Originally Published 2015-03-07 00:00:00 Published on Mar 07, 2015
Nasheed is the nation's most charismatic leader, maybe for all time. In such a scenario, independent of what the court verdict could be in the 'Judge Abdulla case', any disqualification of Nasheed from contesting the elections could see the politically-polarised nation even more sharply divided.
Maldives: Feeble light at the end of the tunnel?

It may be too early to jump to conclusions, or even say that an end is in sight to the current political imbroglio/deadlock in Maldives. Yet, the perceived willingness of President Abdulla Yameen's leadership for talking to the Opposition combine, comprising the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Jumhooree Party (JP), should mean that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel - and that it may also be the only hope.

The hopes about possible negotiations have been kindled after President Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) welcomed the idea in public. Without acknowledging it, the PPM was reacting or reaching out to the MDP-JP joint commission's revived call for talks. The Opposition combine had formed the commission about a month ago, for talks with the Government 'in defence of the Constitution' but went ahead and started daily rallies without giving the Government much time.

On Monday, 2 March, President Yameen delivered his customary annual address to Parliament, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon talked tough, again, on 'outside interference' in internal affairs of the country, and former MDP President Mohammed Nasheed was also produced before the Male court on 'terrorism charges'. Late evening, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, considered a confidant of President Yameen, met with JP leader Gasim Ibrahim and held talks.

Held at the instance and residence of low-profile, highly influential businessman, Mohammed 'Champa' Moosa 'Uhchu', the meeting has since been followed by a ruling combine parliamentarian withdrawing an amendment bill, seeking to fix a 65-year upper age-limit for presidential candidates. Moved a couple of months ago, it was said to have been aimed at Gasim, who would have crossed the age before the presidential polls of 2018. They were also reported to have discussed the Government's $ 100-m dues from Gasim, who however has denied it. According to local media reports, Champa had another visitor a day later, in Zuhaira Umar, a sister of President Nasheed's father and mother of MDP parliamentarian Eva Abdulla.

In his address to Parliament, President Yameen defended the Government's position on implementing constitutional reforms. As was to be expected and indicated in advance, the MDP and the JP staged a protest inside the House, with some media reports indicating that the two parties did so independent of each other. However, the protest did not turn unruly as was the case when then President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik came to address the House on 1 March 2012 - when the entire exercise had to be put off.

Talking tough, this time at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva, Minister Dunya indicated that Maldives needed time to strengthen its institutions, which were yet to find their roles. Possibly addressing nations and international institutions that had taken exception to President Nasheed's arrest and next day's court episode, she asked why they were all silent when a sitting judge and earlier the present-day President were arraigned likewise.

President Nasheed's term in office was the reference point, and Minister Dunya was pointing to the arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohammed, which has now led to 'terrorism trial' against the former. In the day's proceedings, however, Nasheed's lawyers asked why the Prosecutor-General had belatedly brought up 'terror' charge against him, that too after withdrawing the earlier criminal charge, pending for nearly three years.

Nasheed's lawyers did not get a favourable order from the three-Judge Bench on their submission for two of them recusing themselves as they were present when Judge Abdulla was arrested. The Bench ruled unanimously that the judges concerned could choose hear the case, and not wanting to appear as witnesses, instead. Together, Monday's three events, coupled with Friday evening's Opposition rally may have signalled the continuing impasse that the nation's polity would have to break, if there has to be all-round forward movement for Maldives. It's this realisation that also seemed to have encouraged the Opposition combine to move away from street-protests and focus on negotiations with the Government.

Round one for Gasim?

In the normal course, Nasheed's arrest and the dramatic court episode should have deflected the domestic political focus on to him, and away from President Yameen and his half-brother and ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) chief, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. To an extent, yes, it did. Now, however, Nasheed may have to share the limelight with JP's Gasim, his re-discovered ally from the pro-democracy era, when President Gayoom was in power.

A presidential aspirant, who has helped the winner with his substantial vote-share in the first round in the presidential polls of 2008 and 2013, Gasim, like the rest, has already set his eyes on the one due in 2018. And like the rest, he too may have launched his early, mid-course campaign for the presidential polls. His in absentia leadership of the climaxing joint Opposition rally in 'Defence of the Constitution' on Friday, 27 February, was that and more.

In prison, facing 'terrorism' trial in the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case', Nasheed had directed his party to take orders from Gasim at the rally rather than naming one of his second-line leaders to take charge. It would have been untenable too, to expect Gasim to take orders from other MDP leaders in Nasheed's absence.

