Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 18, 2022
The MDP should put a stop to its political infighting and present a united front in the upcoming presidential poll.
Maldives: Should the MDP be worried over poor turn-out in party poll?

In an election with most campaign trappings of a presidential poll, including island rallies and allegations about the misuse of government power, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has elected Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail as the Party Chairman. Identified with President Ibrahim Solih, Ismail polled 27,000 votes (58 percent) against Imthiaz Fahmy aka Inthi, an MP who polled 20,000 votes (42 percent), for the rival group of party chief and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Nasheed.

Coincidently, the poll percentages in the chairman’s poll compared with those for the 2018 presidential election—58 percent for the MDP victor, Solih, and 42 percent for the incumbent loser, Abdulla Yameen. But the comparison should end there.

In the party elections this time, team Solih also bagged the two other posts, namely, the president of the party’s women and students’ wings. Though the former had contested the poll process initially, both Inthi and Nasheed have since congratulated the victor, indicating a willingness to work with him and President Solih, thus promising a smooth march for the party ahead all-important presidential poll late next year. Ismail was cautiously optimistic when he said that the ‘party is divided but we can work together’, now that all sides have accepted the results.

The campaign for the MDP chairman’s election lasted for weeks, when neither side left anything to chance, starting with ensuring greater cadre commitment to the party.

However, for the ruling party, multiple issues remain.  The campaign for the MDP chairman’s election lasted for weeks, when neither side left anything to chance, starting with ensuring greater cadre commitment to the party. In the past three presidential elections (2008, 2013, and 2018), the voter turn-out was a high 90-plus percent. In this background, 47,000 turn-out was half the 94,000 claimed members, either proving the Election Commission’s 54,000-membership accurate, disenchantment with continual leadership feuds, or both.

It was more so in Malé, which houses nearly half of the nation’s estimated 300,000 voters (some of them registered as voters in their native islands). In the capital, only around 3,793 voters (1,920 for Inthi) turned up for the MDP poll, showing that the party is yet to regain after it had lost the traditional stronghold, to the rival PPM-PNC combine of Yameen in the nationwide local council elections of April last year.

The fear is that a substantial number of committed MDP voters as different from cadres and also 20-30 percent of ‘undecided’ voters may stay away from the presidential polls if the MDP did not end the feud and worked to improve the government’s image after Nasheed kept claiming it to be corrupt—more than the political rivals had campaigned over the past two years. The mutual accommodation between the two camps in sharing the island-wise party’s administrative posts will go some way in this regard. It could begin with verifying party membership after Ismail claimed 20,000 ‘bogus members’ ahead of his election.

Unending ironies

Ahead of the poll, Ismail played down the rival campaign that it was the first step to selecting the party’s nominee for the presidential election. Now after his victory, he said that the vote was for ‘winning the presidential election’, obviously with President Solih in mind.

However, Solih would not commit himself. In two years of competitive build-up, his one-time friend and mentor, Nasheed, has declared his intention to contest the party primaries more than once. Solih had maintained stoic silence all along. This time, his spokesperson said a bit more, declaring that the President had not told anyone that he ‘would not contest’. That was after a chat show amid the party chairman’s election declared that Solih would not contest the presidency. If it influenced the party cadre, it did not show in the results.

The mutual accommodation between the two camps in sharing the island-wise party’s administrative posts will go some way in this regard. It could begin with verifying party membership after Ismail claimed 20,000 ‘bogus members’ ahead of his election.

Along with the party chairman, the Solih camp also bagged the MDP women wing president’s post, when Rozaina Adam polled 60 percent of the 41,000 women members (as claimed), 11,708-7961, with just 49-percent turn-out.  Likewise, the Solih camp’s Rifga Shiham won the presidency of the MDP youth wing presidency, with a recorded membership of 32,000. While it’s a clean sweep for Team Solih, the choice, especially for the women and youth wings, may have also re-written entrenched and uncontested beliefs about the personal loyalty of these segments of MDP members—and by extension, Maldivian voters.

Third victory in a row

This is the third straight victory for the Solih camp in the MDP’s internal elections. Earlier, it had swept the nationwide election for general council members, who are voting members in the periodically-conducted party congress, followed by a good win for Mohamed Aslam as the Leader of the House (40-25) earlier this year. Yet, Inthi’s relatively good showing than what rivals were ready to concede at one point, and the poor turn-out should concern the Solih camp as much as the party leadership as a whole.

