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Maldives: Leap of Freedom

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As democracy returns to the Maldives, fresh hope has arisen in a country that had lapsed into dictatorship. Omkar Khandekar reports from the victor’s exile camp in Colombo

NOBODY, IT SEEMS, expected last month’s Maldivian presidential election to be free and fair. India had expressed concerns weeks earlier and said it was closely monitoring the situation; the US and EU had even threatened sanctions if there was any breach of procedure. The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party was on a media-marathon speculating about all the ways the polls could be subverted: the country’s election commission could rig the vote-count, its supreme court could annul the results, criminal gangs could wreak violence, or its security forces could lay siege. President Abdulla Yameen, the opposition said, would do anything to stay in power.

I spent election day glued to the television screen at the opposition’s campaign outpost in Colombo where most of its leaders lived in exile. By midnight of September 23rd, Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, the opposition candidate, had beaten Yameen. His victory margin was over 38,000 votes, sizeable for a country of 360,000. Baffled brows were dissolving into cautious smiles, celebratory handshakes and plans of popping beverages appropriate for the occasion. Some could barely hold back tears. The verdict meant they could finally go home without fear of political reprisals.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who had led the opposition’s struggle from his exile in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka since 2015, was busy posing for selfies and beaming at anyone making eye-contact.

How was he sure nothing could still go wrong? I asked. “Because the people have spoken,” he replied.

The next day, a stone-faced Abdulla Yameen went live on state television. In the past 12 hours, most of his faithfuls in the cabinet and parliament had conceded defeat. Many had tweeted congratulations to the president-elect; one with a heart-emoji. It was now Yameen’s moment of reckoning. He could either accept the outcome or pull off a Robert Muga be-like volte face, refusing to step down in face of a mass rejection.

“My five-year term has been a period in which we faced a lot of difficulties,” Yameen began. “I believe that no other president has faced any such difficulty.”

The Maldives had indeed been through its most politically turbulent years. Yameen had arrested or forced into exile nearly all political opposition, locked down the country’s parliament, compromised the judiciary, gagged the media, populated the bureaucracy with his loyalists, imposed two states of emergency and presided over the biggest corruption scandal the country had seen. He had dismissed charges of subverting democracy throughout his campaign. His concession speech was going to be no different.

“In every instance,” said Yameen, “I worked for the rights of the people. I worked to uphold the rule of law, and to prevent the effects of illegal acts from being felt by the people... But yesterday, the Maldivian people made their decision about me. I have decided to accept the result.”

Perhaps, it was a dictator’s attempt to redeem his legacy. Perhaps, as an opposition activist told me, Yameen could sense power sucked out of him the moment the election commission announced his defeat, “like a bathtub with its plug pulled out”. But what really made this election remarkable was how it scripted the strongman’s downfall through democratic means.

Yameen had rigged the system against the opposition. The elections commission made several attempts to manipulate the voting process by minimising international scrutiny. The police arrested numerous opposition activists, even raided their campaign headquarters the night before the election. And yet, the indefatigable opposition had galvanised public opinion to their cause, isolated the government from its pillars of support within the establishment, and garnered the goodwill of its diplomatic allies. On voting day, hundreds of thousands turned up to vote in the country and four locations abroad. Some were forced to queue for up to nine hours. With an 85 per cent turnout, it was a triumph of people’s power. For the second time in a decade, the Maldives rejected a sectarian autocrat for a secular democrat.

The people have spoken - Former President Mohamed Nasheed

THE 1,198 ISLANDS OF THE Maldives mean different things to different people. Over a million fly in every year to vacation by its ethereal coastline of palm trees and white-sand beaches, spending thousands of dollars on its water villas and uber-rich luxury. Given its proximity to the Indian Subcontinent and Africa, both India and China eye the region for their strategic ambitions. India has had a headstart, but the benefits of retaining its sphere of influence will only last a few decades, for the Maldives is likely to be one of the first casualties of rising sea levels.

Such strategic standoffs and existential crises were only peripheral concerns for most Maldivians. They were looking for housing, healthcare, education, employment and a functional democracy. Their battle, after all, had been hard fought and often interrupted. The Maldives’ four-year experiment with democracy received its first blow in 2012 after President Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in a coup. His main challenger in 2013’s election was Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of former dictator President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Yameen pitched himself as a pro-development, business-friendly leader determined to rescue the country from Nasheed’s secular, socialist conspiracies. The police and the judiciary helped his cause by putting the election off schedule thrice. Gasim Ibrahim, a business tycoon of the Jumhooree Party, and Shaikh Imran, an influential cleric of the Adhaalath Party, backed his bid in return for promises of cabinet posts. In November 2013, Yameen was elected by a margin of around 6,000 votes.

