Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 13, 2022
With Solih throwing his hat into the ring for the second time, a two-faced problem emerges for India.
Maldives: Solih declares re-election bid

Ending the speculation of the past year, Maldives President Ibrahim Solih has thrown his hat into the ring for a second term, in the elections that are due next year. In a significant reversal of roles in two months, Parliament Speaker and the ruling MDP Chief, Mohammed Nasheed tweeted, as if in response, that ‘now is not the time to prioritise personal aspirations, get a foot in for presidency’. Ahead of the party’s chairman election last month, which Team Solih’s candidate and Economic Affairs Minister Fayyaz Ismail won against a Nasheed camp-follower last month, Nasheed had reiterated that he planned to seek the MDP nomination for the presidential polls but Solih said that it was not the time for them to discuss party politics when the focus should be on post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

Solih announced his decision in a not-so-frequent news conference in the capital, Malé. He indicated that if nominated by the MDP, he would be the candidate of the ruling alliance. He clarified that the MDP Congress, scheduled to meet in mid-August, would decide if they would conduct a primary for choosing the presidential nominee. As may be recalled, the Solih camp swept the party general council elections for a congressional vote in December.

The MDP Congress becomes significant as it may be called upon to decide if Solih needs to face a primary or would be re-nominated automatically, under an amendment to the party constitution, when Nasheed was in office, 2008-12. Significantly, the party has since called for proposals to effect new amendments, which may end the dichotomy in the interpretation of this rule. It would still be for the general council to vote on such amendments. Technically, it is also for the general council to decide when the party congress should be held–and also the agenda.

The party congress also becomes significant for another reason. The date for the national conclave was postponed by a fortnight to five-time for ‘registered members’ to decide which party they finally belonged to. This followed the Election Commission’s decision to verify political party memberships to delete duplication, and to fine MVR 10,000 for each fraudulent entry.

The MDP had always claimed 94,000 members whereas the EC records showed only 54,000. The toughly-fought chairman’s election accounted for less than half that number. The PPM has since claimed that the EC charge of the party enrolling 391 identified fake members was an attempt to ‘steal the presidential polls’ for the government coalition. It has challenged the EC if it cross-verified the fingerprints on individual forms before coming to its conclusion.

Diversionary tactic?

Solih’s announcement on seeking a second term was not expected now. As a result, the timing is seen as a possible attempt to divert national attention from the unseemly controversy over two officials of the ruling BJP in neighbouring India, making blasphemous statements against Prophet Mohammed. The issue has rocked the Islamic world.

Most political parties in the Maldives, including MDP’s allies in government, have condemned the statement of the BJP leaders, who have since been removed from the party. The MDP itself chose not to comment on it directly. The government statement did not cite names, criticised the blasphemy in general terms and condemned it, and welcomed the Indian government’s denouncement of the derogatory remarks. A pro-Yameen media outlet described the Solih government’s reaction as ‘tepid’.

As a result, the timing is seen as a possible attempt to divert national attention from the unseemly controversy over two officials of the ruling BJP in neighbouring India, making blasphemous statements against Prophet Mohammed.

Significantly, the Parliament rejected an emergency motion moved by the Opposition PPM-PNC combine on the Indian controversy, 33-10, with allies and a substantial number of MDP members absent. Later, the MDP parliamentary group claimed that they ‘would not allow Islam to be wielded as a political weapon’. Whilst the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) condemned the BJP leaders’ comments, party leader Imran Abdulla, who is also the Home Minister, claimed that it was not for him to state the government’s position on the matter.

It is in this context that Solih’s reiteration of seeking a second term with the support of existing allies, namely, the AP, billionaire-businessman Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party and the Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM) of erstwhile President Abdul Gayoom assumes added significance. Earlier, the Solih-Nasheed divide also hinged on the wisdom of the MDP to continue with the coalition. Nasheed went as far as to ask the MDP to quit the ‘drowning government’ when the party could continue in office without any alliance support in the Parliament, where it has 65 out of a total of 87 MPs.

Expanding ‘India Out’

The Islam-centric controversy in India came when the Opposition PPM-PNC combine had sought to expand the scope and reach of their unbecoming ‘India Out’ campaign, which the government banned through a presidential decree. After Yameen had personally warned the armed forces and the police that they would have to face the music ‘when we return to power’, his team has since sought details of ‘Indian influence’ on the nation’s Election Commission (EC).

