Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 28, 2021
Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) loses Male mayoralty; leaders spar over adopting a parliamentary system

In the last significant national outing, way ahead of the presidential polls of October 2023, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) managed to stay ahead of an otherwise demoralised and at times discredited Opposition identified with jailed former President Abdulla Yameen. However, the MDP lost the mayoralty of capital Male, once its popular bastion to the Opposition, to Yameen’s one-time Housing Minister and his Progressive Party of Maldives-People's National Congress (PPM-PNC) combine’s deputy leader, Dr Mohamed Muizzu.

According to official figures, Muizzu polled 61 percent of votes in the lowest-ever 20-percent turnout in the city, which in turn accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s population. The national turnout itself was an equally low 40 percent, half the past figures. Despite claims to the contrary, MDP insiders attributed the less-then robust performance to inner-party rivalry and other inherent deficiencies that had gone unaddressed in the past.

What is of greater concern for party cadres and ‘democracy lovers’ inside the country and outside is the fact that the MDP promptly got caught in a leadership spar. It was not even a blame-game over poll performance. Instead, MDP chief and Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed shot off a missive to one-time friend, President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, for ushering in parliamentary democracy, and he himself becoming the first prime minister.

If Nasheed thought that his revival of a past demand would divert cadre and voter attention away from the party’s poor poll performance, it was not to be. According to reports, only a third of the 65-member MDP parliamentary group in the 87-seat Parliament, backed his proposal. The Solih leadership continues to enjoy the majority in the group, which was first demonstrated over the Speaker’s choice after the parliamentary polls of 2019. With his nominee expected to lose badly, the Speaker’s post became a consolation prize for Nasheed.

In response to Nasheed’s message, Ibrahim Solih’s spokesman, Mabrouq Azeez, went public pointing out that the presidential system was chosen by the people. In this, the incumbent had the open support of two predecessors, namely, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008) and Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (2012-13). Gayoom’s Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) is a partner in the MDP-led alliance, while Waheed is now a Senior Advisor to the Yameen camp and a presidential aspirant in the combine.

Both Gayoom and Waheed pointed out how the people chose the existing presidential form over the parliamentary scheme, and how the nation could not keep changing the governmental scheme. With Gayoom in office, a national referendum in 2007 settled for the continuance of the presidential system. A multi-party democracy was then written into the Constitution the next year. In the elections that followed, Nasheed defeated Gayoom, who was in office for 30 long years.

Differences with Solih

The MDP sparring, post-poll, began even as early results were streaming in, Nasheed publicly spoke about ‘differences’ with incumbent Solih. The latter would not join the issue, and said that ‘no ventilator’ could come between the two. The reference is to the alleged scam over the import of ventilators at the height of the pandemic last year, with the Nasheed camp forcing the exit of Solih’s Health Minister Abdulla Ameen. At this stage, however, Solih continued to declare that there was ‘no corruption’ in his government (as alleged by Nasheed).

When Nasheed then revived his demand for a system-change, Solih could not remain silent but hit back. Indications are that a substantial section of the MDP cadres and other voters are peeved at Nasheed projecting himself as prime minister when no such post was contemplated under the existing Constitution, and taking up a sensitive and even more controversial issue when the nation is tied up in heaps over the pandemic.

A faltering MDP

According to the final results of the national elections of 10 April, the MDP, while losing the long-held mayoralty in capital Male, however, retained the position in three other ‘population centres’, namely, Addu and Fuvahmulah City, both in the south, and Kulhudhuffushi in the north. The party also won 400 of the 804 seats contested in a total of 982.

In contrast, Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine fielded candidates for only 600 seats and had a 50 percent strike-rate, indicating an inherent weakness in the party’s organisational structure. Yet, apart from the mayoralty of Male, the combine also won a majority of seats in the city, and also in Addu. The results are also indicative of Yameen’s continuing clout from inside the prison, with the combine retaining much of his 42-percent vote share in the 2018 presidential poll that he lost while in office.

