COMMENTARIESJAN 10 2017
Maldives: Will Yameen re-position himself in 2017?
N. SATHIYA MOORTHY
Swearing-in ceremony of President Nasheed in 2013
Under the circumstances, it’s inevitable that Yameen would not trust anyone likely to replace him through a ‘constitutional coup’, as Nasheed had described the Waheed succession. Independent of criminal conspiracy cases and a bomb-blast on the presidential boat, Yameen got two of his own vice-presidents impeached by Parliament, the first one with the blessings of sworn-rival MDP and President Nasheed.
It had begun almost from the day Yameen became President. He could not thank the billionaire-business man and Jumhooree Party (JP) founder, Gasim Ibrahim, for backing him in the second, run-off round polling for the presidency in 2013 against Nasheed – and transferring almost entirely the former’s 25 per cent vote-share. But he would not let Gasim, with his own political ambitions, poll-plank and ‘transferrable’ vote-base, to become the Speaker of Parliament.
Read | Court giving PPM to Yameen, Gayoom’s options narrow down
Under the 2008 Constitution, should the posts of President and Vice-President fall vacant, the Speaker would be the next in line to fill in the vacant. Unlike the Vice-President, who would get the reminder of the outgoing President’s five-year term, the Speaker could be in the President’s shoes only for 60 days, when his sole job was to fill in the vacuum for 60 days, for fresh polls to be held and a successor to assume office.
Yameen would not trust Gasim even with that remotest possibility, as things stood when he assumed office. Naturally so, Gasim would be his first target to be squared-up over huge credits that the former’s Villa Group owed State entities, before he would turn greater attention on the likes of Nasheed and Gayoom. It’s possibly in this process that he could not but target his own vice-presidential choices, two in a row.
In a way, Yameen’s threat to Gayoom – or, was it meant to be seen the other way round – also owed from the possibilities of the latter’s family turning against him ahead of Elections-2018. The ‘Maumoon rebellion’, if the Gayooms’ threat to Yameen could be termed so, owed mostly to purported understanding over the former President backing his half-brother whole-heartedly in 2013, with the promise/expectation that he would not run a second term, and would back a Gayoom son, instead, for the nation’s top-most position.
It was possibly the case with the Nasheed camp, but independent of any Yameen threat or initiative. Not long after the 2013 presidential polls, the Nasheed camp within the MDP had begun talking in low voices about his concern and consequent plans for the future. Accordingly, in any future election, Nasheed would campaign to amend the Constitution, to have a Westminster-type democracy, with Parliament and the Prime Minister at the Centre, and away from the existing presidential form on American lines.
The implication was that Nasheed would become the Head of State without Executive powers and would promote younger elements to prime ministerial and ministerial positions, for them to mature in office so as to shoulder greater national and political responsibilities in future. Noble thoughts, yes, but Nasheed’s approach did not measure up to the promises, as was expected of him.
It was thus that December 2014 witnessed Nasheed and the MDP making a sudden push for Yameen to hand over power to Gasim, who was neither the Vice-President, nor the Speaker, not even an ally of them. Instead, Gasim, despite licking his wounds from the Speaker’s polls that he had lost, was an ally of Yameen and the undivided ruling PPM.
Gayoom himself repeated the same folly when he called on Gasim (obviously with appointment) and appeared together before the local media after parting company with Yameen during the year. That was enough to embarrass and harass Gasim, who once again did a U-turn towards the Yameen side, just as he had done vis a vis the MDP following the State’s demand for $ 90 million in unpaid dues — a lot of money, especially in Maldivian economic context.
Maldives-2016 once again reiterated even in its very own context the limitation of international diplomacy and big-power politics to control and conduct events and developments in smaller/tiny nations than had been possible in an earlier era. The Commonwealth, for instance, and the US albeit indirectly in context, could not do much through threats of sanctions and all, to make the Yameen leadership fall in line.