AMEEN WAS A surly-faced, reticent leader. He appointed Ahmed Adeeb, his flamboyant tourism minister and later vice-president, as the face of his party and the government. Adeeb had devised an elaborate money laundering scheme of selling the country’s islands without a bidding process. In the first 18 months of the new government, as alleged, he sold 59 islands and siphoned off $79 million via a front company. The money was reportedly distributed among the president and his loyalists in the cabinet, parliament, police, military, criminal gangs and some state agencies. Adeeb called his patrons “bros”, they called him their “ATM”.

In spite of his underhand tactics, Yameen was keen to be seen as a development-man. He signed trade agreements and infrastructure deals with China and Saudi Arabia. To burnish his Islamist credentials, he forged closer ties with Pakistan and ceded the country’s moderate Islamic traditions to hardline, Salafist clerics. By 2016, the Maldives was sending the world’s highest number of foreign fighters per capita to the ISIS-occupied territories. Some mediapersons, secularists, members of civil society and the opposition were stalked and given death threats. In 2014, journalist Ahmed Rilwan went missing while investigating corruption within the government. In 2017, secular blogger Yameen Rasheed was found murdered at his apartment’s stairwell.

The opposition at the time was in a disarray. Nasheed enjoyed grassroot support but found few rebels within the Adeeb’s bro- economy. But Yameen was starting to alienate some his colleagues and coalition partners (defence minister Mohamed Nazim, JP leader Gasim Ibrahim and AP leader Shaikh Imran). So Nasheed cobbled together a coalition of the disgruntled, staged street protests for weeks and tried to negotiate with the police and the military for intervention. Between 2015 and 2016, the opposition made four attempts to stage a coup in the garb of street protests and ‘Occupy’-style rallies. Each time, Yameen retaliated with unprecedented force. Hundreds of protestors were beaten and detained. Nazim and Imran were imprisoned, Gasim’s tourism empire was threatened with closure, and Nasheed was forced into exile. In February 2016, the opposition made another botched attempt to arrest Yameen from his home in the middle of the night. At a rally a few days later, Yameen asked the coup-plotters to be “more manly” the next time.

One of the distinguishing features of Yameen’s presidency was its efforts to maintain an air of legitimacy. Yameen had packed the country’s institutions with loyalists, who helped turn them into instruments of political retribution. A draconian Defamation Act was bulldozed through parliament to muzzle criticism. The judiciary imposed clamps to prevent street protests in Malé, the capital. When his deputy Adeeb was arrested in late 2015 for trying to assassinate Yameen, police investigations held him solely responsible for the million dollar embezzlement scheme. Adeeb’s beneficiaries were neither named, nor penalised. A whistleblower leaked bank documents showing Yameen receiving $500,000 through one of Adeeb’s front-companies, but he was locked up for ‘unauthorized disclosure of private information’.

Yameen’s corrupt and authoritarian ways alienated the Maldives’ traditional allies. The UN, Amnesty International and the US, UK and the EU governments repeatedly expressed concerns on illegal detention of political prisoners and deteriorating state of democracy. In late 2016, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom too withdrew his support of Yameen. Yameen moved swiftly: Gayoom was expelled from the ruling party and Yameen was declared its new chief.

Abdulla Yameen, who had pitched himself as a development man and drew upon Islamist forces to subvert democracy, eventually alienated many of his own supporters

The MDP seized the opportunity to ally with Gayoom and negotiated with his sympathisers within parliament. The idea was to remove the president through parliamentary measures. It wasn’t an easy task, an opposition liaison told me. “The MPs were used to getting money in exchange of supporting a motion in the Parliament.” Unlike Adeeb, Yameen’s preferred weapon of choice was fear. First came Parliamentary expulsion, then followed criminal proceedings. The MPs needed insurance and incentives. The liaison admitted to bribing at least one MP 5 million rufiya, nearly Rs 2.5 crore. Impeachment efforts failed twice: in February 2017, when the speaker evicted 13 opposition MPs before the vote, and then in July that year, an event that saw rebels MPs of the ruling party stripped of their seats and soldiers enter parliament. In February 2018, the opposition negotiated a deal with judges of the country’s top court. It ordered the release of nine opposition leaders and declared legal proceedings against Nasheed unconstitutional. It made matters worse. Two judges, including the chief justice, were imprisoned, the police chief wanting to execute the cour verdict sacked, and Gayoom arrested on charges of bribing them. Yameen then imposed an emergency, the second in three years.

