘Foreign Policy’, which he unveiled on 20 January 2014, less than two months after coming to power. Both Yameen and his policy underlined that for Maldives to have a strong and independent foreign policy uninfluenced by outsiders (India?), it had to become economically strong and independent. Chinese BRI and funding/debt-trap fitted the bill.

It is now for the Solih presidency to review the Yameen policy, clarify its position, if only over the medium term. The Solih Governmetn will also have to decide (formally) on returning to the Commonwealth and working closely and sincerely with UN and UN-related institutions like the UNHRC, as used to be the case pre-Yameen!

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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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