Why Abdulla Yameen eligibility to contest presidential election remains a crucial question for all parties

There is no denying that every presidential hopeful, including and possibly starting with incumbent Solih, is waiting to know the possibility of Yameen being able to contest the election, for working out his own election strategy, including a reality-check on the wisdom of throwing in his or her hat

N Sathiya Moorthy February 01, 2023 16:52:52 IST
Why Abdulla Yameen eligibility to contest presidential election remains a crucial question for all parties

Former President of Maldives Abdulla Yameen

A clear-cut victory for incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ibu’ Solih in the party primaries in the long run-up to the 9 September presidential polls in the archipelago-nation has ensured that there won’t be a lame-duck until a successor is sworn in on the customary day, 11 November. That day in 1968, the 1000-year-old sultanate proclaimed itself a Republic.

Independent of other outcomes and fallouts, the presidential primaries in the nation’s largest and technically the oldest political party has also reiterated that Maldives would remain a democracy, as understood in the rest of the world, much longer than anticipated when it became one in 2008. This, despite the fact that the acrimony attending on rival campaigns during the primaries would take a long time to heal. In turn, this may have left the fractured party with the question if it has time to re-group in time for the presidential polls, where the odds are still heavy, despite the court-ordered imprisonment and consequent disqualification of main rival and predecessor President Abdulla Yameen.

For now, Yameen’s PPM-PNC combined has launched an ‘international campaign’ to obtain freedom for him in time for him to file the presidential nomination before closing on 3 August.

Commitment to democracy

Solih defeated his sole rival and Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, who was the nation’s first multi-party President and continues to be the main ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for long. With 71.41 per cent, or 40,887 or 57,257 ‘eligible voters’ casting their lot, Solih obtained 24,566 votes (60.08 per cent) against Nasheed’s 15,641 (38.25 per cent), with the rest accounting for ‘invalid’ votes.

In the light of the near-unending tussle within the nation’s democratic mascot leading to frustration among the middle-of-the-road supporters of the party, observers had anticipated as poor a turn-out as that for the capital Male’s municipal council election, held between Covid lockdowns (20 per cent), if not worse. Though the contested official membership of the MDP is only a fifth of the nation’s electorate, put at an estimated 280,000, spread across 182 inhabited islands, it still says a lot about the nation’s commitment to the democratic process and enthusiasm to participate.

According to the poll schedule, announced months in advance as always, if no candidate managed to cross the mandated 50-per cent minimum in the first round, a second, run-off poll has been slated for 30 September. The latter involves the top two from the first round, and they strike deals with the runners-up for their campaign-support and votes.

Nasheed is opposed to continuing with the existing ruling coalition, but Solih favours it. Nasheed had allies in the victorious 2008 presidential polls and also for the 2013 elections that he lost, both in the second round. Against this, Solih became the only presidential candidate to win in the first round, and with the highest-ever 58-per cent voter-backing, in 2018, thanks to the anti-Yameen coalition against the incumbent.

Friends, not any more

Solih and Nasheed used to be long-time friends and grew up in the same household. The former has married a cousin of the latter. All of it matters in the closely-knit clannish Maldivian society, but not any more in this particular case.

Nasheed also used to be considered as Solih’s political inspiration, mentor and guide, but all of it too has been lost, possibly forever.

The heat and dust that the two candidates raised personally during the no-holds barred campaign – without even assigning some of below-the-belt comments to aides — has left a huge scar not just in their personal equations but also in the career of their party. For the MDP to continue to remain relevant even after the presidential poll, Solih has to now win the presidency. It may require more than the party’s election allies from the previous 2018 elections to pull it off, and the effort has to begin from within.

Soon after polling for the primaries closed on Saturday, 27 January, both sides had claimed 65- per cent vote-share, based on exit polls, which had obviously been commissioned for their internal assessments and strategy-planning. Solih gave it a personal touch-midway through the counting by declaring that he would register a double-digit victory. He has done so. From the word go, Solih was leading the voter-tally at every stage, maintaining a steady 60-plus vote-share, going as far as 70-plus at times. Solih’s 61.39 per cent end-figure should have come as a comparatively ‘honourable defeat’ for Nasheed, who had a poor show from the first round of counting. At no point during the counting did Nasheed cross the sentimental 50-per cent threshold, fixed for victory in the presidential polls, which however did not matter in the primaries. His
crossing the 40-per cent mark in the national tally too came only in a few rounds. At no time did Solih’s figure cross the lower 60-per cent circuit-breaker.

Nasheed concedes, but…

Expressing ‘satisfaction’ with his victory, Solih, in his early reaction, said that he intended ‘moving forward with the party’. Solih said, he bore ‘no animosity’ and invited Nasheed to work together, to “bring development for the country and its people. To ensure the right to freedom of assembly for all citizens. This is the ideology of both our factions. Hence, these are not two factions that cannot be combined…We had to slow down sometimes during the internal competition as we are friends, who have rallied together, and have one ideology”. Solih flatly denied the Nasheed camp’s charge of ‘vote-rigging’ of any kind.

