Come September the Maldives will be having the second multi-party elections for the nation’s presidency.
Only recently, incumbent President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik said the 2008 Constitution has provided for a presidential form of government under a parliamentary scheme, and the nation is facing the consequences. Waheed did not say if it included the controversial circumstances revolving around his own ascendancy to power when he was Vice-President to Mohamed Nasheed, the first President elected under the multi-party scheme.
President Waheed and his government and coalition partners have had their way that the polls for the nation’s highest office would not be advanced as sought by Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Yet, issues surrounding President Nasheed’s resignation of 7 February 2012 refuse to die down. The MDP itself may be paying a price for that in electoral terms, exactly 19 months after the ‘power-transfer’.
Candidate Nasheed is the issue thus in the upcoming elections. His three opponents readily concede as much. They also concede that the MDP is the single-largest vote-getter among them. The Election Commission has for months now acknowledged that MDP is the single largest political party in the country with the highest number of registered members.
The second in the line, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), comes a distant second with less than half the MDP’s figures. Third is the Dhivehi Raayathunge Party (DRP). Both parties were founded by President Nasheed’s predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and together, their membership comes closer to the MDP membership.
Of memberships and votes
Yet, questions remain if the DRP will be able to translate its membership into votes, or if there will be a substantial migration towards the PPM camp. Should that happen, and should Waheed’s administration attract a substantial share from an anticipated high percentage of non-committed voters, as candidate Nasheed had calculated in 2008, the team may be in some reckoning.
DRP leader Thasmeen Ali gets to be the running-mate of President Waheed. Thasmeen may hold that record for a time, as he was similarly the running-mate of incumbent President Gayoom the last time round.
Apart from Nasheed and President Waheed, the poll involves PPM’s Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of former President Gayoom. Also in the race is Jumhoree Party (JP) leader, Gasim Ibrahim, with his vice-presidential running-mate, Dr Hassan Saeed. It is pertinent to recall that in the first multi-party presidential polls of 2008, contesting alone, Gasim Ibrahim and Hassan Saeed polled a total of 34 percent vote-share, second only to incumbent President Gayoom’s 40 percent.
Yet, under a system in which the first two contest the second run-off round if none poll over 50 percent votes in the first round, Nasheed with his stand-alone 25 percent first-round vote-share challenged Gayoom in the run-off in 2008.
Gasim and Saeed joined hands with him. Nasheed won. The final poll figures stood testimony to the effective transfer of their first round votes (Saeed: 16-plus percent, Gasmim: 15-plus percent) to Nasheed.
The question is if Saeed with his Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP) have enough votes in the first place left with him, and also has enough ‘transferrable votes’, which JP’s Gasim alone seems to be enjoying in the country at the moment.
That leaves Yameen with his running-mate Dr Mohammed Jameel Ahmed, who was Home Minister in the Waheed government, sacked after crossing over from Saeed’s DQP. Saeed himself would later leave the government as Special Advisor to President Waheed, to join hands with Gasim, whose JP technically is still a partner in the non-MDP, anti-Nasheed administration, along with the PPM.
Having launched his campaign late, and amidst controversy attending on the PPM primary for selecting the party nominee for the presidential polls, Yameen relies on the better organisational structure of the party, the recognisable face and leadership of Gayoom.
In doing so, he however will have to face charges of ‘family rule’ within the party, which thankfully none of his political rivals are ready to flag in any specific and substantive way.
Realignment for run-off?
The issue is Nasheed, and his post-resignation polarising call, seeking to revive the past political fight for ushering in multi-party democracy in the country. It remains to be seen if excessive reference to, and reliance on the same as a campaign platform and tool over the past months since his leaving power can still help focus the limelight on the futuristic issues and constituency-based campaign manifestos that the MDP and Nasheed have painstakingly prepared and pointedly present to the voter.
For Nasheed to win the first round, he will require those additional votes, from new constituencies, or constituencies that were impressed by his socio-economic measures during the short-lived first term, and would hence like to give him a second chance.
Should the elections run into the second round, it could then become a wide-open race. If nothing else, the temptation is to constantly refer to the 2008 experience, in terms of form and content. There could be realignment, the contours of which remain to be explored and exploited in full.
