By Panini Edirisinhe –
The Parliamentary Elections in the Maldives on Saturday, the 6th April 2019 are likely to yield a result that will please not only the majority of Maldivians, but also most people in South Asia. All the hard work was done in the months leading up to the Presidential Elections on the 23rd of September 2018. What the Maldives Democratic Party have to now do is to reap the benefits, and pass the harvest on to the people of the Maldives. If Sri Lankans are alive to what is happening it may lead to the easing of the feeling of despondency that now hangs over our land, because that result was achieved by being as honest and transparent as is possible in this game of politics, and by playing fair.
Leading up to the September 2018 the task was to ensure that a free election was held. In the seat of power was a non-entity who had turned into an amazingly ruthless and short-sighted dictator, Yameen Abdul Gayyoom. Ranged against him were the United Opposition, consisting of a number of disparate groups, which were bound to fall apart once the tyrant was defeated. They had all settled on just one candidate, so it was a two horse race, requiring no Second round of voting. It is not generally known, up to now, what a crucial part was played by two Sri Lankans, Rasika Peiris and Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole in ensuring an honest election.
That Yameen was unpopular was known to all keen observers but he had captured near absolute power of all independent institutions, including the elections authority, security forces, and both the judiciary and its watchdog body. He had been elected in 2013, defeating, Mohamed Nasheed, the man who had been the first democratically elected leader of the country in 2008. Nasheed had defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had manipulated his way to thirty years of rule as a dictator who had a rubber-stamp Majlis.
How I myself, have been personally following events in the Maldives for close upon sixty years is not something that need be gone in to, but let me state that I was in Male, full time, for three years, ending in December 1994, when I decided to return to Sri Lanka, owing to the changes here. It was about mid-1994 that I met Mohamed Nasheed, a prisoner, who had been allowed to come to his home in Male for medical treatment. Nasheed and I had a quite animated two hour chat in his home. It was a meeting that I cherished even then, because I realised even then that the earnest 27 year old was a remarkable man. He, too, probably learnt a lot. He listens. I had followed his career from Prisoner to President to Prisoner again, when I was informed by a Maldivian friend in August 2018 that “Anni” (that’s a nickname by which he is known to all) Nasheed and his candidate, Ibrahim (Ibu) Solih were having a meeting with Maldivian voters at the Berjaya Hotel, Mt Lavinia. I rushed there; he acknowledged some messages that I had sent him through his website, and he remembered our meeting in Male twenty-four years previously.
That brief meeting, at what was like a wedding reception, may represent the only time in my life when I made some contribution to the affairs of a State. The campaign was pressing ahead, although convinced that the election had already been rigged. I think that I effectively communicated my fervent belief to them. I said that Professor Hoole was going to be unlike any other elections monitor if he was the guy being sent by us.
After that, the messages to Anni’s website continued, and I began educating the good Professor about these islands which he had never visited. Some months ago, the report that Rasika Peiris and Jeevan Hoole had presented came my way. To see it, click here.
Let me take you back to the story of how the Nasheed Presidency began.
By 2008, the world had its eyes trained on the Maldives for those elections that were forced on the then seventy year old Maumoon. He was then internationally known more as Gayoom – but using that family name now causes confusion with his half-brother Yameen. The system by then in place was one which specified a 50% majority, with dates announced early for two rounds of voting. Achieving that election had been owing to the work of Mohamed Nasheed, then forty one years of age. By the time elections came round there were six candidates, each with Vice-Presidential running mate. Maumoon easily won that round obtaining 40% of the total 177,802 valid votes. Yes, the electorate is a small one. The turn out had been as high as 85.38%. Please note here the man who was fourth: Qasim Ibrahim, the man who is reputedly the richest man in the country, but trusted by none.
The four candidates who were eliminated threw their combined weight behind Nasheed, and he won the second round with 54.21% of the vote, which saw a slightly higher turn-out than in the first. The Maldives had a freely elected President for the first time, with Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (referred to as Dr Waheed) as Vice-President.
President Nasheed was hugely popular, both world-wide and at home, but he was too soft and idealistic. Maumoon lurked in the background and caused problems with the Judiciary. The end result was a coup in which only one man was violently handled – Mohamed Nasheed. Dr Waheed was installed as President, and thought so well of himself that he contested the 2013 Presidential Election following which he is now called Mr Five Percent, since that was all that he polled in the 2013 Presidential Election.
