Maldivian Turmoil Veers between Adamant Administration and Opportunistic Opposition
Anushree Ghisad, Research Associate, VIF

"No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems, of which getting elected and re-elected are No. 1 and No. 2. Whatever is No. 3 is far behind". -Thomas Sowell

The ongoing Maldivian turmoil is turning more and more chaotic with every passing day. The Opposition Coalition consisting of influential political leaders drawn from different political parties, such as former President Mohamed Nasheed, Gasim Ibrahim, Sheikh Imran and former Supremo Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, sought for the third time, to file a ‘No Trust Motion’ against the Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed on July 24. This was foiled by the Yameen Government by ordering the security forces to lock up the entry gates of the Majlis building, citing the security reasons in view of the visit of the Prime Minister of Pakistan. It may be mentioned that even though the Majlis was not in session, normally the premises remain open for the Parliamentarians and staff.

The Opposition Coalition’s first attempt to table this motion in March this year ended with their eviction from the Majlis by the troops. During their second attempt in April 2017, the Majlis rules were changed, mandating support of half of the total Members of the Parliament (MPs) as against the previous requirement of only one third. Their third attempt in July saw a near repeat of March with military intervention to physically block the move.

The Plan and its Probable Implications

Opposition’s plan is simple and well defined- remove the Speaker through the No Trust Motion and then seek President’s resignation on the ground of loss of majority in the Majlis, and also loss of popular support as reflected in the recently concluded election to the Local Council. As per the Constitution, they would then ask the Vice President to take over and finally participate in the next Presidential election.

This move of the Opposition Coalition is intended to politically discredit President Yameen before the Presidential election of 2018. The Opposition coalition has made it clear that controlling the legislature was crucial for ensuring free and fair Presidential election. The unified coalition wants to stage a political comeback by toppling President Yameen, which has become an existential crisis for the President.

The Power of Numbers

The Opposition Coalition claims to have mustered the support of 45 MPs in the 85 members Majlis, comfortably crossing the mark of 50 percent support required to unseat the Speaker. In the coming days, they plan to launch unrelenting protests until they achieve their objective. But what could be additionally unnerving Yameen is the possibility of the Opposition Coalition mustering more numbers to reach the critical figure of 57, which is a two third majority mark required to impeach the President. This could explain the Attorney General’s move to file a case with the Supreme Court on July 10, 2017, requesting for termination of Majlis membership of those parliamentarians who switch from one party (on which they got elected) to another. This is clearly seen as an attempt to discourage the MPs from floor-crossing, which has become very critical in the fast evolving political scenario. The opposition leaders have, in response, quickly announced that they will re-elect such MPs through by-elections to the constituencies thus vacated. Thus the trend of rising defections from the ruling coalition may not halt in the immediate future.

Advantage Nasheed- Hooraying International Media

The Opposition Coalition, in the meantime, continues to garner massive international support, largely on account of the undented image of the former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is now in exile. This can also be attributed to the strategic communication by the high profile team of Nasheed’s international lawyers. From appearing on the famous Late Show with David Letterman within 50 days of his ouster as President of Maldives in 2012, to his speaking at Oslo Freedom Forum in May 2017, Nasheed has ensured that his voice in favour of freedom, democracy and Human Rights continues be heard on the right platforms. This has paid off in the regular coverage of the volatile developments in Maldives, leading to shaping the public opinion outside the country. Even this time around, the strategic communication tram of Nasheed had communicated to the international community well in advance, the move to file the No Trust Motion, to create a receptive audience. Senior Gayoom made a pragmatic choice of joining the Nasheed bandwagon, as ouster of his step brother Yameen, with the backing of well-crafted support of the international community would garner greater legitimacy.

Assessing Nasheed’s Claims on the Chinese Projects

In an interview to a private news channel on July 21, 2017,1 Mohamed Nasheed said that the Oppossition will terminate all the Chinese projects in the country if it comes to power, as the due process of law was not followed. According to his estimate, Maldives presently owes more than 70 percent of its international debt to China with 20 percent of the budget going to the debt cell, a situation which can push the country into a debt trap. Maldives forms an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with President Xi Jinping reiterating, “Relations between China and Maldives would be further strengthened under the Maritime Silk Road initiative” during his official visit to the country in September 2014. Against this backdrop, Nasheed’s statement that the opposition would terminate the Chinese projects, assumes significance.

Nasheed might mean what he is saying, but the fact remains that any government in power is guided by economic compulsions and geopolitical necessities. This is even truer in case of a strategically located small island country which is likely to fall for a larger geostrategic calculus of bigger countries. Sri Lanka is a living example where eventually the government of the day had to budge on the issue of excessive Chinese investment under the domestic economic compulsions. Further, in case of the Maldives, one has to account for the fact that the most of the Chinese investment projects were sanctioned when the Senior Gayoom was yet to defect from the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). So, even if the Opposition Coalition wins the next election, there is no absolute assurance that it shall act in unison. After all, the only common minimum programme that binds the Coalition is the urge to dethrone the incumbent- Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

Political Instability- The Only Certainty in the Maldives?

In case of a nascent democracy like Maldives, the gestation period required for the stabilisation and percolation of democratic values may not be over yet. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect implementation of democracy of the Western model in the short span of time. More so, the political turmoil that is currently unfolding in the island nation is not a new phenomenon. It had surfaced even in 2011, albeit with lesser intensity. Nasheed’s removal in a political coup on February 7, 2012 was preceded by two prominent waves of public demonstrations- first driven by deteriorating economic situation of the country and other in the wake of Arab Spring when Nasheed’s opposition charged the regime as ‘not in alignment with Islamic values’.2 It happened then under the pretext of defending Islam; today’s pretext it is to defend liberal values. Tomorrow may prop something else that may propel everyone but the ruling party to form a unified opposition to challenge the existing disposition. President Yameen is displaying every single tenet of a frantic ruler eager to maintain and consolidate his grip at any cost and this frenzy has damaged his reputation massively at the international level. He is probably advised by a small coterie that prefers to live in delusion than confront the reality. But that does not legitimise the opportunistic behavior of the other opposition leaders, who want to make most out of the international atmosphere that is already in favour of Nasheed. Technically, most of the prominent opposition leaders cannot return to politics at least for a decade due to various charges pressed against them.

As for President Yameen, he will try every trick, conventional or unconventional, constitutional or otherwise, to cling to the power. He might try to divide the opposition and reduce their strength from the current 45 MPs. Even if the Opposition Coalition manages to gather 57 MPs to impeach him, he will not let the motion come up. The only chance that it stands is if the security forces refuse to listen to the President. Even Nasheed had lost the game only when he lost the loyalty of the police force and the military and he realized that his grip was slipping.3

In case of Maldives, it is too early to draw conclusion as the situation is constantly evolving at a dramatic pace; the tide can turn either way. Perhaps the only conclusion that can be drawn with utmost certainty is that amidst this intense power struggle, every political leader is sharpening his saw either to secure his position or to recapture it.

Endnotes

1 ‘Anti-China Forces Rises in the Maldives’, WION Gravitas, World is One News (WION), July 21, 2017
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8zk-L4XorQ&t=8s.
2‘Maldivians Demand Resignation of the President 2011’, Global Nonviolent Action Database
http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/maldivians-demand-resignation-president-2011.
3 ibid.


Image Source: https://i1.wp.com/thewire.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/maldives.jpg?ssl=1

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