Originally Published 2013-02-26 00:00:00 Published on Feb 26, 2013
Gayoom's decision means more things than one in contemporary Maldivian politics. His reference to his party having other worthy candidates for the presidency could imply that Gayoom may not back the candidacy of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik.
Maldives: Will Gayoom's opting out impact polls?
Putting at rest speculation to the contrary, former President Maummon Abdul Gayoom has announced his decision not to contest the presidential primary of his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). He will, however, continue as party president, to which post he was unanimously elected in December last.

Absolutely unconnected to Gayoom's announcement comes the suburban Hulhumale' court decision, denying former President Mohammed Nasheed permission to travel abroad for the third time after the criminal trial against him commenced in the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case'.

A day prior to Gayoom's announcement, again independent of it, visiting UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabrielle Knaul, said that no one was above law, but at the same time questioned the jurisdiction of the Hulhumale' court - a matter already settled by the Maldivian Supreme Court, after Nasheed's defence filed an interlocutory petition in the matter.

"I have decided not to take part in the PPM presidential primary scheduled to be held on the 30th of next month," the local media reported him as saying in a statement on Monday. "There are people within PPM leadership who are capable of filling the Maldives presidency," he said, with three days left for his self-imposed nine-day deadline for announcing his decision, which he said he had already taken.

With Gayoom opting out, the leaders in the race for the PPM nomination for the presidential polls, scheduled for September, are parliamentary group leader, Abdulla Yammen and party's interim deputy leader, Umar Naseer, who did not contest the organisational elections in December. Yameen is a half-brother of Gayoom while Naseer seemingly has the sympathy of Ilyas Ibrahim, Gayoom's brother-in-law, one-time popular Minister for Islands.

Both Yameen and Naseer had contested the 2008 presidential polls against Gayoom under their own banners. Both lost in the first round while Gayoom lost the presidency in the second round to fresher Mohammed Nasheed of the infant Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). While Yameen was Finance Minister under President Gayoom, Naseer does not have any politico-administrative experience.

Not backing Waheed?

Gayoom's decision means more things than one in contemporary Maldivian politics. His reference to the PPM having other worthy candidates for the presidency could imply that Gayoom may not back the candidacy of incumbent President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik for the September polls. Waheed has already declared his intention to contest the polls, preferably as the common candidate of the non-MDP, anti-MDP ruling coalition, or otherwise.

Speculation in the interim had it that Gayoom would run the presidential primary of the PPM - and may after all become party nominee, paving the way for a 'Maumoon-centric' presidential polls as in 2008. Further, speculative reports suggested that Gayoom - and by extension, the PPM - may back President Waheed in the presidential polls. With President Waheed having a political party to call his own in the Guamee Iththihad Party (GIP) and the PPM having announced its primary, his decision to work for the party nominee flows from his recently-acquired position as its elected president.

Quiet and almost withdrawn as Nasheed's Vice-President, President Waheed has since borrowed from their collective developmental agenda of the 2008 polls. Without much disturbing the popular 'Aasandha' health insurance scheme of the Nasheed presidency, President Waheed has been touring the islands extensively, week after week, inaugurating localised developmental schemes already on the stream, and launching new infrastructure projects, which may not be completed before the presidential polls in September.

The political benefits, if any, accruing from such decisions was expected to make President Waheed an attractive nominee for the ruling coalition as a whole. With just over the mandated 3,000 registered members - a third of which came about after Waheed became President - his GIP is entitled to a proportionate share in the State funding for elections, Waheed will require all the help he will require from the large pool of 'non-committed voters' to make his candidacy attractive.

However, the declared decision of individual parties in the ruling coalition to contest the presidential polls on their own, has put paid to ideas for Waheed to be their common candidate. While any unavoidable delays in the Nasheed trial in the 'Judge Abdulla Mohammed abduction case', or a penalty that does not merit his disqualification in the presidential polls may make things that much more difficult for the rest of the ruling parties in the presidential polls, that by itself would not ease President Waheed's electoral situation.

For now, Waheed is left with the possible - and only 'possible', at this stage - support of the religion-centric Aadhhalath Party (AP). Recently, the AP declared its decision not to contest the presidential polls, and announced that it was opening electoral negotiations with the PPM and GIP, intent possibly on appealing to the former to adopt President Waheed as its candidate.