The MDP has called upon the 240,000 voters of the country to hand down a decisive first-round victory in the first round to Nasheed, for the party and the leader to give a stable government and carry forward democratic and socio-economic reforms that they claim have been initiated during his ‘aborted’ first term.
It is also an acknowledgement of the ground reality, where the MDP cannot find coalition partners among the rest to work with the Nasheed leadership. His running-mate in former Education Minister and first Chancellor of the National University, Dr Mustafa Luthfy, along with the recent entry of Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid to the MDP fold after being elected MP under a DRP ticket, is expected to bring votes that Nasheed may need for a first-round win.
President Waheed has created history too. With the total membership of his Gaumee Iththihad Party (GIP) under the scanner, and the present law on 10,000 members for party registration under judicial review, he chose to contest as an ‘Independent’, though his DRP partner is a registered party.
He went around acquiring the signatures of 1500 registered voters for endorsing his nomination, an alternative requirement under the law. Tension remained in the Waheed camp until Election Commission officials had cleared all signatories as genuine voters, sitting through the night on the verification work.
Waheed’s poll call would be ‘stability in an unmanageable coalition set-up’, which it was. Today, every government party is contesting the presidential polls separately and against one another – apart from contesting against the MDP, the only party that is not a coalition partner. They have voted for and against government motions in Parliament, and run down one another, too. Only recently did they join hands to vote against ‘secret ballot’ on non-trust votes against the President, Vice-President and Government Ministers in the house.
Yet, some of them, particularly the PPM and DRP, have voted with the MDP opposition, to deny ministerial jobs to some nominees of President Waheed’s choice.
Yameen seems to resting on past laurels, many of which readily sit on the shoulders of President Gayoom. The PPM calls his rule the ‘golden age’, and positions Yameen’s candidacy as a return to that era.
Yameen, as may be recalled, is representing a party and leadership that converted a poor, ignorant and ignored nation to one with the highest per capita GDP in South Asia, through 30 years of rule that also gave Maldivians modern education and limited medical care, non-existent earlier.
‘Limited’ or ‘non-existent’ democracy as known to the West was the bane of generations and centuries. Gayoom’s presidency was satisfied with incremental changes to the scheme, when the younger generations in particular may have already been craving for wholesale changes.
If he was a lone fighter the last time round, JP’s Gasim has put together a ‘rainbow coalition’ this time. Apart from Hassan Saeed’s DQP, he has also successfully negotiated a partnership with the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP). As may be recalled, the vociferous and conservative leadership of the AP played a major role in mobilising the ‘December 23 movement’ that ultimately brought about their intended change of power without ballot in February 2012.
With its conservative religious approach in a moderate Islamic nation, the AP is otherwise seen as a controversial political player. Their crossing over from the Waheed camp too close to the nominations date for the presidential polls caused eyebrows to rise.
Yet, by bringing together disparate groups that are otherwise desperate, Gasim may have ensured a political combination that could see him through to the local government elections in December this year, and parliamentary polls that are due by May next year.
For now, PPM’s Yameen has publicly declared his intention to work with Gasim in the second round polls (hoping that it would go in for a run-off). This may have also owed to the over-worked rumour-mill that put the PPM and MDP on the same side of the political divide should there be no clear verdict in the first round.
Gasim himself has not reciprocated positively, nor even responded to Yameen’s indicative support in anyway. Maybe he is keeping his options open. Maybe he has coalition compulsions that could flow on into the second round – if there is a second round.
The factors are varied, and so are the projected strengths and perceived weaknesses of the four tickets. There is then the question of 30,000 first-time voters, who unlike their preceding generation in 2008, seem unsure of themselves after the ‘democratic developments’ of the past year. Though they may not have begun focusing on it exclusively, at some point in the coming weeks contesting camps may have to do more to attract additional voters to the booth than may otherwise turn out to be.
In 2008 most, if not all first-time voters, and most of the total 40-plus per cent ‘young electors’ were believed to have voted for change. There was also an urge and consequent surge for participating in the historic event of their generation, from all sides. Thus the presidential election in 2008 witnessed a high 85-plus percent turnout in the first round and a higher 86-plus percent polling in the second round.
This time, too, voter turnout will have a say in the final outcome, starting with the fact if the polls would go into the second round – and more so, on who will get to rule Maldives for the next five years – and hopefully so!
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
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