The MDP’s Jumhooree Party (JP) partner won 11 of 161 seats contested, indicating that the best days of billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim were over. Other coalition partners, namely, religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) won 11 of 28 seats contested, and Gayoom’s Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) won one of 15. Yameen’s one-time ally, the Maldives Democratic Alliance (MDA) won 16 of 20 seats contested, while independents bagged a respectable 173 seats from among the 600 that entered the fray.

The allies feel uncomfortable and unsure at the turn of events in the MDP leader of the alliance. They owe the alliance and their continued presence in the government to President Solih. The Nasheed camp is known for ditching allies after use—as seen in the presidential polls of 2008 and 2018.

For the MDP too, the consequent fall in the vote share from Solih’s 58 percent to 46 percent in the parliamentary polls, means that they were short of the half-way mark required to retain the presidency in 2023. This also exposed the inherent limitations of the party winning a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which can be used only to alter laws and amend the Constitution—if the party were united.

Message from Male residents

On the Male defeat, President Solih said that they accepted the ‘message from Male residents’, and  that the government would take all efforts to act on their will and needs.  He also lost no time in congratulating mayor-elect Muizzu and promising all cooperation, which was reciprocated. In his acceptance speech, Muizzu promised to focus on the Gulhifalhu suburban housing scheme for Male citizentry, with the government too promising to fast-track the work.

There is no truth in the MDP parliamentary group leader Ali Aseem’s claim that the low voter-turnout owed to the Opposition’s demand for freeing Yameen. The truth was closer to the ‘internal rift’ in the MDP, as claimed by Economic Affairs Minister Fayyaz Ismail, himself a target of the Nasheed camp.

That the voters were not as impressed with the MDP as they used to be became clear on two counts. They did not act on President Solih’s poll-eve declaration that they had ‘surrendered powers’ to the local councils—a reference to the much-hyped Decentralisation Act of his government.

Likewise, the Male voters in particular ignored Nasheed’s pre-poll declaration that he was not incapable of solving the city’s problems—making it all as self-centric as his later claims for wanting to become prime minister. He made it even more personal, post-results, by declaring that the government’s popularity had dwindled, but not his own acceptance-level.

Economy hit

An IMF projection has put the real-time GDP growth at 18.2 percent in fiscal 2021 (coinciding with the calendar year). However, with the nation’s finances badly hit by the pandemic, the government spending in this fiscal stood at MVR 7.2-billion till 15 April against a revenue-earning of MVR 5.4 billion. The tourism industry, the mainstay of the nation’s economy, does not still look rosy as the second wave of the pandemic across the world, including neighbouring India and Sri Lanka, has once again affected air-travel, which was resumed on 15 July last.

Given this reality, Parliament voted 47-4 in the 87-member House, granting an additional year’s extension for the government to skip the stringent provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act and go in for overdrafts. Government leaders are also apprehensive that an ‘unstable government’ could upset friendly aid-givers. This despite a recent which puts the real GDP growth of the nation at 18.2 percent in the current year (but possibly made before the second wave of the pandemic, including in the immediate neighbourhood).

In this background, Speaker Nasheed continues to keep the pressure as much on the PPM-PNC rivals as on the Solih government leadership of his own party. In the open House, he said that the ‘MMPRC scandal’ over which courts had sent Opposition’s Yameen to a five-year prison term, could not be kept hidden, and even some of the sitting MPs may lose their seats. His observations seemed to mischievously imply that someone in the government was trying to ‘protect’ Yameen and other alleged wrong-doers.

On the same day as Nasheed’s MMPRC outburst (Monday, 26 April), the Supreme Court admitted Yameen’s appeal against the High Court confirming the trial court’s verdict. Under the Constitution, he requires a full acquittal to contest the presidential polls in 2023, health-permitting, and if he is not jailed for an equally long term in another case, in between. Caught in the midst of all this is the request for transferring Yameen to house-arrest, as allowed under the nation’s law, which President Solih saying, post-poll, that the government was considering. Nothing is known about it, since.

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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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