Originally Published 2020-06-15 10:00:36 Published on Jun 15, 2020
Can Yameen win more elections for MDP rival?

In the midst of the covid pandemic rocking the nation, Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed sort of took time off to talk politics.  In a hand-written message shared on WhatsApp of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), of which he is the boss, ,the former President said that the court ordered imprisonment of the immediate past-President Abdulla Yameen ‘alone is not just’.

“We said that we will investigate the crimes of treachery in the previous administration. There is no reason why we should hesitate in doing so,” Nasheed said in the statement. He said that “just as so, we have to do what we said with the Commission on Deaths (DDCOM)”.

The Commission, appointed by incumbent MDP President Mohamed Ibrahim Solih, found that local affiliates of international terror organisations like Al Qaeda and breakaway ISIS were involved in the 2014 disappearance and killing of journalist Ahmed Rilwan, as  his views on religious freedom were unacceptable to radical groups. Indirectly, it absolved the Yameen leadership of wrong-doing, as implied by certain sections. The Commission is also probing such other cases, including the murder of young blogger Yameen Rasheed in 2017 and Islamic scholar-cum-parliamentarian Afrasheem Ali at the stair-case landing of his Male apartment in 2012.

Surprise re-tweets

Nasheed’s statement on Yameen was a sort of response to the tweeted greetings Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine leaders on the latter’s birthday on 21 May, when his re-tweeted messages of the latter’s followers confused MDP cadres. Nasheed said that he did not support the ideology nor the actions of Yameen. He said that the imprisonment of “just Yameen” in a scandal was something he “saw as justice”. In this context, Nasheed went on to add, “We said that we will investigate the crimes of treachery in the previous administration. There is no reason why we should hesitate in doing so.”

Jailed, fined

A year after he lost power, a criminal court in capital Male sentenced Yameen to five years imprisonment and $ 5 million in fine, for allegedly diverting $1 m in licensing fee from private investors for development of island-resort, and falsifying statements to police investigators. Yameen has appealed his conviction in the High Court, and the case may go to the Supreme Court as well. However, the intervening Covd19 pandemic has delayed the judicial process.

It is in this background, Speaker Nasheed has said that his party government of President Ibrahim Solih should take forward other pending cases against Yameen. One such case is over a charge of ‘treachery’ or acting unconstitutionally when Yameen was President. The reference is to Yameen as President proclaiming emergency and arresting two of the five Supreme Court Judges on corruption charge after the Full Bench had ordered freedom for all ‘political prisoners’, including Nasheed, who had obtained political asylum in the UK while on ‘prison leave’ for medical treatment.

Transitional justice

Nasheed is a firm believer in the ‘western, liberal’ concept of ‘transitional justice’. Under his leadership of the party, the Solih government also passed the law to investigate “organised and systematic” violations of human rights and basic freedoms by state institutions or senior officials and to establish a legal framework to provide justice and redress for victims, confining to the Yameen regime.

As the first ‘multi-party democracy’ President of the country from 2008-12, Nasheed pursued criminal cases against predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was in ‘elected office’ for 30 long years. Some of the liberals in the Nasheed/MDP camp also questioned the propriety of the government going after Gayoom, then in his seventies, despite being promised personal immunity from criminal cases of the kind, after the former facilitated a ‘smooth transition’ at the end of the 2008 presidential polls.

The Nasheed government’s summoning of Gayoom, who otherwise is considered the ‘architect of modern Maldives’, with tourism-centric economic revival, did not go down well with the masses, cutting across party lines. ‘Pushed to the wall’, Gayoom returned to the centre-stage, when he was expected to retire from active politics, contributing in no small way to Nasheed’s early exit from office, in February 2012. Nasheed’s demand for justice against Yameen in pending cases and new ones, as promised by his MDP ahead of the presidential polls, thus, make political sense.

If the higher courts do not acquit him or reduce his sentence, Yameen cannot contest the next presidential polls that is due in two years, in late 2023. But the sensitive political question remains if ‘over-doing’ the same may not gain public sympathy for the failed and fallen leader, possibly without a political career to call his own, any more.

Surprise vote-share

At the head of a four-party coalition reportedly brokered outside the country, MDP’s Solih defeated incumbent Yameen by 58-42 percent in 2019. The surprise element of the election was not Solih’s victory, as made out by the western media, but Yameen getting a high 42 percent vote-share, against the proven 4.9 percent when contesting alone, likewise, in the parliamentary polls of 2009.

The results indicated that Yameen’s friends-turned-foe in half-brother and predecessor Gayoom and Jumhooree Party (JP) of billionaire-businessman Gasim Ibrahim, who were MDP’s allies in 2018, had lost substantial vote-shares to the former. The picture became curiouser when the MDP won two-thirds majority in the 87-member Parliament, when contesting alone in the 2019 elections but had to be satisfied with a 45.83 percent vote-share.

The splintered and fractured Opposition had still managed a grand total of 54-percent vote-share. It was a clear message for the MDP ahead of the nation-wide local council elections, whose term the party-led Parliament promptly extended from three to five years, in December 2019, long before the pandemic intervention. This has since been followed by another law, facilitating term-continuance for incumbent members for full five years.

Coming now, as it will, the local council polls will be a sort of referendum on the Solih Government, only months prior to the 2003 presidential polls. With Parliament adopting the term-extension law, the divided Opposition and their aspiring leaders have put on hold their ‘alternative models’ and talks in this regard, at least until after the Covid crisis ended.

Unmatched proclivity

The MDP’s proclivity and ability to absorb more of the allies’ votes than that of the political rival is unmatched since the democratisation process commenced with the presidential poll of 2008. Yet, if post-Covid, the Government is going to go back to the Yameen cases, and make them their central political issue for the coming months and years, it could backfire. Or, the chances of Yameen winning the local council and presidential polls in the next two years for rival MDP may be minimal.

Going by South Asian and Third World mood, people tend to ignore a defeated leader until he is pushed on into the centre-stage as the main adversary of the ruling dispensation, as happened in Maldives under President Nasheed (2008-12). More importantly, having voted out the predecessor, the aspirational voter will be looking up to the incumbent, to deliver on his expectations – not necessarily, all of them the ruler’s poll promises from five years past.

Maldives has a young population, with four yearly-batches of first-time voters joining the queue, between the parliamentary polls 2019 and presidential elections 2023. They will be in their late teens, and seeking to stoke their memory about the presidential past of Yameen, when they were all in their early teens, may not help.

In the post-Covid scenario, as after the post-tsunami era in the previous decade, voters, especially the youth and first-time voters, will be asking for jobs and increased family incomes, not avenging the wrongs done to others. This apart, the party needs to remember that independent of the controversial Supreme Court interventions that may have facilitated Yameen’s election in 2013, the MDP’s continued focus on ‘transitional justice’ against Gayoom and also the party’s proclivity to ‘ditch’ allies even then were also factors that cost Nasheed his re-election then.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia weekly.
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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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