A new beginning

Reality and rhetoric can coexist in the same realm in the Maldives. On November 1, former President Mohamed Nasheed landed in the Velana International Airport, Male, after a three-year forced exile, well aware that a lot had changed in the capital city during his exile. One of these realities was a new bridge—the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge that connects the airport island of Hulhule with the capital, Male.

Nasheed, President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and other prominent politicians returning from exile ignored the reality of the bridge and took the ferry from the airport. Although most people travelling to and from the airport use the bridge, the senior leaders of the joint opposition that won the elections insist that the bridge is emblematic of corruption in the archipelago nation. Much of the rhetoric ahead of the presidential election of September 23 was centred on the large-scale corruption in infrastructure projects undertaken by the government headed by President Abdulla Yameen.

The bridge connects Hulhumale, the planned and largely reclaimed residential area north of Male, with the airport island Hulhule and the capital in the south. Yameen attempted to give shape to the long-standing dream in the Maldives to connect two islands further south of Male, Villingili and Thilafushi, with the bridge, but that was not to be following his defeat in the presidential election.

“The whole project reeks of corruption,” said Ahmed Naseem, former Foreign Minister, who was in self-imposed exile in Sri Lanka for over three years. Many in the MDP, to which Naseem belongs, and the other opposition parties, which fought the election with the sole objective of ousting Yameen, are now seeking revenge and action against those who indulged in corruption.

Political prisoners

All the four leaders of the current ruling coalition were in jail for varying lengths of time on flimsy or downright ridiculous charges, but with Yameen maintaining a stranglehold over the system, he made sure that all the leaders were in jail. In fact, at one point there were many former Ministers, two Vice Presidents and two former Presidents in jail.

Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges during the Yameen regime (2013-18) and spent time in prison before he was allowed to go abroad for treatment; Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former President and Yameen’s half-brother who was running the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), spent eight months in jail on a trumped-up charge; Gasim Ibrahim, leader of the Jumhooree Party and a resort owner, spent time in jail before he was allowed to go abroad for treatment, following which he spent more than a year in exile until the end of the September 2018 presidential election; Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of the Adhaalath Party, was handed a 11-year prison sentence during the Yameen years. None of the charges against any of these leaders had any substance, and they might be justified in feeling that they were harassed unnecessarily.

But Yameen seems unfazed. Only because all those who are now in the opposition, barring Nasheed, rallied behind Yameen when he won the election in 2013. It helped that the courts kept directing the Elections Commission (E.C.) to annul results of elections and hold fresh elections until Yameen won. From the time he won, he systematically antagonised his allies with a series of steps that began with the arrest of his own Vice President, Ahmed Adeeb Abdul Gafoor, on the charge of conspiring to assassinate him. Despite all his paranoid missteps, the condemnation by the international community of a slew of undemocratic steps that included the arrest of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and his constant run-ins with India, Yameen’s presidency was never under any serious threat from inside because almost all his detractors were in jail or in forced exile. He is the first President to complete a five-year term after the new multiparty election system came into effect in the Maldives.

Yameen moves residence

Yameen spent his last day in office, November 16, a holiday in the Sunni-Muslim nation, moving from his official presidential palace to his home on Marine Drive. Contrary to the popular narrative that he might flee the country, Yameen has made it clear to his supporters that he is not going anywhere. In his view, the fragile coalition will be exposed sooner rather than later, and he will be there to capitalise on it. “We are effectively the only opposition now,” said Mohamed H. Shareef, Maldivian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, who resigned his post just ahead of the oath-taking ceremony of the new President. “Apart from us [the PPM],everyone is in the ruling alliance. Remember,we received more than 40 per cent of the votes [in the presidential election],” added Shareef, who is also the secretary eneral of the PPM.

At the time of going to press, a Maldivian curt was yet to rule on who was the leader of the party, Gayoom or Yameen. Although the PPM was originally Gayoom’s party, in the course of time Yameen appointed his people to key political posts within the party. With Gayoom in jail, Yameen took control of almost the entire party. Soon after his election defeat, Yameen hurriedly organised a party congress to solidify his position in the party. The details of the meeting were submitted to the E.C.,but it declined to recognise the congress. The E.C., a body to which Yameen made appointments and which included a former secretary general of Yameen’s party, had turned against him after his defeat in the election.

Once he was out of jail, Gayoom tried to take over the party and went to court against the PPM congress that Yameen organised. The court verdict is critical for Yameen because a recognised political party gets funds from the E.C. and has a better chance at voter recall. His other option is to float a new party. But this party can access the privileges accorded to political parties only after the E.C. grants it recognition. A reconstituted E.C. is hardly likely to recognise Yameen’s new party in a hurry.

