Maldives: Is ruling MDP heading for a split threatening island's stability?

The political events, including those inside the once monolith MDP, are playing out at a time when Defence Minister Mariya Didi claimed that the recent raids, arrests and explosives seizure in capital Male and southern Addu City related to the "most dangerous terror-plot" in the country.

N. Sathiya Moorthy Dec 03, 2022
Mohammed Nasheed, Ibrahim Solih and Abdulla Yameen

In what is becoming a cause for increasing concern for friends of the Maldives, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) seems headed for a vertical split, throwing political stability in the Indian Ocean archipelago into further question in an election year, when the mainstay tourism economy is just about limping back to normalcy post-Covid. The MDP is the single largest political entity in the country, with claims to democracy and liberalism, and a split just now could weaken those causes when politico-economic conservatism on the one hand, and religious radicalism/extremism on the other, are both threatening to tear apart the Muslim nation of about 560,000 people.

The MDP faction feud began months after party nominee Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih was elected President, as the common candidate against incumbent Abdulla Yameen in 2018, and is now ready to blow up in the face. After months of shadow-boxing at least from their side, the faction led by Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed has triggered the process formally by voting against two crucial financial bills of the government, including the all-important Budget 2023, for the fiscal commencing on 1 January.

According to MDP parliamentary group leader Mohamed Aslam, belonging to the majority Solih camp, disciplinary action would be taken against 14 Nasheed MPs in a party total of 65 in the 87-member Parliament. All 14 voted against the two GST bills. Seven of them voted against the Budget while seven others abstained – all of it, defying the three-line party-whip, on both occasions.

Including Nasheed, the faction thus has 15 MPs at present, not adequate to upset the Solih leadership in Parliament even with all the opposition and allies voting with them. Solih has all along been avoiding a direct confrontation despite Nasheed’s persistent taunting and barbs, and also his continual charges, including those involving ministerial corruption and lawlessness, for over two years now. Barring a lone instance when he let go of Health Minister Abdulla Ameen in 2020 over Nasheed’s graft allegation in the procurement of ventilators for Covid-care, Solih has also stood by other ministerial colleagues and aides.

Forcing Solih's hands

The Nasheed threats have continued even after the Solih camp had proved its hold over the MDP’s national council repeatedly in the past year, including in the election of the party chairman, who is the administrative head, while Nasheed is the political boss. Now, after the repeated parliamentary showdown, Solih might find himself cornered inside his faction for his continued passivity, which his followers say has already weakened his hold on the one hand, and the party on the other.

What may have now forced Solih’s hands, even more is the reported intention of Nasheed contesting the party primaries for the presidential polls, due in the fourth quarter of 2023. Solih himself had announced his candidacy belatedly only a few months back. In doing so, Solih also gave up the protection that the amended party constitution gave him, for automatic re-nomination as the incumbent President. His camp indicated that Solih did not want to hide behind defensive provisions but obtain a fresh mandate from the party cadres for re-nomination.

Whoever wins the primaries, if there is a contest there could be more, and at times, ambitious candidates, too – the party can still project it as the evolution of the democratic process within and through the MDP. But only up to a point, and not at the cost of the nation’s once-renowned political stability and economic management. The latter has palpable grassroots-level relevance after neighboring Sri Lanka took huge hits, attributed largely to political mismanagement. 

With nearly 30,000 Maldivians working there, some of them losing their jobs/earnings, every Maldivian island and home has a real-life story to narrate. These include the 30-40 per-cent ‘non-committed’ voters in the country, for whom the MDP used to be their first choice since it ushered in multi-party democracy in 2008.

Showdown in the offing?

Any action by the Solih-centred ministerialists could become problematic even more as disciplinary action within the House would have to be enforced only through Speaker Nasheed. If it came to that, Solih may have to decide on a full-fledged showdown, leading up to a no-trust vote against the Speaker, and also his deputy, Nasheed’s cousin and loyalist Eva Abdulla. It is more than likely that the eight-member Opposition PPM-PNC combine may vote for the motion but it is not clear if Solih could count on all 50, now in his camp. In his turn, Nasheed could take the division to the organisational level, to the last island and last island councillor, making it problematic for the MDP in the presidential polls in every which way.

Outside of the legislative and organisational fronts, Nasheed has since filed an MVR 10-m defamation suit against Solih camp veteran Ibrahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef, MP, after the latter tweeted that the former had conspired to get 50 people killed by mercenaries posing as journalists at an MDP protest against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to bring a bad name to the latter. Gayoom, whom Nasheed defeated to become President in 2008 after the former’s 30-year stint, and whose MRM  has become a non-consequential partner in the Solih government, is yet to come up with his version, if any.

Shareef had earlier said that the party needed someone who could work harmoniously with the people - and also allies - and Solih was thus the only choice. The ‘Shareef episode’ is only an example of the underlying issues and accommodation that the two camps would have to make if Solih still thought that a personal patch-up with Nasheed alone would do.  Some of Solih’s camp followers still hope that Nasheed, as has been his proven practice thus far, would not push his supremacy contest to the brim but there are others who then point to what they see as the urgency and inevitability of action against ‘errant’ MPs from the Nasheed camp.

