The return to politics of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom following his retirement in February last year could unify the opposition or deepen the growing factional split between the two parties, observers have suggested.
The former President returned to the Maldives to campaign on behalf of the opposition Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP), of which he remains the ‘Honorary Leader’.
In a speech on Thursday evening at Kalaafaanu School in Male’, Gayoom did not show overt support of either the faction led by dismissed Deputy Leader Umar Naseer, or that of current party leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali whom he endorsed on his retirement.
Conflict between the two factions came to a head in mid-December when a party rally descended into a factional brawl after supporters of the dismissed Naseer gatecrashed the venue.
In his speech Gayoom urged unity, quoting from the Quran and emphasing that “we should work to reduce the disputes among us.”
“I am saying this in my capacity as the Supreme Leader of DRP, as a father of all you members and as an elderly person,” local newspaper Haveeru reported the former President as saying.
He expressed concern that rival parties would exploit the opportunity to divide the opposition ahead of the elections, and said the DRP needed to win in order to protect both the country’s Arab-Islamic heritage and national assets – a clear criticism of the government’s decision to allow Indian infrastructure giant GMR to take over the management and development of Male’ International Airport.
“We should utilise the resources bestowed on us by God Almighty. The rich natural resources we have are for our children, the future generations and for us. That should not be given to foreigners,” Haveeru reported Gayoom as saying.
Despite the call for unity and his prior public endorsement of Thasmeen, Gayoom appears to be hitting the campaign trail with dismissed Deputy Leader Umar Naseer – whom the Elections Commission last week maintained had been formally removed from the party’s membership list despite the party’s “internal dispute”.
”The DRP office requested the commission remove his name from the party’s membership, saying that they have dismissed him,” said Elections Commissioner Fuad Thaufeeq. ”So we removed his name accordingly in respect to the party’s wishes.”
DRP MP Ahmed Mahlouf, himself a supporter of Naseer, told Minivan News today that while Gayoom “had invited everyone in the party to join his [campaign] trip, the others [Thasmeen’s faction] are travelling separately.”
“The target is the same – to win the local council elections,” Mahlouf said. “He definitely helped during the parliamentary campaign when he travelled to the islands, and he also campaigned for me. He is starting his first trip on Janurary 10, and islanders and candidates are looking forward to his visits.”
The former President remains an enigmatic figure in Maldivian politics. The true extent of his popularity since the DRP’s win in the parliamentary elections over two years ago is unclear, given the absence of independent and impartial political polling in the country. The MDP contends that its infrastructure and development projects have won over many islanders, but many Maldivians – and certainly Thasmeen – still live in the shadow of their ‘Honorary Leader’ of 30 years, and responsibility for the many teething problems of the new democracy have landed at the MDP’s feet.
Certainly, news of Gayoom’s return to Male’ prompted thousands of supporters to appear at the jetty on December 31 holding posters of the former president.
The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Mahlouf suggested, was scared of Gayoom and the loyalty he inspired in the party faithful.
“Gayoom is the only person with popular support, and that was clearly seen in the parliamentary election. [The MDP] are scared he will run in 2013, but that will be the decision of other people. He is the right person for an election in 2011, if it were held,” Mahlouf said.
Gayoom had not said whether he would run for 2013, Mahlouf added, and had only said he would talk about the 2011 local council elections.
“But if he fit enough to run, he is the right person to change things again, and stabilise the economy,” Mahlouf suggested. “Maybe not the full five year term, maybe 2-3 years and then hand the leadership to his Vice-President. This is just my speculation, nothing has been decided – I think it should be decided at a DRP primary.”
He acknowledged that while Gayoom had publicly endorsed Thasmeen as leader in February, “I’m not sure whether he supports him anymore, or feels that [Thasmeen] is the right candidate for 2013.”
The split has put the party’s coalition agreement with the People’s Alliance (PA) under strain, with growing tension between Thasmeen’s faction and PA leader Abdulla Yameen potentially threatening the opposition’s parliamentary majority.
Mahlouf acknowledged that “the fighting is getting hot”, but said the party had resolved not to discuss internal politics with the media before the conclusion of the local council elections.
“I know Yameen is also very concerned about what the government is doing, and will only tolerate things to a certain point. There are things that need to be corrected on both sides, and we need to sit down and resolve them.”
MDP Chairperson Mariya Ahmed Didi said the former President’s return to politics “gels us together – those who believed and came out against his dictatorial regime.”
Furthermore, she suggested, it had allowed “aspiring leaders in DRP and those affiliated to DRP to see Gayoom for what he really is – concerned only about his self interest and trying to set up a dynasty.”
Thasmeen and DRP party spokesman Ibrahim Shareef had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.
Concern over the former President’s impact on Maldivian politics reached right to the top: in the final days of 2010, President Mohamed Nasheed publicly warned Gayoom that returning to the campaign trail would not be wise and raised concerns over his safety.
“Sometimes when former presidents leave the country and then return to the Maldives, a very regrettable fate has occurred,” Nasheed said. ”I am concerned that something very regrettable is about to happen in Male’.”
”If Gayoom is returning to politics then he is messing with the feelings of the citizens that could cause them to confront and return to their history, and it is very possible that a regrettable consequence may occur,” Nasheed said. ”Do not mess with the feelings of the citizens of the Maldives, because when they are shaken, not even I can curb the pressure.”
Rumours of a previous back-room truce between the two leaders over the pursuit of corruption and human rights allegations against the former President in return for his retirement from public life appeared to be on shaky ground following Nasheed’s high profile support of elderly historian Ahmed Shafeeq during the launch of Shafeeq’s book in October 2010.
In his book, Shafeeq alleged that 111 people died in custody under the former administration and that he himself had been arrested and his diaries destroyed. Nasheed promised that police would investigate and revealed that human bones discovered in the former Gaamaadhoo prison matched the age and estimated period of death of Abdulla Anees, Vaavu Keyodhoo Bashigasdhosuge, an inmate officially declared missing in the 1980s.
Nasheed’s public support of the book prompted Gayoom to write to the British Prime Minister David Cameron, appealing for pressure to be placed on President Mohamed Nasheed following “the escalation of attempts to harass and intimidate me and my family.”
The matter, he told the British PM, involved “unsubstantiated allegations by an elderly man by the name of Ahmed Shafeeq that I had, during my tenure as President, ordered the murder of 111 dissidents.”
“In a book authored by this Shafeeq, which was ceremoniously released [on October 10] by Mohamed Nasheed himself, it is accused that I also ordered the man’s arrest and supposed torture in prison. In a country of just over 300,000, it is safe to assume that even one ‘missing person’ would not go unnoticed, let alone 111.”
Nasheed’s government had “escalated its attempts to harass me” in the run up to the local council elections, Gayoom wrote, despite his retirement from politics.
“After the government’s defeat in last year’s parliamentary elections, the popularity ratings of the ruling MDP have fallen further in recent months as a result of the government’s failure to deliver on its campaign promises, and its lack of respect for the law.”
“On the other hand,” Gayoom told the British PM, “I continue to enjoy the strong support, love and affection of the people, and have been voted by the public as ‘Personality of the Year’ in both years since stepping down from the presidency.”