In just over four months, elections will be held to the People’s Majlis (the parliament). That will be just over 100 days after the new President takes charge. Yameen is confident that if he retains the party until then, he will win a good chunk of seats in the 85-member parliament. “What is this ruling coalition?” asked Shareef. “There are so many contradictions. Yesterday they were just trying to sort out who gets what [in the Cabinet],” he said, referring to a meeting of leaders of the four-party coalition on November 15.

According to “Maldives Independent”, a popular Maldivian news website, the four leaders agreed to meet the President at least once a month “to discuss issues of national importance and offer advice”, president-elect Solih told the press. “While the coalition leaders will offer advice, it will be the President who makes decisions,” he stressed. The reality, Shareef asserted, is far from this.

The Jumhooree Party has a slight upper hand as its candidates hold the posts of Vice President and Majlis Speaker. All issues relating to religion will be dealt with exclusively by the Adhaalath Party, which takes pride in publicising its Islamic credentials. Maumoon and Gasim between them have control of the Majlis and they also have a considerable number of friends in the courts.

Despite losing the 2008 presidential election to a young Nasheed, Maumoon had a hand in shaping the 2008, 2013 and the current 2018 presidential victories. In 2008, he was responsible for ushering in the first multiparty election after about three decades of his rule. However, soon after the 2008 elections, Maumoon parted ways with Nasheed and, following the bloodless coup in 2012, described him as a “cult leader” in an interview to this correspondent. Gasim, who is the biggest businessman in the archipelago nation and owns five resorts, and Maumoon, in alliance, were instrumental in snatching victory from Nasheed in 2013 with their clout over the institutions of democratic polity. Nasheed has insisted that coalitions dilute the ideology of his party and that he would want to stick it out on his own if possible. Indeed, after each victory, the coalitions have tended to become brittle, and the leaders have parted ways.

It is this minefield that the new President has to negotiate. The four leaders put out a statement that they will be “advising” the new President, but does the new incumbent have the space to reject the advice and be his own man? The answer from politicians cutting across party lines in the Maldives is a resounding “no”.

Not enough time?

Managing the coalition is not his only problem. What stares the new President in the face is the fact that he has to accomplish too much in too short a time frame. Well begun, even if arguably the most important part of the work, is just that and nothing more. So, when Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was sworn in as President of Maldives, it only meant that the tough part of the script authored by leaders of a vast majority of the Maldivians has now been acted out and has ended.

There is a very long road ahead for the ruling coalition, and its list of tasks include delivering on promises, getting a parliamentary majority in the upcoming elections, remaining together as a viable coalition, and balancing the country’s strategy with its two powerful partners, India and China.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put out three tweets on the eve of his visit to the Maldives for the swearing-in. “Recent elections in The Maldives represent the collective aspirations of the people for democracy, rule of law, and a prosperous future. We in India strongly desire to see a stable, democratic, prosperous and peaceful Republic of Maldives,” he said. The next tweet summed up India’s approach to the Maldives from now on: “I will convey to the new Maldivian government of Mr Solih the desire of the Indian government to work closely for realisation of their developmental priorities, especially in areas of infrastructure, health care, connectivity & human resource development.”

Ever since Yameen came to power, he systematically cut out Indian investment and projects and replaced it with investment from China and other countries. Apart from investments, Yameen’s unwritten instructions meant a complete stop to hiring of Indian workers at all levels in the Maldives for over two years and an influx of nurses and other paramedical staff from ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. Even Indian cooks and hotel workers were not granted visas under one pretext or another.

But the fact remains that Yameen and his friends in the Chinese government accomplished a level of development and reclamation of the ocean that the Maldives has not seen so far. Work on a new runway in the airport is complete and a new airport terminal is coming up fast.

Male is home to over a third of the 4.5 lakh people in the country. The friendship bridge, opened by Yameen just ahead of the September election, is still a huge draw among those living and working in Male. It is now practical to live in the cheaper and sparsely populated Hulhumale and work in the congested and expensive seat of government, Male. Earlier, a ferry was the only way to commute between the islands. Many Maldivians now go on the 8-km ride from Male to Hulhumale and back just for fun—they have never seen such wide or long roads in their country.

It is clear that the people want development minus the huge debt burden that this brings, which will, at some point, mean paying more taxes. The people welcome the MDP’s idea of a welfare state that doles out benefits, but the alliance will also have to deliver on critical infrastructure. This is easier said than accomplished.

That will be an additional problem on Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s plate.

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