The 2013 Election was held with Mr Five Percent as President, Ex-President Mohamed Nasheed as favourite, but with Maumoon’s brother, Yameen Abdul Gayoom, having the backing of sections of the Establishment (including the Judiciary) and the inevitable “Richest Man” Qasim Ibrahim as a third candidate. Those elections were quite amazing in their conduct. The first round was held and then “annulled”. So, the First Round was held again. Both times it was Nasheed well ahead, with first 45% and next close to 47% of the total votes. In both rounds Yameen was slightly ahead of Qasim with 29% of the vote in the round that mattered. Then Qasim threw his weight behind Yameen in the the Second Round in November 2013. Those who wish to flavour the confusion of that election could perhaps look here.
President Yameen who had at first seemed a quietly efficient manager of the country turned into an amazingly ruthless dictator. He fell out with almost every person of standing in the Maldives, including his now 81 year-old half-brother Maumoon, and more obviously, Mohamed Nasheed. The jailing of Maumoon was particularly shocking. Qasim Ibrahim had also been sentenced in absentia. It is assumed by me that readers know the Nasheed story well enough.
Every obstacle was placed in the way of Nasheed and his supporters, and he himself was debarred from contesting. The Maldivian Democratic Party kept insisting that Nasheed would be their candidate, and nobody else. Nasheed himself declared that there was no Plan B, but after nominations were announced and regulations were in place, Nasheed sprang his surprise. The Maldives Democratic Party nominated Ibrahim Solih as their candidate, together with Faizal Naseem a compromise Vice-Presidential candidate. Almost all foreign governments which commanded respect refused to send Election Monitors, and it was countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka that obliged.
Many things in the Maldives are strange; the existing Majlis has not been dissolved, and continues to meet. Nasheed has played all his cards just right this time. When Ibrahim Solih was first announced as Presidential Candidate he promised to have elections within eighteen months for Nasheed to contest. When I met Solhi at Mt. Lavinia, there was only one thing that I said to him: “Please quit after eighteen months. Don’t emulate our President, Sirisena.” Solhi’s handshake was warm, his smile pleasant. My chat with Nasheed was longer – after having waited for the thousand or more to take selfies with their hero.
Some months later, at the inauguration of Solih’s Presidency, Nasheed has said that Solih ought to complete his five years of Presidency. Nasheed will contest his home area of Central Maachangoli, on the island of Male for a Parliamentary seat. I haven’t been there in twenty-four years, but I can imagine how built up the crowded island must be. The Maldives is a 100% Islamic country. If you give up Islam, you give up citizeship. Nasheed stands for moderation, but most of the other groupings use Islamism as much as possible.
The man to watch now is sixty-nine year old Qasim Ibrahim, who was made the Speaker after the change of President. He heads the Jumhooree Party. Of his four wives, the youngest, Aishath Nahula is still a ravishing beauty of thirty-seven despite the six children she has borne. She is now the Minister of Transport. Qasim has thirteen children and a few grandchildren as well.
It would be wise indeed if Qasim is tamed. One of the main reasons for the ruin of Nasheed’s Presidency was one of Qasim’s many cross-overs. Most “educated” Maldivians speak fluent English. So does Qasim,but he is notoriously uneducated. He probably has a valid grouse. During the horse-trading to forge the coalition that enabled the fielding of a single opposition Presidential candidate, Qasim claims that he was promised a certain percentage of seats in a no-contest pact. This was scuttled by the MDP, but probably rightly so. Early in the Solih Presidency Qasim tried to present legislation preventing any former President from contesting for a seat in Parliament. This is obviously not anything comparable to our aged Mahinda Rajapaksa contesting from Kurunegala, although it was reported as such in some Sri Lankan media.
The Maldivian Tourist Resorts are indeed Paradise. Usually, no Maldivians live on them, and they are very expensive. Typically, an island has been given to a favourite of one of the Gayooms for 99 years. This Maldivian only collects the royalties that accrue from the Europeans to whom it has been leased. Almost no money ever reaches the Maldives. It is deposited in Swiss Bank Accounts. There is no income tax in the Maldives. The government has little money to spend. Nasheed, during his Presidency tried to impose income tax, which led to the Resort owners ganging up against him. Nasheed also began to allow “Guest Houses” to be opened on inhabited islands. So he is indeed the poor man’s friend.
I don’t think that there can be any question as to what side the decent opinion is on. Nasheed has not been acting as though he is the most important man in the Maldives, but there can be no doubt that he is that. All the trappings of State power are with Ibu Solih.
Every aspect of the MDP Presidency is pleasing; what is now required is a substantial majority in Parliament, abuse of which is unthinkable to me, given these leaders.