Uncertainty In Maldives

 P. Kharel

 

Having resorted to machination and intimidation, Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom was recently taken by complete shock and surprise that the opposition groups in the island chain’s 85-seat parliament, known as majlis, collected the signatures of a majority of the MPs. The opposition early this month claimed to have the signatures of 45 MPs, aimed at moving a motion in the house against the speaker.

That meant the defection of 10 MPs to the four-party opposition force creating a situation quite different from the earlier one that had seen Gayoom feel assured by a 48-seat majority in the Sunni nation with a population of 400,000. Apparently, the opposition laid the groundwork for collecting the signatures in great secrecy, lest the ruling regime unleash defensive measures that could include trumped up charges against the suspects planning to defect to the opposition camp.

Gayoom is intensely ruthless when it comes to the slightest of risk to his stay in power. As the past has time and again shown, he does not hesitate to harass or jail opponents if he finds their activity in any way a threat to his position. In November, he declared a state of emergency to circumvent protest rallies called by the MDP. The planned rally was to show support Mohamed Nasheed, the island country’s first democratically elected president who was not allowed to complete his term in office.

 

Political struggle

The latest development means that the opposition, led by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), is moving steadily in its determined direction to defeat Gayoom in the presidential election due next year.

However, the draconian Emergency measures banned protest marches and an array of other basic rights enjoyed by citizens at normal times. That Gayoom felt so vulnerable was echoed by the senseless state of emergency. It betrayed the president’s sense of shaky position amidst growing public disenchantment with his regime. As if to add to the uncertainty came the exiled leader Nasheed’s announcement in February that he would return home to contest the next presidential election next year.

The widely popular Nasheed has called for international pressure on Gayoom to allow him to run the election without any hindrance. Nasheed was ousted in 2012 by a group of security personnel in collaboration with forces that that were close to the previous regime that had clamped a one-party dictatorship for three decades under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the half-brother of the present president.

Having monopolised power and privileges for three decades, supporters of the old regime are not reconciled with the new multiparty polity which saw the island chain’s first ever democratically elected president in Nasheed.

In 2007, not only did Nasheed’s MDP won the majority of seats in parliament but the long-ruling Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was defeated in the first multiparty polls, thus ending the latter’s rule. This had not happened without a long struggle, though. Popular unrest had occurred every now and then, only to fade away under the draconian measures the Gayoom regime unleashed to quell protests against it.

Divide the opposition and rule over the island chain whose chief source of income is tourism industry was Gayoom’s tactics which, however, failed to work in 2007. Enough was enough to the Maldivians who saw through the incapacity of Gayoom and his coterie. Those close to the regime monopolised privileges and gave hardly any hope to the vast majority of the underprivileged to improve the quality of their lives.

Gayoom tried to project himself as a man with international “standing”. He even used the government of India’s two separate invitations for the honour of chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in the world’s “largest democracy”. Such postures were, sooner or later, to be dismissed as a ploy to prolong Gayoom’s stay in the seat of power. People wanted change, reforms and initiatives that matched with their aspirations in a new millennium.

Hence the series of mass demonstrations a decade ago attracted international attention to the degree not witnessed anytime previously. Repressive measures did not drive away the protesting crowds who this time displayed a far greater level of determination in a do-or-die manner.

Sensing the tide of mass protests going on a course that could deny a turmoil-free life if ousted from power, Gayoom and his coterie blinked first and agreed to political reforms, including the right to form political parties.

The initial elation and excitement among the people proved immature. As president, Nasheed had ordered the arrest of a Gayoom-appointed judge of the Supreme Court on charges of misuse of office. Shortly after, the democratically elected president was forced to resign with menacingly gun-toting forces overlooking the perfidious transaction of forced resignation.

In 2013, Gayoom defeated Nasheed in a disputed election, in which the Supreme Court annulled the first round which Nasheed was clearly leading. No wonder, the new dispensation, closely associated with three decades of one-party autocracy, did not take any measure to institute any probe into the allegations against the Supreme Court judge. Instead, terrorism charges were levelled against Nasheed who was sentenced to 13 years in jail after a widely denounced trial.

 

Nervous rulers

Two years ago, the ailing Nasheed, in the wake of international pressure, was able to leave the country for a back surgery in London, where he sought and obtained political refuge. His popularity remains a constant threat to the anti-reformists, who in tone and tenor, uphold the authoritarian decades. Meanwhile, some of the allies and friends of Gayoom are also unhappy with him.

Qasim Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Jumhooree Party, was arrested in April on president’s order for “plotting to oust the government”. A presidential candidate in 2013, he supported Yameen in the second round that just about enabled him to scrape through to presidency.

While the rulers in capital Male face growing unpopularity, Nasheed is the opposition’s source of rallying point in mustering public support for political reforms required for a democratic process to take full force.

Between now and the election time next year, anything can happen, given the unpredictable nature of the Gayoom regime. The three main issues are: Will the election be held on time? Will its conduct be free and fair? And, last but not the least, will Nasheed be allowed to contest? The answers to these questions will determine the tiny archipelago’s political course.

 

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