'Most dangerous' terror plot

The political events, including those inside the once monolith MDP, are playing out at a time when Defence Minister Mariya Didi claimed that the recent raids, arrests and explosives seizure in capital Male and southern Addu City related to the "most dangerous terror plot" in the country. Addressing the 29th anniversary of the Southern Command of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), she said that the government had launched several efforts to counter the spread of extremism, but some groups were conspiring fatal terror attacks non-stop. The police said even "small quantities of the chemicals can fatally injure humans and cause great damage", without expanding on Minister Mariya’s observation.

The government had launched nationwide raids, combined with "family education programmes", to curb religious fundamentalism, radicalism and terrorism, following targeted killings by IS/Al-Qaeda affiliates before Solih came to power, as identified by a presidential commission Speaker Nasheed, the nation’s most popular leader for long, narrowly escaped a scooter-bomb attack on 6 May 2021, and had to undergo medical treatment, overseas. Though the police arrested the operatives, the instigators, if any, are not known. Nasheed, who has had a grouse on this count, had stopped complaining sometime ago.

Rags-to-riches story

For now, however, Nasheed has revived his on-again-off-again demand for replacing the existing presidential system with a parliamentary scheme, with the prime minister at the head. In the sixth episode of the targeted ‘Ask the Speaker’ programme, which he launched after taking up office, he reiterated how it was among the major promises in the MDP agenda in the 2018 elections, which returned Solih as President.

Nasheed began his campaign last year by openly declaring that he wanted to be Prime Minister and Solih could continue as President with reduced powers. Independent of the names involved, the majority Solih camp, both in the organisational and parliamentary wings, were not pleased. Nor did any of MDP’s three government partners want the change.

Now, Nasheed, in his ‘Ask the Speaker’ programme has revived another of his idea, that a national referendum on governance system should precede the party primaries. As was pointed out during the earlier round, the primary is an internal-party affair, but a referendum had to be held only by the Election Commission (EC). In wanting it so, Nasheed seems to want to re-capture the party before the presidential poll.

Though people’s views may have changed over time, when last held, during the Gayoom era transition into a multi-party democracy, people overwhelmingly favoured the continuance of the presidential system. Even when Nasheed mooted the idea last year, a majority of the MDP parliamentary group and also almost every other political party expressed their opposition to his idea in unequivocal terms.

Yameen verdict in December

For the MDP, with or without the split, a lot still depends also on the fate of two pending money-laundering cases against former President Abdulla Yameen. The Opposition PPM-PNC combine has already declared him their presidential candidate, also to check against internal squabbles for succession, on the distinct possibility of the criminal court verdict causing Yameen’s disqualification from contesting elections.

After concluding the hearing in one case, the court has reserved a verdict for any day before the yearend. If it goes against Yameen, he can be expected to appeal it all the way up to the Supreme Court, if it had to be, after crossing the High Court stage. The Supreme Court, as may be recalled, had acquitted Yameen in the first of three such cases, citing procedural lapses, after the High Court had confirmed his trial court conviction, leading to disqualification.

Whatever the final judicial outcome, a second Yameen disqualification just now could unsettle his campaign for the presidential poll. Likewise, any acquittal could re-energize his cadres more even as the rival MDP camp might be at sixes and seven. While the internal tussle in the MDP has upset its cadres and voters alike, the allies are also unsure of the future if the party did not mend its ways.

In turn, this could lead to some of them, starting with the Jumhooree Party’s (JP) never-say-die businessman-politician Gasim Ibrahim wanting to try his luck once again in the presidential poll. In 2008 and 2013, Gasim’s ‘transferable’ 16-per cent and 25-per cent first-round ‘transferrable vote shares, respectively was the deciding factor. Under the prevailing socio-electoral circumstances, Gasim’s call for a "vote-for-change" of political culture could make a difference, along with his proven 'rags-to-riches’ story and his philanthropist image. 

Dragging India’s name

It is in this background that the lack of seriousness displayed by the ruling party leadership in matters larger than politics and personality needs to be viewed. The latest is Nasheed’s tweet on India providing a $ 100 million loan as budgetary support, as used to be customary in most years through the past several decades. It is a "great and timely assistance", Nasheed said and also thanked India. But "this is a temporary fix to the depleting foreign reserve", he added, turning the table on the Solih government all the same.

A self-proclaimed "friend of India" and a never-say-die fighter, Nasheed taking India’s name in intra-party squabbles may be indicative of the levels to which he is ready to go. But it will not be to Yameen’s level after the latter launched the ‘India Out’ / ‘India Military Out’ campaign, and has made it look personal. In the course of the presidential poll campaign, the Yameen camp can be expected to touch upon the India issue, though the fact remains that ordinary Maldivians feel as much beholden to their closest northern neighbour for all the help and assistance, more during the Covid era, as they are an independent and proud people who had not been subjugated by any colonial power, unlike the rest of South Asia.

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

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