An Indian Ocean archipelago of more than 1,992 coral islands scattered across the Equator, the Maldives is known for its emerald green waters and pristine beaches. Visiting tourists usually view it as a tranquil paradise. Maldivian politics, though, have rarely been peaceful.
A British protectorate until 1965, the Maldives has been under authoritarian rule for most of its post-Independence years. Maumoon Gayoom ruled with an iron first for 30 years. Yet he was not immune from challenges. In 2003, mass protests erupted over torture in prisons. These quickly snowballed into a powerful movement for democracy, forcing Gayoom to introduce political reforms. Those reforms in turn culminated in a new Constitution, legalization of political parties and multi-party elections to the presidency, parliament and local councils.
Gayoom’s authoritarian rule ultimately ended in 2008, although his influence remained strong. Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) defeated Gayoom to become the country’s first democratically elected president.
Nasheed and the MDP faced enormous difficulties. With Gayoom-era appointees and cronies firmly entrenched in the judiciary, bureaucracy, police and military, the Maldives’ nascent democracy was stymied. Meanwhile, anti-democratic forces joined hands with religious conservatives and accused Nasheed of working with Jews and Christians and undermining Islam. Almost from his first day, Nasheed was at loggerheads with the judiciary. Officials in various state institutions ignored the Executive in making decisions, undermining Nasheed’s authority. Massive demonstrations against the president and the MDP were organized, plunging the archipelago in unrest and instability.
Then, on February 7 last year, Nasheed stepped down. Was it voluntary or was he pushed? In a New York Times op-ed, the former president claims the later, writing of police officers and army personnel loyal to the previous regime mutinying and forcing him “at gunpoint, to resign.” He continued, “I believe this to be a coup d'etat and suspect that my vice president, who has since been sworn into office, helped to plan it.” This account is denied by the vice president – now president – Mohammed Waheed, who claims that Nasheed “resigned voluntarily.” Dismissing coup allegations, Waheed says that he became president through “a constitutional transfer of power,” after Nasheed resigned.
Eighteen months on, Maldivians continue to heatedly debate the events of February 7. Early last month, they finally got the chance to have their say in a presidential election. The result was emphatic, yet not decisive: Nasheed won 45.5% of the vote. His opponents – Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) (25.35%), the Jumhooree Party’s Gasim Ibrahim (24.07%) and the incumbent Waheed (running as an independent) (5%) – were left trailing far behind. The outcome? A run-off.
Scheduled to take place on September 28, the run-off vote was to be a clash between Nasheed and Yameen. The latter is Gayoom’s half-brother.
The Supreme Court Intervenes
At least, that was the plan. But late last week, the Maldives Supreme Court announced that the run-off vote should be postponed indefinitely. It is a move that is both unconstitutional and an assault on the country’s fragile democracy.
The decision has been criticized by Nasheed's MDP as a “complete defiance of the Constitution,” an act of “betrayal of democracy and the will of the Maldivian people” by a “discredited court.” Indeed, Article 111 of the Maldivian Constitution says a run-off must be held within 21 days of the first round of voting. September 28, the day the Election Commission had scheduled for the run-off, was that deadline.
Many observers believe that the postponement of the run-off is an extension of what happened eighteen months ago. The sharp polarization between pro and anti-democratic forces persists.
“Anti-democratic forces who we thought we had defeated in 2008, asserted themselves in 2012 and have regrouped now, acting through the judiciary to keep Nasheed from returning as president,” a Maldivian businessman, who participated in the pro-democracy protests a decade ago and is based now in India, tells The Diplomat. “By keeping Nasheed out, these forces are preparing the ground for the Maldives return to full-fledged authoritarian rule,” he warns.
Issuing an injunction deferring the run-off, the Supreme Court said early last week it was hearing an appeal filed by second runner-up Ibrahim, who has alleged electoral fraud in the first round of voting on September 7. The court allowed Ibrahim’s appeal even though the Maldivian Election Commission questioned the credibility of his evidence. Local and international observers also said that the election was free and fair.
Yameen, Ibrahim and Waheed have come out in support of the court order deferring the run-off. According to Aishath Aniya, who runs the 97Minivan radio station, Ibrahim wants the election result annulled. He “truly believes he can win the election,” she tells The Diplomat. A tycoon, Ibrahim is believed to have funded the ouster of Nasheed last year and spent vast amounts of money bribing voters in the September 7 election, Aniya claims.
