By SD Muni
November 20, 2013
The 2013 Maldives presidential elections produced several tense moments and unexpected final results. The most favoured candidate in the first round, Mohammad Nasheed, former president and leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), narrowly lost the election to Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) nominee Abdullah Yameen. While the winner Abdullah Yameen, secured 51.39 per cent of votes polled, Nasheed with 48.61 per cent had to concede defeat. In numbers, the difference between the two was of 6022 votes. This was the second round of polling necessitated by Nasheed’s inability to secure the required number – more than 50% votes – in the first round held on 9 November; where they got only 46.93 per cent. Though Nasheed improved his tally by adding more than 8500 votes in the second round, that was not really enough against Yameen’s unexpected support.
The obvious explanation of Yameen’s victory lies in his crafty and successful working of the coalition with other anti-MDP forces. Most important of such forces was Jamhoori Party’s (JP) Gasim Ibrahim, who in the first round of presidential polls on 9 November, 2013 came third after Nasheed and Yameen, securing 23.34 per cent votes. Ibrahim had been maintaining a neutral political stance, luring both Nasheed and Yameen, but at the last moment switched his support to the latter. This happened after the former president and leader of the PPM Moumeen Abdul Gayoom, lobbied with Ibrahim for Yameen. It may be recalled that Nasheed had challenged Gayoom’s autocratic regime and ousted him in the first democratic election of 2008 – Yameen is Gayoom’s half brother and was also his finance minister before 2008. Nasheed had also pleaded with Ibrahim and the JP for support but had to be satisfied with only a small group led by Ibrahim Didi.
Yameen’s victory therefore, is a clear revenge against Nasheed by Gayoom. The latter has continued to enjoy strong support, even after 2008, in Maldives’ security establishment and the judiciary, which played a key role in the exit of President Nasheed in February 2012. Even in this election, the judiciary, police and even the Election contributed to Nasheed’s failure in recapturing the presidency. First, the presidential election was held on 7 September, 2013. Since no one secured the mandatory 50% votes (Nasheed got 45.45 per cent, Yameen 25.35 per cent, Gasim 24.07 per cent and Waheed 5.13 per cent), a second round was scheduled for 28 September. But this round was cancelled by the Supreme Court on 27 September, as it annulled the first round on charges of irregularities filed by Nasheed’s opponents, despite reports of the international observers certifying the elections as free and fair.
In October, the Election Commission was blocked by the police from finalising the schedule for fresh elections as some of the candidates had not approved of the voters list. The annulled elections were then held on 9 November and the second round originally scheduled for 11 November, was again postponed to 16th November by the Supreme Court as Yameen had asked for more time. It seems that the Constitutional bodies and the security establishment was trying to facilitate coalition building and any deal-making process by Gayoom and Yameen to ensure that Nasheed did not win. The elections were held only when such political manipulations were accomplished – and that too under strong pressure from India and the international community, which wanted the restoration of democratic legitimacy to the Maldivian political order. The government agencies might also have helped in mobilising the impressive turnout of 91.14 per cent voters on the final vote. This was nearly 4 per cent higher than the 87.16 per cent during the first round only a week earlier, and its significance on the outcome remains to be assessed.
Nasheed was banking on international support for the holding of elections, complacently assuming that he will win once the elections are held. However, he did not realise the depth and extent of the campaign that was brewing against him; projecting him as anti-Islam (in a country where citizenship is denied to non-Muslims), westernised and an externally favoured candidate. Nasheed tried to address the anti-Islam charges on him by referring to his administration’s track record – of setting up an Islamic Bank with a capital of US$8.2mn, mobilising the external finances for Shariah and Law faculties as well as Islamic schools, and in 2009, establishing a Fiqh Academy for scholarly debate and discussions on Islamic ethical and moral issues. Such arguments however, did not cut much ice with the Gayoom loyalists and entrenched stakeholders. They did not forgive Nasheed for his attempts to weaken the hold of the pre-2008 regime on the Maldivian economy, society and polity. Nasheed’s flamboyant and somewhat maverick style of governance had alienated more than endeared, the political constituencies from him and the MDP.
Nasheed’s unexpected defeat and the re-emergence of Gayoom/Yameen regime in Maldives is a setback to India in its strategic Indian Ocean neighbourhood. India’s diplomatic immaturity has remained exposed in the Maldives for the past two years, beginning with the initial flip-flop approach to Nasheed’s ouster in 2012 and excessive identification with him subsequently, until the final outcome of the presidential poll in November 2013. Nasheed’s successor establishment punished India by cancelling the US $511mn Male airport deal with an Indian company, the GMR Group. The charge was corruption in the grant of contract, which the Maldivian anti-corruption watchdog later found to be untenable. Some ministers even threatened to demolish the Buddha relics presented to Maldives by India for being “anti-Islamic’. On the same ground, the post-Nasheed government also banned a Hindi film song. While India could claim a breakthrough in facilitating the transition of Maldives from Gayoom’s autocratic rule to a genuinely democratic setting, the return of the regime actually underlines India’s diplomatic breakdown and poor grasp over the dynamics of Maldivian society and its entrenched power brokers. The repeated assertion of ‘Islamic identity’ and ‘nationalism’ by Yameen, Gayoom and their associates after the election results may also indicate the strong backing they got from Pakistan and China.
Now in damage control mode, India has welcomed the new president by congratulating him and assuring that it would be happy to constructively engage with the new dispensation. India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh reminded the president elect that India was too close to be ignored or alienated. In his congratulatory message he said “India and Maldives are bound together by historical, cultural and civilisational ties. Our geographical proximity has provided a strong foundation for the close and friendly relations that have been built between our two countries”. The Gayoom loyalists hopefully understand the thrust of the message.
All the presidential hopefuls had visited New Delhi before the elections. They let Maldives sign a maritime security agreement with India and Sri Lanka in July 2013. It was only in 1988 that India had rescued the Gayoom regime from an attempted coup. In the coming days, if the electoral polarisation persists, India and its interests will be dragged into the internal politics. It is in India’s interests that political rivalries in Maldives be blunted and ended. Both the new President Yameen and the defeated aspirant Nasheed have made positive noises about reconciliation in the interest of democratic stability in Maldives. The extent to which these noises will be turned into concrete actions will of course, depend upon the new rulers.