Now that the Nasheed camp has declared a truce once again, it remains to be seen how Speaker Nasheed as party president in charge of policies and programmes and Minister Ismail as party chairman handling party administration from islands upwards plan to work together to improve the party’s standing and showing in the coming weeks and months. It would produce results only when the cadres and voters alike are convinced/guaranteed that factionalism is a thing of the past in the MDP and no side would throw fresh challenges and surprises between now and the presidential polls.

Now that the Nasheed camp has declared a truce once again, it remains to be seen how Speaker Nasheed as party president in charge of policies and programmes and Minister Ismail as party chairman handling party administration from islands upwards plan to work together to improve the party’s standing and showing in the coming weeks and months.

The immediate question is about Nasheed calling a party congress on 16 August, as unilaterally announced earlier. It would require the endorsement of the Solih-controlled general council. The indication was that Nasheed wanted the congress to fix the date for presidential primaries, but after Fayyaz Ismail’s election, he may at least want to go slow. Indications are that only if a date is set for the primaries would incumbent Solih declare his decision on contesting a second term.

Independent of what route it takes, the MDP has to put up a united face for the three existing allies to trust it to win the presidential polls – with their vote-base(s) making only a limited contribution(s). In his congratulatory message to Minister Fayyz Ismail, Home Minister and Adhaalath alliance leader, Sheikh Imran Abdulla noted how ‘internal interests of political parties are closely linked to national interests under certain circumstances’.

Yameen camp wins by-poll

In a less significant development, Opposition PPM’s Fathimath Nazima won the suburban Vilimalé Women’s Development Committee seat, defeating recent-entrant Maldivian National Party’s (MNP) Aminath Sheeza, 359-358, since confirmed after a recount. The ruling MDP could not contest the seat, rendered vacant by the death of its member as its local unit did not submit the nomination papers before the closing hour.

Independent of what route it takes, the MDP has to put up a united face for the three existing allies to trust it to win the presidential polls – with their vote-base(s) making only a limited contribution(s).

However, the same cannot be said of Yameen’s publicly charged half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom as ‘one of the prime conspirators’ behind what he alleged as the ‘coup attempt’ on 1 February 2018. He was referring to the court’s five-judge full bench acquitting ex-President Nasheed, who had taken political asylum in the UK while on ‘prison leave’. Yameen said that Gayoom’s subsequent arrest ‘owed not to my interests, but because he acted national interests’.

Gayoom’s Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM) promptly called upon the authorities to investigate Yameen’s claims of his influencing the judiciary, and his threats to imprison the nation’s army and police chiefs if returned to power. Separately, Gayoom asserted that he was associated only with the MRM after his daughter and former Minister Dunya Maumoon claimed that he now backed the MNP.

Limitations exposed

At the same time, the police removed ‘India Out’ T-shirts from Yameen’s PPM office, and were probing the source of hand-bills with the slogan found littered on Malé streets. They were also investigating midnight spray-painting of graffiti on the walls of Yameen’s house and party offices, demanding his arrest over the campaign. His campaign became illegal after Solih banned  ‘India Out’ through a presidential decree for being ‘unfriendly’ to a dependable neighbour.

Gayoom’s Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM) promptly called upon the authorities to investigate Yameen’s claims of his influencing the judiciary, and his threats to imprison the nation’s army and police chiefs if returned to power.

For all the hype Yameen attached to his ‘India Out’ campaign, his party has continued to look the other way and focus on the training exercises with Maldivian counterparts commenced by the visiting US military team. Possibly flowing from the bilateral military cooperation agreement signed in September 2020, and enhanced through another in Malé earlier this year, the training programme, named ‘Exercise Black Merlin 22-2’, which includes marksmanship, counter-IED, breaching and close-quarters battles, among others, will go on from 14 May–16 June.

Given these inherent contradictions in the Yameen theme, which has sought to replace the outlawed ‘India Out’ campaign with the anti-Gayoom tirade four years after the event, it only seems to be exposing the limitations of his presidential poll agenda, at least for now. Both India and Gayoom from his 30-year-long presidential days have committed ‘welfare constituencies’, of which the latter went the Yameen way in Elections-2018 that he lost as an incumbent.

With two criminal court verdicts scheduled for next month, the Yameen constituency supports them more than ever, especially if he is to be disqualified and is forced to field another candidate with maximum ‘vote-transferability’.  With politics still in flux, it is time for the MDP to smoothen out its internal differences here and now, or face a tougher presidential poll than it may still be prepared for, as the low turn-out in the party chairman’s election showed in the post-COVID era!

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