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Maldives Stares at Political Instability as Speaker Nasheed Snaps Ties with Friend Solih

Maldives’ Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed (right) has declared his decision to break ‘political alignment’ with long-time friend, President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih. File photo: Reuters

Maldives’ Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed (right) has declared his decision to break ‘political alignment’ with long-time friend, President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih. File photo: Reuters

In an era of mobile-connect and social media, any perception of political instability and security concerns could kill tourism economy, almost for good.

In a none too unanticipated move that may have come a little early, Maldives’ Parliament Speaker, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, has declared his decision to break ‘political alignment’ with long-time friend, President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, hinting at a longer period of political instability and administrative confusion than already present. “It does not matter to me if some MDP members are unhappy with this, but if former President (Abdulla) Yameen and his PPM (Progressive Party of Maldives) support moderate religious views, I will ask for their help,” he added, shocking his MDP cadres and supporters alike.

Thankfully for Maldivian Democratic Party’s supporters, PPM president Abdul Raheem has pooh-poohed Nasheed’s idea. “Neither PPM nor President Yameen is going to go into a blind deal with Nasheed. We are not interested in Nasheed and Ibu’s quarrel,” he has since said, obviously after consultations with Yameen, now under house arrest. Incidentally, Mohamed Saeed, vice-president of a second Yameen-centric party, People’s National Congress (PNC) has recently likened the Solih government to a ‘ghost ship in the high seas,’ not knowing where to go, or how to go there.

While the PPM announcement may be embarrassing for the Nasheed camp, friends and critics alike are not surprised at what now turns out to be his unilateral decisions and declarations, which may not relate to ground reality. In this case, MDP is already seen as a divided and losing party, and the Yameen-centric PPM-PNC combine purportedly stands to gain by wresting the initiative, to be able to win future elections. In April, they snatched away the prestigious Malé mayoral poll from the MDP for the first time ever.

The Solih camp has maintained stoic silence as always. In private, they have been airing the view that like in the US, from where the presidential scheme was borrowed, the ruling MDP should give the incumbent a second term in office. Nasheed, justified as he may — or may not — be, was still young and could take a shot five years hence in 2028, under a governmental system of his choice.

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Incidentally, barring President Solih calling on Nasheed in his hospital after the May 6 targeted bomb-blast against the latter, they have not met, other than in official functions, since October last year. Nasheed now using ‘religious moderation’ as the yardstick for a tie-up with Yameen hence raises more questions than usual.

Nasheed mentioned his intention to approach Yameen on a ‘system change’ a few weeks earlier. It did not receive any response, unlike this time. By adding a conditionality, Nasheed may have now implied that he was looking at a long-term relationship. If so, the question arises if Nasheed was/is looking at a constitutional means to neutralise the Solih leadership, without waiting for the elections in 2023.

PPM Abdul Raheem’s loaded reference to the party not being interested in a ‘blind date’ with Nasheed, needs to be viewed in this background. His statement that they were not interested in any internal squabbles within the MDP may also be indicative of their desire to know more—and also to demand more.

Translated, it could mean that the Yameen camp was telling Nasheed to settle his squabbles with Solih (to his own advantage) and then approach them. Such a course could mean a politically weakened Nasheed having to eat out of Yameen’s hand. Alternatively, if a patch-up were to occur in the MDP after Yameen had served Nasheed’s purpose, the PPM-PNC combine could lose its current ‘advantage.’ It could be left high and dry.

Only Two Parties

Nasheed and the MDP had built their politico-electoral career based on their collective opposition to what they propagated as the ‘Gayoom sibling autocracy and corruption.’ It comprised Yameen’s presidency (2013-18) and the longest-serving Gayoom presidency, 1978-2008, in the pre-democracy era.

In recent times, international opprobrium on his corrupt and autocratic ways, which helped him cement strong relations with China, cost Yameen the presidency in the 2018 elections. He is now serving a five-year prison-term. He will remain disqualified from contesting the 2023 presidential polls unless the Supreme Court, acting on his pending appeal, acquits him of all charges — and other pending and fast-tracked investigations in other cases, takes a back seat.

Yet, after the 2009 parliamentary polls that the MDP lost, Nasheed, then President, had declared that the polls had shown that there were only two parties in the country, namely the MDP and the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) — now, PPM. Yameen’s half-brother, President Maumoon Gayoom, had founded the party and later merged it with the PPM that he founded later — only to lose the leadership to Yameen in a ‘palace coup’ of sorts, during the latter’s presidency.