It would have been the same case had there been anyone else in his place in similar circumstances. It was thus left to neighbours like India and Sri Lanka – the latter at a more personal level – to negotiate Nasheed’s ‘prison leave’ for spinal treatment in the UK. The latter did not acquit himself well in the early weeks of his stay overseas, by making political statements and meeting with the political class.
In a way, Nasheed’s going against the court-granted ‘medical leave’ and also the later-day political asylum that he obtained from the British hosts would have suited Yameen well. By jumping the court orders to return after medical treatment, he has brought upon himself another criminal case, whose political consequences could be worse than the legal one. Whether they succeed in their mission, his detractors could well tell the Maldivian voters that such a man who defied court orders and the Constitution should not be trusted with the nation’s presidency.
On the one hand, Yameen also has had his biggest electoral challenger of 2018 out of the way, what with Nasheed having defied Maldivian court orders in over-staying his ‘medical leave’ and refusing to return, and serve much of the 13-year prison term in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’. On the other, Nasheed’s anticipated refusal clearly put India and Sri Lanka on the defensive vis a vis the Yameen leadership.
The Commonwealth too got it wrong. If they thought that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s (CMAG) ‘threats’ to penalise Maldives for non-compliance of commitments made on the democracy front, with particular reference to ‘political prisoners’ and ‘judicial processes’ (read: viz Nasheed in particular), for the medium term, Yameen has thumbed his nose at them by quitting the organisation outright.
Now, Commonwealth has nothing on the CMAG Agenda for their meeting in the early weeks of the New Year, when they were either to verify compliance, or initiate penal measures, whatever it could have been. Instead, there is a stronger message that ‘lesser mortals’ in the global polity have a better way of expressing themselves and strongly than had been credited with in the past.
Yet, the question remains what the future holds for Yameen and Maldives, not necessarily in that order. Post-Brexit, the UK and post-polls, the upcoming Donald Trump presidency in the US would take time to settle down to usual business, especially on foreign policy front involving tiny nations caught in their domestic politics than with the ‘China’ bogey. They may not have as much time for Maldives as the Nasheed camp, among others, might have hoped for. At least, it may not happen in the immediate.
Yet, Maldivian people remain the final arbiter of politics and presidency in the country. There is nothing to indicate that Yameen would consider putting off the presidential polls of 2018 one way or the other – and the ‘constitutional’ way. The greater chances are that he would see greater legitimisation of his regime for a longer period than the other way round – but then the political processes available to Gayoom in the form of a ‘Parliament-nominated, one-candidate’ polls are all in the past.
It’s still advantage Yameen, as no viable opponent capable of winning over the masses against an incumbent President with additional salvos for the political opponent is yet visible. Nasheed is out of the country, and thus out of the reckoning. His inherent suspicions about his own ‘trusted’ second-line got a boost with the ‘Waheed episode’ even as he refuses to reconcile his own contributions to creating enemies of friends and allies.
Gayoom and Gasim cannot contest owing to an MDP-backed constitutional amendment, barring persons above 65 years from contesting the presidency and vice-presidency. Minus Gayoom, there is no other person in his camp just now who can throw up a bigger challenge to Yameen to make the average Maldivian trust the opposition to an incumbent more than in 2008, to campaign openly and vote overly against him.
Neither can the Yameen leadership forget the way Gayoom lost the 2008 polls to a combination of factors – and a combination of Opposition candidates, who were ‘divided when it suited’ Gayoom, and ‘united when it suited’ them. The two-stage presidential polls, with a minimum 50-per cent vote-share for the victor, has been tested in the country both in 2008 and 2013, when the seeming victor from the first round was not the winner in the second.
Gayoom and Nasheed, instead, lost at the end of the second, run-off round, with no candidate having crossed the 50-per cent mark in the first. By hoping to impress the new-generation voter through development of the China-funded kind, and distancing himself from the ‘democratic processes’ of the 2008 variety, Yameen may have re-positioned himself, the voters and Maldives as a whole, between now and Elections 2018. The results would show which way would the nation sail from there, choosing one over the other or an admixture of both, which is what it should be.
This commentary was published in South Asia Monitor.
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