The events prompted a global outcry. India chimed in to say it was ‘disturbed’ by them. The Maldives retaliated by imposing an unofficial ban on work visas for Indian expats.

As the election neared, Yameen appointed a former party colleague as chief of the election commission. In his final act, he sought democratic legitimacy.

POLITICAL PARTIES IN THE Maldives go for elections like it’s Eid. Islands are decked up in party flags, pickup trucks with loudspeakers blare campaign songs and rallies are held every night in the capital. But the razzmatazz this year was muted. The election commission had disqualified all of Yameen’s erstwhile opponents. Backs against the wall, democrats and republicans banded together with religious forces and Gayoom’s breakaway faction in a ‘cocktail coalition’. Ibu Solih, a senior lawmaker from the MDP, and Faisal Naseem, a fresh-faced MP from the JP, was nominated as opposition candidates for the top jobs. But the compromises of pragmatic politics seemed to be taking a toll. “Our war-cry this time is ‘For God’s sake, let’s get this done with’,” as the opposition spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor put it.

Yameen was portraying himself as Development Man again. He visited 68 islands and inaugurated 133 projects. A government website listing the its infrastructure achievements featured an airport with no terminal, incomplete futsal fields and sewerage systems, and Yameen’s flagship project, the 2 km China-Maldives Friendship Bridge from Malé to the airport island. “Yameen had brought 50 years of development in five years,” first lady Fathimath Ibrahim said in an interview.

During the campaign, the ruling party questioned the opposition’s commitment to religion and the Maldives’ sovereignty. Dr Mohamed Shaheem, a spitfire Islamist and Yameen’s running mate, alleged Nasheed was in a seditious alliance with “forces adversarial to Islam”. A fake cable purportedly from the US embassy was circulated to establish an opposition ‘secret plot’ to reduce the size of the Maldivian military in favour India (and against the interests of China). Days before the election, the police ordered the removal of 30 underwater sculptures at a local resort, citing Islamic injunctions against idolatry and calling it a threat to ‘the peace and interests of the Maldivian state’. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone who had seen giant cutouts of the president. ‘Do mannequins also count as idols?’ someone tweeted.

Two days before the election, former President Mohamed Nasheed held a press conference in Colombo saying the opposition expected to win but was worried that Yameen wouldn’t let it happen. For over a month, there had been complaints of voter- list manipulation, inadequate ballot boxes for expats and resort workers and the ruling party’s access to classified information. The number of international observers was down from 102 in 2013 to 59. Foreign journalists trying to cover the polls found it almost impossible to get visas. Those with accreditation needed local sponsors, some of whom demanded up to $300 a day. The dozen reporters who made it would later complain of their movements being restricted by state monitors.

The only way out, said former election commissioner Fuwad Thowfeeq, was for Maldivians to be alert, cautious and persistent. To insist on exercising their franchise and protest if their rights were denied. “There might still be cases of double voting and a few cases of counting wrongly,” he said. “There is a chance of people removing ink or using fake IDs. But as long as people are attentive, nothing untoward can take place.”

On September 23rd, 472 ballot boxes got filled. Within seven days of the provisional outcome, the election commission officially announced Ibu Solih as the president elect. It was unexpected, a core member of opposition campaign admitted. It seemed Yameen had alienated nearly everyone in the government, security forces and criminal gangs. “We heard that he had asked the gangs to disrupt the vote count,” says this Maldivian, “One gang was ready but none of the other gangsters saw it worth the effort of letting him stay in power for a few more hours. They even threatened the gang willing to do that. The willing gangsters eventually told Yameen, ‘We’re sorry’.”

In the following days, several political prisoners, including Shaikh Imran, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his son were released from prison. Meanwhile, rumours swirled of Yameen’s plans to challenge the result, of his attempts to get the security forces to stage a coup. Last heard, he was pleading his supporters to not “jump ship” and taking the metaphor tad too far: “God willing our ship will move forward, even with all these things, this ship will tow the country to safety and claim victory over these huge waves.”

With Ibu Solih set to be sworn in next month, the battle to restore the archipelago’s democracy seems won. But is it? Too often, lately, have the opposition been tempted to counter the dictator using his own playbook. They tried military coups in the garb of streets protests, attempted parliamentary and judicial impeachment by bribing MPs and judges. They failed. What worked was pragmatic but ethical politics and a policy-oriented campaign.

It was thus only appropriate that minutes after Yameen conceded defeat, Nasheed had this to tweet: ‘Democracy is a historical inevitability.’

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