Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 06, 2023
The Maldivian domestic politics today is in constant flux as the presidential elections draw close
Maldives: The effects of domestic politics on foreign policy The New Year does herald new hopes for many, but the Maldivians seem to be anxious over the upcoming presidential polls in the third quarter and the claims of a ‘failing economy’ under the incumbent Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih. The Maldivian political front is fraught with difficulty. On one hand, the division in the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), between Solih and his erstwhile mentor and Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed seems to be escalating hand and on the other, the Opposition PPM-PNC combine threatens to halt the elections if their jailed leader Abdulla Yameen is not a contestant. The Yameen camp is trying to paint the Christmas day court verdict, based on verifiable bank documents, as a political conspiracy, after the criminal court in the capital Malé sentenced him to 11 years in prison and US$ 5-million fine, against 19 years that was sought by the prosecution for corruption and money-laundering in a ‘resort allocation case’ during his presidency (2013-18). This is the second of three money laundering cases, with the Supreme Court having acquitted him in an earlier case, after the trial court had sentenced him to five years in prison and US$ 5 million in fine—and upheld by the high court. The trial of the third case is now expectedto commence in full swing.

With a pending possible acquittal at the appellate level before the presidential nominations, Yameen won’t be able to contest.

Beating the rivals, the PPM-PNC combine unanimously named Yameen their presidential candidate in August, and he too began campaigning in the islands and atolls. With a pending possible acquittal at the appellate level before the presidential nominations, Yameen won’t be able to contest. His camp’s threat to stall the presidential polls may reflect internal contradictions about an alternate candidate. If elected, the candidate will be expected to ensure Yameen’s freedom and also his early return to power. The alliance may have time till the end of the annual Islamic fasting month of Ramadan (23 March-22 April), when poll campaigns are expected to pick up.

Time for patch-up

Given the acrimony in the ruling MDP, the end of Ramadan  would also be the deadline for Good Samaritans such as the defence minister, Mariya Didi, to try for a patch-up, as they ‘do not want to see Solih and Nasheed contest the primaries’—and cause an irretrievable split. The argument is that whoever wins the primaries, the party would have to contest the presidential polls united if it wants to retain power, whether or not Yameen is in the fray. The reasons are not far to seek. With a permanent division in the MDP vote-base and Yameen too out of the reckoning, third-party candidates may enter the fray, splitting the ‘floating votes’ in unpredictable ways in the first round. Already, the infant Maldives National Party (MNP) has nominated party founder Col Mohamed Nazim (retd), Yamen’s estranged defence minister, as its presidential candidate. Non-aligned Maldivian Democratic Alliance (MDA) founder Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, popularly known as ‘Sun’ Siyam, too has cast his eye on the presidency. All eyes are now on the Jumhooree Party’s (JP) congress on 14 January to decide if they should break away from the MDP coalition government and contestin the presidential polls separately. The JP was a part of the four-party MDP alliance for the 2018 presidential polls that Solih won against incumbent Yameen in a historic first-round verdict. However, in 2008 and 2013, JP founder Gasim Ibrahim respectively polled a very respectable 16 percent and 25 percent ‘transferrable vote-share’, which contributed to the second-round victories of MDP’s Nasheed and PPM’s Yameen. Given the current national mood, some in the JP feel that they could win the presidency with Gasim as the candidate and with the slogan, ‘Give us a chance.’

Debt trap and ‘India Out’

Throughout the past four years of the Solih presidency, Nasheed as the MDP chief has been accusing China of ‘debttrap’ caused by funding ‘white elephant’ projects during the Yameen presidency. For most parts, Solih has maintained a stoic silence on the China front even while reiterating his party’s ‘India First’ policy, originally devised during the Nasheed presidency.

The JP was a part of the four-party MDP alliance for the 2018 presidential polls that Solih won against incumbent Yameen in a historic first-round verdict.

On the other side of the fence, as if out of nowhere, Yameen had launched an ‘India Out/India Military Out’. On the very eve of his recent court verdict, he revived his anti-India rhetoric, named Prime Minister Narendra Modi possibly for the first time and claimed that the Solih government was seeking to imprison him to appease India. A Yameen aide, former parliamentarian Abbas Ali Riza, had to be arrested after he called for an arson attack on the Indian High Commission in Malé. If continued on these lines, the presidential polls might end up being seen as a ‘proxy war’ involving India and China, at least in parts. Whatever foreign policy issues remain, the present contestants could become a prisoner of their present positions, that is if elected to power. So much so that President Solih, when purposefully quizzed at a news conference, declared that he was under no pressure from India to name Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, the only Maldivian to become UNGA president for a year, as his running mate. Solih and Nasheed are not taking chances with the primaries. In his New Year message, President Solih talked about ‘peace, harmony, and unity’. He claimed that the economy has recovered to pre-COVID levels while Nasheed focused on economic travails at the national and individual levels, heightened by the higher GST and TGST (tourism GST) rates that came into force on New Year’s Day, pushing up prices. Now, he has promised to lower the tax if elected President. MDA’s Siyam too has called for the government to ‘mitigate the economic shocks’ of the people. Going beyond policy pronouncements, Solih has declared that the MDP could retain the presidency only with him as the candidate, how his disagreement with Nasheed centred on his being the President, and how he would not yield to Nasheed’s demand for a change-over to the parliamentary scheme during his current term. Nasheed has publicly stated that Solih can get only 20 percent of the votes. In the past, he had said that the MDP stood a chance to retain power only under the first-past-the-post parliamentary scheme, and not under the present presidential system, Bending backwards and seeking to prove his non-MDP critics wrong, Nasheed has also said that he was contesting to ‘establish an Islamic government’. Both sides have also fought over the MDP’s membership in the run-up to the primaries with Nasheed personally accusing the other side of striking down the names of 39,000 persons who were expected not to vote for Solih in the primaries. Nasheed has since cited the examples of his former spouse Laila Ali and brother, Dr Ahmed Nashid, to contend that the names of many founding members of the party were missing from the final list of 57,000-plus members.

Going beyond policy pronouncements, Solih has declared that the MDP could retain the presidency only with him as the candidate, how his disagreement with Nasheed centred on his being the President, and how he would not yield to Nasheed’s demand for a change-over to the parliamentary scheme during his current term.

Contesting Nasheed’s claims overall and giving party-wise break-up, the ministerial camp under pro-Solih party chairman and minister, Fayyaz Ismail, in charge of organisational matters, has said that the MDP registry contained 16,000 names from other parties in Election Commission records, and 24,000 more that were non-members of any party—limiting the total to 57,000 from a high 94,000.

Maldivian democracy under threat?

From an India-China angle, a PPM-PNC victory with or without Yameen as the candidate implies that a new government would revive their anti-India agenda, and also make a policy out of their present ‘India Out/India Military Out’ campaign. On the other hand, whoever between Solih and Nasheed wins the MDP primaries, if he also gets elected as President, they will continue with the party’s ‘India First’ policy even while maintaining neutrality viz China. Or, that is the perception. In electoral terms, if Yameen returns as the candidate, he needs to retain the respectable 42-percent vote share from 2018 and over 8 percent votes, to make it. The same applies to an alternate candidate of his. Likewise, for an MDP candidate to be effective in the presidential polls, he should have won a very convincing victory in the primaries. Lest, the loser should be tempted to contest as an independent, if only to settle internal scores, leaving the party and possibly the nation’s democracy in the lurch.
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