Volume 22 Issue 9, September 2018

The picture-perfect island nation of the Maldives has had the great misfortune of stumbling from one dictatorship to another. Besides a brief flirtation with free and fair elections in 2008, incumbent President Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) has turned the clock back to the despotic days of his half brother and former strongman for three decades, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Coincidentally, the president had him jailed this year on conspiracy charges.

Meanwhile, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chief Mohamed Nasheed who won the 2008 vote is now a declared fugitive moving in exile between Sri Lanka and the UK. He was convicted of terrorism charges in 2015 through a sham trial. Yameen’s style of governance is straight from his half-brother’s book, which focuses on a dictatorial model of development in the guise of a functioning democracy.

And though his close but controversial partnership with China is erecting visible symbols of development such as the “Friendship Bridge” mega-project and money being pumped in to close the infrastructure gap in far-flung atolls, Yameen remains a democrat in name only.

Press freedom is non-existent and most critics of his rule either languish in jail or have fled abroad. Judicial independence and that of the national election commission is also similarly absent. Furthermore, the president employs the time-tested politics of Islamic nationalism to flay opponents from the MDP as dangerous liberals who seek to fray the nation’s social fabric.

Moreover, with new elections scheduled for September this year, international observers fear the government’s willingness to wield state institutions for ballot fraud will turn them into a farce. This is despite the MDP fielding a superficially strong and politically untainted candidate, Ibrahim “Ibu” Solih, under the banner of a joint, revitalized opposition. If elected, Solih has promised to dismiss all charges against opposition leaders and form a coalition government for 18 months that would lay a roadmap for a new, transparent elections.

Though quashing dissent with an iron fist has been a permanent feature of Yameen’s rule, he jumped back into the spotlight in February after a surprisingly bold Supreme Court voided the sentences of nine major opposition leaders, including Nasheed. The president swiftly declared a 45-day emergency, in which he stripped the Chief Justice and another judges on the Supreme Court bench of their jobs, and imprisoned them.

The remaining bench of the Supreme Court quickly fell in line and reversed their earlier decision to annul the convictions. Critics noted Yameen’s actions were driven by his eagerness for re-election in September without breaking a sweat, something that would be impossible with Nasheed and other opposition heavyweights in the fray. This analysis proved true in June when Nasheed won his party’s primary for the presidential ticket in absentia with over 99% of the vote.

The Election Commission nevertheless rejected his nomination based on the 2015 conviction, much to the disappointment of the European Union (EU) and UN. Both urge Yameen to hold credible elections or risk international sanctions. The EU, in fact, recently declined to renew tax exemptions on Maldivian tuna, citing the state’s poor record on freedom of speech and religion. Yameen routinely accuses Western powers of trying to destabilize his government in a bid to accuse foreign notions of secularism that can potentially destroy local culture and traditions.

It is no surprise, then, that he gets along very well with the Saudi royals. Saudi Arabia has for decades exported its Salafist strain to the Maldives, building seminaries and mosques and offering scholarships for higher education to Maldivian youth. Yameen’s right-of-center politics synchronizes perfectly with Saudi religious illiberality and their desire to own a piece of tourist heaven. Likewise, the president has been accused of trying to scrap foreign property ownership laws to allow the kingdom to acquire entire atolls.

Next, China, that did not even have an embassy in the Maldives before 2012, has cozied up to Yameen in the process of expanding its footprint in South Asia through the Belt and Road initiative. After winning over Sri Lanka, Beijing has intensified efforts to court the Maldives in the hope of turning the strategically located island nation into a commercial and military outpost. Increasingly shunned by the West and loath to seek duplicitous India’s help, Yameen has turned to China for infrastructure financing.

Beijing has happily accepted, not only injecting millions into a variety of public works projects, but also signing a divisive free trade agreement that the president blitzed through parliament. Critics, however, argue that China’s unlimited soft-loans are a debt trap aimed at acquiring unrestricted rights to the Maldives’ natural resources when it defaults on payments.
Despite China’s oft-stated position that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of partner states, it is only a matter of time before economic influence takes on political overtones to “safeguard interests,” as happened in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Coincidentally, Beijing has pulled in Islamabad to sign an MOU with the Maldives for developing the latter’s power-generation sector. This is a curious move considering Pakistan’s own crippling power shortages, but one that makes sense in the context of countering India.

India, remarkably, has emerged as the biggest loser during Yameen’s rule as its once large shadow over the island nation in economics, politics and culture has shrunk drastically. The president’s desire to move away from a regional power that nannied Gayoom and ostensibly sought his immediate downfall has manifested as a tangible policy measure. Malé recently refused to grant Indian workers permits to complete projects financed by India and insists New Delhi take back its two naval helicopters. Not surprisingly, India wants Yameen gone but fears that the current political climate in the Maldives would make the polls pointless.

While the MDP-led opposition alliance that appeared deflated after Nasheed’s disqualification may have gotten a second wind under Solih’s leadership, visible symbols of progress generally rank high on the priority list of voters in developing countries. They are content to parcel away personal freedoms for the satisfaction of basic needs, which is why unseating Yameen through the September polls will be a tall order.

The writer is an Islamabad-based independent journalist with active interest in regional issues. He can be reached at cras.mnoor@gmail.com

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