As coincidence would have it, Gasim too was away in Colombo, leading an MDP-JP team, meeting with the Sri Lankan leadership and foreign diplomats co-accredited to Maldives. He took his job seriously with the result Gasim's message went to the protestors at Male that evening. With some of the MDP leaders with him returning home to join the protest, Gasim also seemed to have done a few rounds of meetings without them, notably with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.

Going by media reports, Gasim announced a few startling decisions/directives to the protestors who had gathered at Male. First, the protests would begin at 4 pm and end peacefully at 6 pm, coinciding with the Islamic evening prayers. Two, and more important, the rally was not aimed at any regime-change in the country. This implied that Gasim was not for demanding President Abdulla Yameen's exit and early polls. The latter was a scaled down version of MDP's original demand for President Yameen to hand over power to Gasim.

An ambitious politician all along, Gasim would have to part ways with the Yameen-Gayoom leadership before the 2018 presidential polls, if he were not supported by the ruling combine. By forcing him to quit through a succession of political moves and governmental decisions, including denial of support for Gasim in the Speaker's election after last year's parliamentary polls, the ruling PPM-led combine clearly showed whom they would not back for the presidency, whatever way it came.

By timing his formal exit from the ruling combine and joining hands with the MDP, Gasim may have shared the Opposition limelight that was exclusively the MDP's. Should the parties get closer still, Gasim might become their main voice when Nasheed is in prison. If per chance, the terror-trial leads to Nasheed's disqualification from contesting elections, then the question might arise should the MDP field another nominee, or back Gasim in 2015.

Nasheed, most charismatic

All this do not mean much in the normal or even abnormal course. The MDP continues to be the single largest political party in the country. Going by Election Commission entries, every eighth, if not seventh, Maldivian is a party member - a high figure for any democracy. Nasheed is the nation's most charismatic leader, maybe for all time. Even when he lost the 2013 presidential polls in the second round, close to half the nation's voters had backed him.

In such a scenario, independent of what the court verdict could be in the 'Judge Abdulla case', any disqualification of Nasheed from contesting the elections based on any such verdict, could see the politically-polarised nation even more sharply divided. But for the sagacious intervention of the twin-party leaderships on Friday, 27 February, too end the rally when it was still under their control, most protestors had arrived with the expectation/promise that they would continue it until President Yameen exited office - and President Nasheed was out of prison.

On return from Colombo, Gasim told the media that some members of the international community could impose sanctions, if the Government did not reverse some of its undemocratic and anti-democratic decisions. Should the international community get involved more than at present, it would then remain to be seen how President Yameen and his Government would act and react - as much to President Nasheed's arrest as to the overall scenario.

'No orders from above'

Should the 'Judge Abdulla case' proceed without interventions of any kind, then Nasheed and his co-accused may have a problem on hand. In such a scenario, the closest that President Yameen could come to if Nasheed were to be convicted and sentenced in the case is to grant him 'presidential pardon' under the Constitution. Accepting such a course take away Nasheed's right to contest the presidential poll, however. It being a terrorism case, the alternate course, would be for him to suffer in silence, a sentence that could be anywhere between ten and 15 years.

However, things do not seem to be too bleak for President Nasheed. In his own preliminary defence, then army chief, Maj-Gen Moosa Ali Jaleel, a co-accused in the 'Judge Abdulla case', has since told the trial court that neither did he receive any orders from above, nor did he issued any orders down the line for Judge Abdulla's arrest. With President Nasheed and then Defence Minister Tholath Ibrahim alone above him, Jaleel seemed to imply that neither of them had given him any instructions. In his recent court appearance, Nasheed too had declared that he had not ordered anyone to arrest Judge Abdulla. Local media reports indicated that the prosecution was likely to depend on President Nasheed's public statements after Judge Abdulla's house to establish their case. But then a periodic trial of Nasheed and a series of appeal court hearings can cut both ways for President Yameen's politics, the popularity of President Yameen - and of the PPM by extension.

However, the latter too would all still be intrigued about the politico-constitutional political possibilities and constitutional logic behind the MDP asking President Yameen to hand over power to JP's Gasim, rather than calling for advancing the presidential poll. Yet, the possibilities on the domestic front, starting now with the feeble Opposition protests, which could get fuelled en route if allowed to linger and last, and the current hesitation of the international community after early condemnation of President Nasheed's arrest and/or the court episode may have encouraged the Yameen-Gayoom leadership to consider negotiating with the Opposition from a position of strength - and keeping it all a 'domestic affair'.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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