Mounting Frustrations

The frustrations of the traditional MDP supporters have been mounting since the 2018 presidential polls. Despite a two-thirds majority for the MDP alone in Parliament, the Solih government’s performance has been below par, almost from day one.

Secondly, using allegations of non-governance and corruption against the government, Nasheed has been taking the party to the precipice over the past several months. At the height of it now, he has declared his willingness to work (even) with Yameen’s combine than set right matters that his camp sees wrong in the MDP and Solih leadership.

By doing so, that too without guarantees from the Yameen camp that his proposal would not be turned down, Nasheed may have ‘exposed’ himself even more. His willingness to work with Yameen without clarifying what it was all about has implied that he was ready to turn his face away from allegations of autocracy and corruption that his party had levelled all along.

Rather, he seemed to be telling MDP supporters that Yameen’s corruption was better than that of the Solih government. This is unacceptable to most of them, at least as of now. Likewise, Nasheed’s declaration that he did not care for MDP cadre-opinion in his decision to align with Yameen has shown him up as an ‘autocratic leader’ in a hurry to return to power, political morals and principled politics no bar.

Touch-and-go Affair

Despite a two-thirds majority in Parliament (65/87), the Solih camp has been unstable from the very beginning, owing both to a rudderless approach to political administration — as was also the case with the Nasheed government a decade back. Nasheed’s constant attacks on the government leadership has not helped, either. The bomb-attack on him raised unprecedented security concerns.

Now, after Nasheed’s latest declaration, which is tantamount to a vertical split in the ruling party, the nation is staring at political instability with an added sense of national insecurity. At last count, the 65-member MDP parliamentary party continues to be divided 2:1 or so, in Solih’s favour. If the Nasheed camp votes against government bills and resolutions, alongside the Yameen-centric Opposition, it could become a touch-and-go affair, at every turn.

In the absence of an anti-defection law, this could mean either camp in the MDP could commence outright horse-trading, which could include third parties and independents, too, adding to the confusion. Such a course need not preclude the Yameen combine to try and fish in the troubled wates, both inside Parliament and outside, too.

In such a situation, every arm of a politically-polarised civil service could become paralysed, sooner than later. In a nation where the security agencies, namely, the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) and the Maldivian Police Service (MPS), are politically branded, often without justification, another blast, targeted or not – and that would be it.

All of it is happening at a time when the nation’s tourism economy has floundered through the COVID pandemic, and the finances are worse than any time before in recent years. In an era of mobile-connect and social media, any perception of political instability and security concerns could kill tourism economy, almost for good.

Didi in the Dock?

Adding to the woes of the government and the nation are reports of laxity — as different from insincerity — on the part of defence minister Mariya Didi, party chairman when Nasheed was president from 2008-12. The police are to investigate minister Didi and MP, Ilyas Labeeb, after Parliament’s ‘241 Committee’ probing the security lapses in the bomb-attack on Nasheed had concluded that the two had failed to share prior information with the police. The MDP parliamentarian had contested minister Didi when she said that they had no prior alert about the blast.

Labeeb claimed to have shared information on phone, about a US$ 3 million plot to assassinate Nasheed, first with the latter and later with minister Mariya, days before the assassination attempt. Other than asking him to report the matter to the security agencies, she did not seem to have initiated any action, citing the absence of ‘actionable intelligence’ in the matter.

If the police had already quizzed Labeeb on the source of his information and have also proceeded backwards from there, such information has not been shared with the public. This could mean that Home Minister, Imran Abdulla, leader of the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) ally of the MDP, too may be put in the political dock – with demands for his explanation and Mariya Didi’s resignation.

New Contenders

Whether or not Mariya Didi remains defence minister, one more of Nasheed’s ‘self-goals’ has come at a time when new contenders are entering the presidential race, concluding that the MDP is no more as united and invincible as it used to be, and that voters have not accepted Yameen back in the fold. Veteran army officer and former defence minister, Col Mohamed Nazim (retd) has since quit the Jumhoore Party (JP) of billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim, after announcing his decision to float a new party.

Along with Nazim, fellow parliamentarian and former top cop, Abdulla Riyas, have formally quit the JP, long after founder Gasim had labelled the latter ‘disloyal’. Independent MPs Ahmed Usham Mohamed Nasheed Abdulla have also joined in. Col Nazim said that they would enroll the mandatory 3,000 members to register their party. According to some reports, the group is likely to join the National Solidarity Party, spearheaded by former minister Abdulla Kamaaluddin.

This article was first published on ORF.

Disclaimer:The author is Distinguished Fellow and Head of ORF’s Chennai Initiative. Views expressed are personal.

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first published:July 15, 2021, 20:35 IST