In his initial reaction, Nasheed declined to accept the result, and claimed that the victory was his. However, some 36 hours after counting closed, he met with his supporters, and conceded defeat. This does not automatically mean that he was ready for reconciliation and work with Solih, as sought by the latter. It could at best imply that his camp was not going to contest the primaries in courts, and possibly not in the streets, too.

While conceding the primaries, Nasheed however added a rider or two, and reiterated his campaign-time declaration not to support Solih in the presidential poll. In doing so, he claimed to have lost the primaries only by a small margin, that too because of the removal of a large number of his supporters from the MDP membership registry.

Nasheed now plans to launch a Fikuregge Dhirun movement, deriving from his campaign slogan, to ‘revive ideology’ in the MDP, by re-registering 50,000 members, including all those whose names had been struck down from the party rolls. While there is no too opinions that the MDP could do with some efforts at reviving the spirit of its formation in the first decade of this century, it could cut either way.

Nasheed, thus, linking it with his decision on his choice of a presidential candidate for support, coupled with his reiteration that he would not desert the MDP, has led to speculation if he keeping the option of fielding one of his own. At a rare pace, the Solih camp has reacted with alacrity, with party chairman Fayyaz Ismail, possibly referring to create ‘Fikuregge Dhirun’ branches across islands – as if there was a party within a party – said, ‘You cannot change party rules like that.’ He appealed to Nasheed to reconsider his views.

Solih camp leaders likened Nasheed to the former US President Donald Trump, who to date has refused to concede the 2019 presidential polls and has announced his intention to contest the Republican primaries for the next. The question in the US is if Trump would contest as an independent if the Republicans decline him a second chance to contest. The same question is upper-most in the minds of the Maldivian voters, both supporters and opponents, from the Solih camp and outside of the MDP, regarding Nasheed’s plans. Friends of Maldives are equally, if not even more concerned, as it will all impact on political stability and internal security.

This is more so in the aftermath of the bomb-attack on Nasheed on 6 May 2021, and a host of lesser known arson incidents, before and after, which the police have concluded were the handiwork of local terror groups ‘affiliated to the Al Qaeda and ISIS’. Critics interpret what they see as a ‘lack of customary sympathy’ for Nasheed under the given circumstances, to his ‘over-ambitious claims’ to elected office when Solih did not support his untimely call for transition from executive presidency to parliamentary scheme.

Putting the past behind

Ahead of the primaries, Nasheed had taken a strong exception to the party secretariat striking down the names of 39,000 ‘registered members’, who were his supporters, in the name of reconciling the figure with the records of the Election Commission, after official verification. A Solih supporter, Economic Development Minister, Fayyaz Ismail, who was elected party chairman last year, said that the 39.000 had been registered with other political parties in the EC records.

According to chairman Ismail, another 6000 had not formally registered with any political party, but were found in the MDP’s ‘original’ list of 94,000 members.

However, social media posts by many ‘founding members’ claimed that their names had been struck down, possibly because of suspicion that they would not vote for Solih.

It thus remains to be seen if the Nasheed camp would be willing to put the past behind and move forward as a party and work for Solih’s victory in September.

Their cadre strength and commitment would count, as much as their votes, if it came anything close to a photo-finish. Or, would Team Nasheed withdraw into a nutshell and stay there until after the presidential polls? As the primaries have shown, it will be difficult even for Nasheed, once the nation’s most charismatic leader and the unchallenged mascot of the party and the nation’s democracy, too, to retain those cadres any longer.

The mute question is if Nasheed could hold his ranks together when he has lost out the primaries. On the reverse, can Nasheed take back all his cadres and voters with him if there is a patch-up at the top, the results of which failed to trickle down the hierarchical pyramid, as both camps had been daggers drawn at each other, through the past two, if no three years.

Of course, as victors, the Solih camp would have to make the right moves to rope in Nasheed back, both through formal and behind-the-stage initiatives. It could include Solih nominating a running-mate of Nasheed’s choice or at least in consultation with him, initiating preliminary moves for transition to a parliamentary scheme on a later date, and giving up all coalition partners, which some Solih aides say, would be near-suicidal in the presidential poll. This is not to leave out Nasheed camp’s insistence on freeing their followers arrested for causing disturbances at polling stations and withdrawing all cases against them.

A clearer picture could emerge a week from now, when President Solih inaugurates the year’s first session of Parliament with the customary annual address, on 6 February. With Nasheed as Speaker, it could mean a lot either way, as the latter has been in the habit of adopting a pro-active political approach to the job that is supposed to be non-partisan in form and content.

