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Political Turmoil in Maldives

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 19, 2015

    Maldives is once again in the throes of political turmoil. Its transition to multi-party democracy, which had begun with the presidential elections of 2008, appears incomplete. The country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is now in prison on charges of ‘terrorism.’ The current president, Abdullah Yameen, who happens to be a step-brother of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, seems to be reverting to the policies of the old Gayoom era. His political witch-hunt of those whom he considers as political opponents has once again left in tatters democracy in Maldives.

    It was hoped that political stability would return after the November 2013 presidential elections, which had brought to power Abdullah Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Though this election was controversial – it was postponed several times by the Supreme Court till it became clear that the outcome would favour Abdullah Yameen – his opponent Mohamed Nasheed of the MDP accepted the verdict thinking that it would strengthen democracy. Subsequently, Yameen also strengthened his hold over power by getting nearly a two-third majority in parliament. (In Maldives power is distributed between the president and parliament.) This led to the hope that the PPM would be able to run the government smoothly. But that did not happen.

    The political equation started changing soon after the parliamentary elections. The first to leave the Abdullah Yameen coalition was the Jumhooree Party (JP) of Qasim Ibrahim with the separation happening over the sharing of power. JP wanted some key positions, especially the post of speaker in parliament. This was not an unreasonable demand because it had polled nearly the same percentage of votes in presidential elections as the PPM. Both parties had received about 25 percent of the votes polled in the first round of the presidential elections and JP’s subsequent support was crucial for Yameen’s victory. However, after winning the presidential and parliamentary polls, Yameen chose to ignore his key ally.

    JP’s departure from the ruling coalition has considerably weakened President Yameen. Now both the MDP and JP are claiming that the Yameen government has lost legitimacy as it does not enjoy the support of a majority of people. Yameen’s position was further weakened when Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim was removed from the cabinet. Nazim has been arrested on the charge of treason and for conspiring against the government.

    The next person to quit the regime was Defence Ministry Coordinator, Mohamed Mushrif, who resigned in protest against the government's "brutality." He has also alleged that the prosecution of Nasheed and Nazim was unfair and politically motivated. Sometime back, Ibrahim Luthfy, human rights envoy of the Maldivian government to the United Nations permanent mission at Geneva, had also resigned on similar grounds.

    Given Yameen’s weak political position, the opposition has upped the ante. It wants the president to hold fresh elections so that a truly representative government could be established. Yameen is also aware of his politically weak situation. To meet this challenge, he is once again trying to exploit the country’s weak institutions. In Maldives, all important institutions including the police, army and judiciary have people who were recruited during the Gayoom era. This is especially true of the judiciary, which has a large number of incompetent and highly biased judges. Former president Nasheed had acted against one such judge, Abdulla Mohamed, in 2012 by ordering his arrest. It was this action that was used to harass Nasheed in the run-up to the presidential election of November 2013. He was actually forced to take shelter in the Indian embassy to avoid arrest. And it was Indian mediation that had allowed Nasheed to participate in the presidential elections, which he lost by a whisker. Now Nasheed, in alliance with the Jumhooree Party, poses a formidable challenge to the Yameen government. And to crush this challenge and further his own political objectives, Yameen is once again using the judiciary as a tool.

    Interestingly, all the earlier charges against Nasheed for arresting the judge had been withdrawn, only to be brought back again under the harsher Anti-Terrorism Act of 1990. The court judgment, which has convicted Nasheed for 13 years, inter alia “classifies an act of terrorism to include kidnapping, holding as hostage or apprehending someone against their will or attempts to kidnap, hold hostage or apprehend someone without their will, for the extrajudicial enforced disappearance of the sitting Chief Judge of Criminal Court."

    It is widely alleged, however, that the courts have not followed the due process of law. Nasheed’s conviction will keep him out from the next presidential election due in 2018. But the resurgent opposition is not likely to accept the verdict. They have already decided to launch a national civil disobedience campaign to free Nasheed. As both sides appear uncompromising in their respective stance, Maldives appears headed for a prolonged political crisis.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India