The citizens of Maldives received a severe jolt earlier this week when the country was placed under a state of emergency for 30 days, during which basic constitutional rights are suspended. This political measure comes just couple of days ahead of a major political rally planned by the main opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The archipelago has not witnessed a political emergency on this scale since 2004. This is the first time since 2008, when multi-party democracy was introduced to the country, that the rule of law and constitutional provisions have been put under suspension.
Ever since President Abdulla Yameen came to power in 2013 after a bitter presidential contest, the country has been lurching from one crisis to another. Yameen put the main opposition leader, Mohamed Nasheed of the MDP, behind bars for 13 years and has been tampering with different democratic and constitutional rights to consolidate his grip on power.
Politics took a new turn in the Indian Ocean republic when an explosion hit Yameen’s speedboat while it was docking in the capital. Yameen escaped unharmed, but his wife and two children suffered injuries. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) could not conclusively establish that the blast was caused by explosives.
The government claims to have recovered huge cache of arms and explosives on an island resort. Last week, the vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, was arrested for involvement in the explosion on the boat, thereby creating paranoia and a deep sense of unease among the ruling establishment. The declaration of emergency on Wednesday comes on the eve of impeachment proceedings against Adeeb in addition to the planned opposition protest.
“The president’s goal is to implicate his vice president and the opposition by declaring [an] emergency,” says Eva Abdulla, a leading opposition parliamentarian, in an interview with The Diplomat. She adds that “the president thinks that by suspending democracy he can gain political capital from the crisis and neutralize his political opponents.”
However, government spokesperson, Ibrahim Muaz Ali, justifies the emergency, stating that “for the safety and security of all citizens in the country the president found it necessary to declare the state of emergency.” Ali dismissed the opposition’s charges.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Ali underlines that “this is not an attack on democracy. We are concerned with [the] well-being of the people … Faced with a national threat these measures have been taken. The recovery of weapons indicates a grave security situation and in this condition it is impossible for any kind of political activity to take place.”
After a long struggle, democracy was introduced to the island nation in 2008 and the first democratically elected government, under the leadership of Mohamed Nasheed, assumed office by defeating Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled the country for almost three decades.
Yameen is the half-brother of Gayoom, and judging by his current actions, shares his half-sibling’s mistrust of democracy. “Ever since Yameen entered office, he has been curtailing the democratic rights of the people under the pretext of national security. The situation is such that the Maldives have lost any semblance of democracy,” says Abdulla.
Mariyam Shiuna, of Transparency Maldives, an NGO, also criticizes the regime, saying that “politics is at the same stage in the Maldives today as it was during Gayoom’s time.” In a conversation with The Diplomat, she emphasizes that “it is very hard to categorize Maldives as a democracy today.”
This is a concern shared by Zaheena Rasheed of The Maldivian Independent, a leading English newspaper. She says that deep political uncertainty has gripped the Maldives today: “It is unsure how long the media will remain independent. Anything can happen.”
Nobody is sure whether the president will extend the state of emergency beyond the constitutionally permitted 30 days. Judging by the way political insecurity and paranoia has gripped the Yameen regime, it is highly unlikely that the Maldives will see a return to normalcy in the near future. Meanwhile, because the archipelago is largely dependent on tourism, the political uncertainty threatens economic stability.
The current crisis comes at a time when the Maldives is witnessing the rising influence of radical Islamic groups in the country. The number of Maldivian youth joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria also is increasing at an alarming rate.
“The only way out of the present mess is to get rid of Yameen. It is only then democracy will get a new chance in the country. The island nation has turned the clock back to the pre-2008 days in just two years of the present government,” states Abdulla.