Now, with Gayoom indicating that the PPM -- the second largest political party after Nasheed's MDP, both inside and outside Parliament -- contesting the presidential polls, the decision of the Aadhalath Party too would need watching. Indications are that the AP may stick with President Waheed, if he contested the presidency, in the first-round polling. If invited, the party may go with the non-Nasheed candidacy, if no candidate bagged 50-per cent vote-share and the polls went onto the second, run-off round. A lot will depend on the respective campaigns for the first round.

Is Nasheed the 'poll issue'?

With Gayoom out of the race, the presidential poll campaign promises to be Nasheed-centric. The last time round, Gayoom as the ruler for 30 long years was the central poll theme. He lost the race to the inevitability of anti-incumbency, building up over the long period. It got focussed through the vigorous and vociferous pro-democracy campaign of the MDP and candidate Nasheed. Yet, it was the pooling of divided non-Gayoom, anti-Gayoom votes in the second round that facilitated Nasheed's elevation as President.

The same course may not be repeated this time. Despite the MDP's campaign that the rest of 'em all undemocratic or anti-democratic in relative terms, multi-party democracy as an instrument of politics and political administration has come to stay in Maldives. The nation only needs to adjust itself to the vigour and vitality of the dynamics of democracy, which it may achieve to a greater or lesser extent at the conclusion of the twin polls, this year and the next.

The MDP might continue to keep the electoral focus on democratic institutions in the country, including the Presidency, Parliament and Judiciary. It has a vocal case on each of these institutions, apart from a host of other independent constitutional institutions, the armed forces and the police service. The divided competition, may contest the party's claims on each of these issues, with some staking equal claims to the MDP's democratic credentials during Gayoom's last term in office

Where from those 'additional votes'?

At last count, the MDP has the highest number of 47,000 members, translating into 'committed votes' in an electorate of 241,000. The party had polled a differentiated 37 per cent vote-share in the local council polls of 2011, up from Nsheed's 25 per cent vote-share in the equally free-for-all first round polling for the presidency in 2008. With total registered membership of various political parties in the country not crossing the 50 per cent mark against the total electorate, the MDP is confident that a Nasheed candidacy is a winner in the first round itself.

Others are not so sure - either about Nasheed's claims or their own individual capacity to beat him, and one another at it in the first round. Multi-party democracy in the country having conceptualised the coalition pattern for the presidential polls even at its infancy, a repeat of the second-round readjustment has become both the pass-word and buzzword since. Thus, all non-MDP parties, including the Dhivehi Rayythunge Party (DRP), founded by Gayoom before splitting away a PPM component, and its leader and presidential nominee, Thasmeen Ali, are speaking only about electoral adjustments for the second round.

It is in this context, the choice of running-mate matters to the presidential nominees of individual parties and groups. This is more so for the MDP and Nasheed, who at least at present have little manoeuvrability if the election extended to the second round. For Nasheed and the MDP, his vice-presidential running-mate has to be loyal - more loyal than his choice last time -- and at the same time is capable of bringing in those 'extra votes' which in their perception may be required to bag the presidency in the first round itself.

On his first visit to the Southern Province after exiting the presidency close to a year back, Nasheed declared that his running-mate would come from the region. If he has made the choice, he has not disclosed the name, possibly pending the final-say in the court case and equally possible disqualification of his. Likewise, it would be interesting to see if incumbent Vice-President Waheed Deen, resort-owner, social activist and philanthropist, will become Waheed's running-mate, if the latter chose to test the popularity of his presidency, electorally.

Travel ban

In the midst of all this have come reports about the Hulhumale' court denying him permission to travel overseas, from February 27-March 5, as sought. It is likely that Nasheed's defence will now move higher courts.

New voters

Most of the additional 40,000 voters this time round were in their early teens when Gayoom ruled. As first-time voters now, they have had a taste of the Nasheed presidency (2008-12) and the one-year rule of President Waheed's term. How they react to the pro-democracy agenda of the MDP and Nasheed, how they are swayed by possible disqualification of Nasheed, his 11-day sit-in in the Indian High Commission (IHC) to re-focus global attention on Maldivian democracy and elections, are also factors that will go into their voting-pattern.

It would be a different ball-game if Nasheed were to be disqualified - and the MDP sticks to its National Council decision to boycott the presidential polls altogether. Considering that the party has a vocal, vociferous and equally participatory cadre-strength, it would be saying a lot, in political and electoral terms, as in societal and administrative terms - with impact on the nation's international image and relations as well, at times.

The fact would still remain that whoever wins the presidency, in the first round or the second, would also have to win the parliamentary polls in 2014, if the writ of the new President and his Government have to run in the People's Majlis, or Parliament. That is also where President Nasheed had his early and much of the substantive problems.

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

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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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