Ahead of the 2013 presidential polls that he won against Nasheed under controversial circumstances, Yameen had alleged that the EC hired an IT team linked to the Indian public sector to manipulate the results against him. His ‘India Out’ campaign itself is centred on the belief that as the dominant South Asian neighbour, New Delhi would aim to have him defeated, though he has never mentioned the reasons for such suspicions.

Yameen's ‘India Out’ campaign itself is centred on the belief that as the dominant South Asian neighbour, New Delhi would aim to have him defeated, though he has never mentioned the reasons for such suspicions.

Confusing his position between ‘India Out’ and ‘India Military Out’, Yameen has also reiterated that the government had ‘falsified’ agreements with India and claimed that instead of presenting the actual accord copy on the Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) defence pact to the Parliament’s National Security Committee, or ‘241 Committee’, the defence ministry made only a presentation to the MDP-majority panel. Inside the Parliament, Speaker Nasheed observed that ‘loss of Independence is not even on the horizon’, and threw out an Opposition demand for a discussion on the nation’s ‘losing sovereignty’ (purportedly to India).

Incidentally, the high court in Malé has since overruled the lower court directing the police to confiscate the ‘India Out’ campaign material from Yameen’s residence and party office, based on the presidential decree, passed in April. Speaker Nasheed in the Parliament was critical of the high court verdict. It is unclear if the government intends to challenge the high court order in the Supreme Court.

Building bridges

In a pointed reference, Yameen said elsewhere that there was no need for building bridges in the country, even if others were doing it. The reference is to the US$ 500-million Thilamale sea bridge, the largest single project in the country. When completed, it would out-size China-funded Sinimale bridge, connecting capital Malé with the airport-island, Hulhule, built during the Yameen presidency.

Without naming the bridge or other projects, Speaker Nasheed told the Parliament that the government should not invest too much in infrastructure (until the economy stabilised fully, post-COVID). President Solih has since clarified that they would not take more loans to complete ongoing projects, even as Deputy Speaker, Eva Abdulla from the Nasheed camp, has sought details on the existing forex reserves, for the nation to be able to repay up to US$ 150 million in foreign debt, due in the coming weeks.

The Indian infrastructure major, Afcons, in a detailed presentation to local media persons, has explained, how they intended to meet the deadlines for the three-phase Thilamale project, two of them next year, and the last one, fixed for November 2024. Another Indian company, TCIL, has been hired for building hospitals in four hospitals, another priority area of the Solih government.

Two-faced problem                                  

For India, Maldivian domestic politics now presents a two-faced problem. The Yameen camp’s ‘India Out’ campaign does not have much traction with other political parties and the general public, including the Opposition cadres, who have been appreciative of all-around Indian assistance through several decades, more so during and after the COVID pandemic.

In the case of the more recent ‘Prophet controversy’, the opinion may be divided, both at the political and grassroots levels, about the official Indian reaction. How it shapes up in a nation where ‘Islamic nationalism’ ensured the exit of the United Kingdom and Independence for the Maldives in 1965 remains to be seen.

The Maldives had a two-century long Protectorate Agreement with the British, who began interfering in the internal affairs of the country, first purportedly backing the southern Suvadive Revolution (1959-62). Later, when the UK objected to the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir seeking to widen the runaway of Malé airport, to be able to receive larger aircraft bringing in foreign tourists, big time, Maldives protested enough for the British to sign the Independence Agreement.

‘Islamic nationalism’ got a second stint in the previous decade when religious NGOs spearheaded what was essentially a political protest, leading to President Nasheed’s resignation in February 2012. Yameen was said to be the brain behind the protests, which were centred on the construction-cum-concession contract for another Indian infrastructure major, GMR Group and ensured its exit under the order of the successor government under President Waheed Hassan.

With the criminal court seized two money-laundering cases against him, with verdicts originally fixed for this month but one of them rescheduled to September, and no clarity about the other, Yameen took a new political line in public, claiming that ‘everyone in a government committed money-laundering’, as if it were a universal phenomenon. But then, no political party or leader of civil society organisation has taken exception to his statement.

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