It does seem Ibrahim is determined to make it into the final round any which way he can, with his deep pockets then delivering him the presidency. He will be hoping that the Supreme Court annuls the preliminary election result. Yameen wants the poll postponed. He believes “he can attract more votes if he gets more time” to campaign, according to Aniya.
Noted Maldivian blogger and political commentator Ismail Hilath Rasheed tells The Diplomat that the Gayoom family is behind the court order deferring the run-off. “Loyalists of Gayoom and therefore of Yameen control the judiciary, Judicial Service Commission and the courts,” Rasheed points out.
Interestingly, the PPM wants the Supreme Court to decide who gets to be president should presidential elections not take place by November 11, when the present presidential term ends. Yameen, Ibrahim and Wahid are “together in it,” Aniya claims. All three are determined to keep Nasheed out of the presidency. “If Nasheed were to become president, they know with time his leadership and policies will cement public support. They fear they will lose their grip over power forever.”
United against Nasheed they may be, but Yameen, Ibrahim and Wahid are also bitter rivals. All want to be president.
Political commentators say that the intervention by the apex court is not surprising. This election “was always going to lead” to the Supreme Court, argues Azra Naseem in an op-ed piece in Minivan News. “No matter what the election results were — if they put Mohamed Nasheed in the lead, the ultimate decision of who wins would be made by the judiciary, the most corrupt and dysfunctional of the three separated powers,” she writes.
A senior MDP source meanwhile warns of the possibility of a military coup.
This is “likely,” Rasheed says. Two key facilitators in Nasheed’s ouster, Mohamed Nazim and Abdulla Riyaz, are in positions now to instigate this. Riyaz is the Commissioner of Police and Nazim was appointed Minister of Defence soon after Nasheed’s ouster last year. However, “rather than a ‘new’ coup, it will likely be in the form of a ‘continuation’ of the coup that happened last year,” Rasheed observes.
Developments in the Maldives have evoked varying responses While the U.S. issued a bland statement that simply encouraged “all political parties to work together peacefully and ensure that the democratic process can continue in a way that respects the rule of law and that represents the will of the Maldivian people,” the Commonwealth described calls for annulment of the election as “deeply worrying.”
Neighboring India issued what has been described as “one of its strongest statements on a friendly south Asian country in recent times.” It called for the holding of the run-off election “as scheduled,” signaling endorsement of the MDP position. India is “deeply disappointed and distressed” with the postponement of the run-off, according to its Minister of External Affairs, Salman Khursheed.
India’s relations with the Maldivian political elite have gone through a number of evolutions over the years. For several decades, New Delhi backed Gayoom, even sending in paratroopers to prevent a coup to oust him in 1988. But when mass protests erupted in 2003, it nudged the dictator to initiate political reform. Its ties with Nasheed were extremely warm. Yet when Nasheed resigned it welcomed the transfer of power as peaceful. A poor reading of what happened and concern over the deteriorating security situation on the archipelago is believed to have resulted in its initial support for Waheed. In the 18 months since Waheed became president, Delhi’s relations with Maldives have frayed over the latter’s cancellation of a massive infrastructure project with India’s GMR. More importantly, Waheed’s growing dalliance with China has annoyed India.
Differences between the Wahid government and Delhi on the deferred run-off are likely to strain ties further. A reported meeting between India’s high commissioner to Maldives Rajeev Shahare and Election Commissioner Fuwad Thowfeek, who announced earlier that the Election Commission would go ahead with the run-off as scheduled despite the court order, has raised hackles in Male. The Maldivian government reacted swiftly, summoning the Indian envoy for “interference” in Maldivian affairs.
Maldivians will be anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s verdict. Will it annul the election result and call for fresh elections, enabling Ibrahim to mount a renewed effort for the presidency? Will it dismiss Ibrahim’s appeal and announce a new date for the run-off, facilitating Yameen’s campaign? Or will it keep the election process in suspension, extending Waheed’s presidency? The verdict will depend on who the apex court is backing. Meanwhile the Maldivian military will be planning its moves.
Whatever the outcome, the future of the Maldives’ badly damaged democracy looks bleak.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].