It may be recalled that in 2013, MPs belonging to the unified MDP had disturbed the proceedings from the start, calling President Mohamed Waheed a ‘traitor’ to predecessor Nasheed, and leading to the postponement of his customary address to another day. Going by experience and his post-victory call for a patch-up, Solih can be expected to instruct his MPs not to misbehave, nor react to the provocative actions of the Nasheed camp. Yet, there are murmurs within the Solih camp, all over again, either to impeach Nasheed as Speaker, or replace him as the long-serving party president, or both – but he would prevail.

Can Yameen contest?

Now that the MDP primaries are over – they had one even for the first multi-party presidential polls of 2008 that Nasheed won handsomely, but not for the two subsequent outings in 2013 (Nasheed) and 2018 (Solih) — all eyes are rivetted to the possibilities of an imprisoned Yameen being able to file his nominations. There is a general belief that an Yameen ticket could make it tougher for Solih, but even without Yameen, there are those who belief that the PPM-PNC combine could give a good fight if it fielded an alternate candidate.

Legal opinion is divided if Yameen will be able to pass through the two-appeal stages, leave alone obtain a favourable verdict -– before presidential nominations close on 3 August. His defence is yet to file his high court appeal against the criminal/trial court sentencing him to a higher 11-year prison-term. This verdict comes a year after the supreme court had upturned five-year imprisonment in a near-similar graft-cum-money-laundering case, from his presidential years (2013-18). Legal opinion is also unclear if the prosecution and also the trial judge had applied those principles to the present case, and would also do so in the ongoing trial against Yameen in a third case of the kind.

For now, at least, the PPM-PNC combine has declared that there could be no presidential polls after the pre-nominated candidate of the main Opposition being ‘illegally imprisoned on trumped-up charges and false evidence’. They have been meeting western diplomats, both with offices in Male or co-accredited in Colombo, the latest being Bangladesh and the UK High Commissioners, respectively. They are not known to have met the envoys of India and China, both with offices in Male.

With the nation’s attention drawing away from the hotly-contested MDP primaries, the PPM-PNC combine has now decided to launch a ‘peaceful’ show-of-strength three-day ‘Hope Conference’ in capital Male, 2-4 February, to press for Yameen’s release.

More, the merrier?

Apart from Solih for the MDP and also Yameen (?) for the PPM-PNC combined, the infant Maldives National Party (MNP) has nominated founder-leader Col Mohamed Nazim (retd) as its presidential candidate. A presidential poll veteran from 2008, Umar Naseer, home minister under President Yameen, who is seen as a religious conservative, too has declared his intention to contest. Going by his pronouncements until the MDP primaries took the media attention away, parliamentarian and leader of the Maldivian Democratic Alliance (MDA), resort tycoon, Ahmed ‘Sun’ Siyam Mohamed, had moved in that direction.

Then, there is Prof Hassan Ugail in Bradford University, the UK, a native of southern Addu, whose name was doing the rounds as a possible presidential candidate in between, but not anymore. Given his scholarship and popularity among Maldivian parents of aspirational students, some presidential hopefuls are said to be considering to woo him as running-mate, given the perception that elite voters outside of the ‘Male royalty’ and the southern voters matter, more so in a close fight in a multi-cornered contest. If ever he were to agree to enter as a running-mate, the belief is that the academic respected across Maldives with opt for the least controversial candidate with the best chance of victory. Again, all these are perceptions bordering on speculation.

Yet, there is no denying that every presidential hopeful, including and possibly starting with incumbent Solih, is waiting to know the possibility of Yameen being able to contest the election, for working out his own election strategy, including a reality-check on the wisdom of throwing in his or her hat when the real fight is between the big two. With only 16 per cent of the electorate casting their vote for either candidate in the MDP primaries, there is a long way to go for the incumbent.

Or, so it seems.

Making up the minds

Under the circumstances, to reach the mandated 50 per cent cut-off in the presidential polls, Solih’s strategy of going forward with the existing allies with their limited vote-banks, too, can help only up to a point. But for internal reconciliation, the Nasheed camp may insist on parting with past allies – and having none, at least for the first round. That could throw those like billionaire- businessman Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (JP), especially, off-guard.

Left in the lurch, there may be no returning for them to the MDP fold in the run-off round, if it came to that. Would it also lead to the JP fielding its own candidate, whether Gasim himself or his minister-son? The party’s national congress, possibly meeting in the coming weeks, is likely to come up with some ideas, if not decisions.

For his part, Nasheed should be sitting down with his aides to decipher the message of party’s long-time members have sent, members who used to love to see, hear and vote for him – but not necessary any more, or so it would seem. And politicos, including Solih, Nasheed and Yameen, all may have time (only) up to the annual Islamic fasting month of Ramadan (22 March-21 April, or thereabouts) to make up their mind, one way or the other.

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and a political commentator. Views expressed are personal. 

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