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Rift Between Muizzu and Yameen Injects Fresh Tensions Into Maldives’ Politics

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The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Rift Between Muizzu and Yameen Injects Fresh Tensions Into Maldives’ Politics

The animosity between the two former allies resembles the tensions that arose between former Presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Ibrahim Solih during the latter’s presidency.

Rift Between Muizzu and Yameen Injects Fresh Tensions Into Maldives’ Politics

A poster of PPM-PNC’s presidential candidate Mohamed Muizzu (center) that uses former President and ally Abdulla Yameen (left) to draw votes in the recent presidential election in the Maldives, September 2024.

Credit: Mimrah Ghafoor

A widening political rift between former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and President Mohamed Muizzu, who assumed office on November 17, is casting new uncertainties over the Maldives’ political direction.

This rift intensified on November 24 when Yameen exited the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), a party historically linked to him that is presently in coalition with Muizzu’s People’s National Congress (PNC).

Adding to the irony, Yameen himself had founded the PNC in 2019, motivated by fears of losing control of the PPM to his half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. With Yameen’s departure, Muizzu, who previously served as housing minister under Yameen and was mayor of Malé prior to becoming president, now leads the entire PPM-PNC coalition.

Yameen’s departure from the PPM was fueled by political disputes with the Muizzu administration. He is reportedly infuriated by the Muizzu campaign’s leveraging his name and image to win the September presidential election, only to marginalize him afterward.

Following his exit from the PPM, Yameen has formed a new party, the People’s National Front (PNF). His son, Zain Abdulla Yameen, is officially listed as the main founder due to legal reasons, but Yameen himself remains the de facto leader while technically serving a prison sentence for money laundering. The PNF is fielding its own candidate, former Police Commissioner Hussain Waheed, independently of the PPM-PNC coalition for the upcoming mayoral by-elections for Malé on January 13. The party also plans to participate in the 2024 parliamentary elections.

These recent developments are the culmination of longstanding tensions, primarily rooted in Yameen’s fears of political marginalization. Such fears have been exacerbated by Muizzu’s rapid rise in political prominence.

Despite being the PPM-PNC coalition’s initial choice, Yameen was ineligible to contest the 2023 presidential elections due to an 11-year money laundering sentence handed down in December 2022. While Yameen’s legal team was examining his candidacy options, he directed the coalition to choose a substitute candidate from the PNC. Consequently, Muizzu, who then quickly joined the party eyeing the presidency, was named as the PNC’s presidential nominee just a month before the elections.

Yameen’s eventual support for Muizzu, however, was tepid. After the Supreme Court’s August ruling officially barred him from the presidential race, Yameen initially advocated for an election boycott instead of supporting Muizzu. He finally endorsed Muizzu when it became clear that the PPM-PNC senate would not back the boycott.

During the campaign, Muizzu’s team prominently featured Yameen’s image alongside Muizzu’s on political materials. At PPM-PNC rallies, a seat was symbolically reserved for Yameen. Muizzu also pledged to uphold Yameen’s campaign promises, including the controversial “India Out” campaign. However, after winning the election, the PPM-PNC coalition has largely sidelined Yameen.

After Muizzu defeated former President Ibrahim Solih in the runoff round of the presidential contest, Yameen was transferred to house arrest and later allowed to travel within Malé, but not beyond. Despite these eased conditions, he remains legally convicted and restricted in his political activities.

Yameen declined to attend Muizzu’s inauguration, reportedly frustrated by Muizzu’s lack of communication and refusal to heed his cabinet recommendations. Muizzu did not mention Yameen in his maiden presidential speech, during which he stated his intention to not interfere in the judicial process, implying he would not use his presidential powers to secure Yameen’s acquittal.

Yameen experienced further challenges as key allies, like former Member of Parliament and PNC Chairperson Abdul Raheem Abdulla, shifted their support to Muizzu. Prior to leaving the PPM, Yameen was particularly incensed by Abdul Raheem’s efforts to transfer former PPM members to the PNC, thereby strengthening Muizzu’s position.

Despite these setbacks, Yameen retains significant grassroots support within the PPM-PNC. The extent to which these supporters will migrate to his newly formed PNF or stay with Muizzu is uncertain. While Muizzu has not commented on his deteriorating relationship with Yameen, he is likely keenly interested in where the members’ allegiances will ultimately fall.

The animosity between Muizzu and Yameen closely resembles the tensions that arose between former Presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Ibrahim Mohamed Solih during Solih’s recent term. In the 2018 presidential race, Nasheed, then the leader of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was barred from running due to a terrorism conviction issued against him during Yameen’s administration. This led to the selection of Solih as the MDP’s alternative candidate. Despite his later role as speaker of Parliament, Nasheed felt increasingly marginalized by the MDP under Solih’s leadership.

Nasheed’s eventual split from Solih, his departure from the MDP, and the formation of The Democrats by his supporters significantly contributed to Solih’s defeat in the 2023 presidential election. With these events still fresh in the political landscape, both Muizzu and Yameen have presumably drawn lessons from Nasheed and Solih’s experiences.

It is crucial to note, however, that the estrangement between Nasheed and Solih developed gradually. Their mutual family ties and longstanding friendship ensured amicable relations during the early part of Solih’s presidency. Notably, Nasheed’s campaigning was vital for the MDP’s outstanding performance in the 2019 Majlis elections, during which they secured a supermajority that would support Solih’s legislative agenda. In contrast, the rift between Muizzu and Yameen, between whom there is little love lost, has widened into a chasm within the first week of Muizzu’s presidency.

The PPM-PNC coalition, including Abdul Raheem, now a special advisor to the president at The President’s Office, is confidently predicting a parliamentary supermajority in the upcoming elections, despite Yameen’s absence. However, the elections, set to take place after Ramadan as per the Election Commission, are expected to be competitive. Whether any party can win a majority, let alone a supermajority, remains to be seen.

The entry of Yameen’s PNF, the MDP’s aim to retain their Majlis majority after losing the presidency, and the ambition of Nasheed’s Democrats to make a strong showing, all contribute to an unpredictable outcome. The election results will determine not only Muizzu’s positioning in terms of his ability to advance his legislative agenda but also the extent to which Yameen will cast a shadow over the remainder of his presidency.