Redrawing the lines of Maldivian democracy

Blog by Neil Merrett

At what point is it that an infant democracy can really say it is growing up?

For the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, which held its first multi-party democracy in 2008, uncertainty remains over whether the country is on the cusp of realising some form of political maturity, or is rather facing protracted political instability, potentially violent clashes and continued name calling between its elected officials.

While established democracies like to boast of political divides based on clear ideologies - usually evolved from decades and even hundreds of years of struggle - Maldives politics remains very much personality based as of five years into its democratic transition.

Of these personalities, arguably the most divisive, yet influential, politician at present in the country is former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed, who resigned from office on the back of a mutiny by sections of the police and military on February 7, 2012, is hailed locally by his supporters as the country's only means of reforming the tested methods of cronyism and autocratic rule, while at the same time derided by opponents as an “anti-islamic”, dictatorial leader who flouted the country's 2008 constitution,

Nasheed later alleged that he was forced to resign from the presidency in a “coup d'etat” - a charge rejected last year by a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry that also concluded that there had been no mutiny by the country's security forces at the time.

After facing criminal charges for the detention while he was in office of a criminal court chief judge accused of corruption and halting investigations into his own conduct, Nasheed - under international pressure - was able to contest the country's second ever multi-party democratic election held on September 7 this year.  He took 44 percent of the popular vote.  

However, having failed to secure the 51 percent of ballots required to reclaim his presidency, the country's first - and so far only - democratically elected leader is having to redraw the battle lines ahead of a run-off vote scheduled for September 28.  

Despite efforts by third-place candidate MP Gasim Ibrahim - a local business and resort tycoon who claimed 24 percent of the ballot - to contest the legality of the September 7 poll over allegations of rigging, Nasheed is scheduled to contest the second round vote directly against second placed rival MP Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).

With eyes now on his opponents to see what sort of alliance may be formed against his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Nasheed has already found himself allied with the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) - which had backed incumbent President Dr Mohamed Waheed in the first round of voting.

The DRP was itself formed and once led by the Maldives' former autocratic ruler and MP Yameen's half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was replaced as head of state by Nasheed in 2008 after losing the second round of that year's election to a broad coalition backing the MDP.

With the PPM - a new party formed by Gayoom back in 2011 after a split within the DRP - having narrowly secured its place in the second round of voting with 25 percent of last week's vote, Nasheed's election rival Abdulla Yameen has welcomed all other parties in joining him in a broad coalition against the MDP.

So far, local media has reported that President Dr Mohamed Waheed - who came fourth in last week's election taking five percent of the vote - could back Yameen's candidacy in the second round, despite no official confirmation at present from the incumbent's own Gaumee Itihad Party (GIP).

In the build-up to this year's election, both Nasheed's MDP and Yameen's PPM had previously denounced coalitions as being unworkable under the country's presidential system. 

Yet both candidates' respective political futures could well hang on who is better able to draw support to their cause during the second round.

However, what is less certain is whether a mature solution to restoring political stability will come with the conclusion of the run-off vote on September 28.

Just this week, PPM Vice Presidential candidate Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed went on record to state that Nasheed would not be “allowed to assume power” even if he won the run-off later this month, citing criminal charges against him and declaring the one-time head of state as “evil” and “wicked”.

Nasheed meanwhile has continued to denounce President Waheed and the others who he alleges were responsible for the “coup d'etat” as being 'baaghi' or traitor - but has gone on record to say he would not seek to persecute the rank and file of the country's police and military over last year's mutiny,

It is uncertain then whether the on-going election, already praised by international observers as being both peaceful and fair during the first round, will herald the beginnings of political maturity in the Maldives, or just result in more name-calling and stalling politics. In the Maldives' infant democracy, both options remain distinct possibilities at present.

Neil Merrett is a journalist with the independent Minivan News in the Maldives and very kindly wrote this article exclusively for the Peace News blog.

Neil’s writings for Minivan News are available here.

Topics: Democracy, Maldives