The Jumhoree Party (JP), led by business tycoon and MP Gasim Ibrahim, has this week expressed confidence it will finish above the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in the first round of the upcoming presidential election – before securing a second round victory.
Speaking following the launch of the JP’s election manifesto, the party’s Policy Secretary Mohamed Ajmal said indicators like internal policy research had reaffirmed its supporters’ belief that MP Gasim was in a “better position” than PPM candidate Abdulla Yameen to secure the presidency.
The comments were made following the launch of the JP’s election manifesto, which places an emphasis on pre-school and university education, as well as introducing a so-called “holistic” taxation policy extending to individuals and businesses.
The PPM, formed by former autocratic President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, has meanwhile maintained that MP Yameen and former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), remain the only two candidates capable of winning the election – accusing Gasim of having to buy support in order to compete with them.
Despite the claims, the JP has been working to consolidate its support base ahead of September’s poll, with the religious conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) and the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) last month leaving a coalition with President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP) to instead back Gasim.
With voting expected to commence a month today, MP Gasim has claimed in local media that the JP had over 30,000 members when including applications waiting to be approved by the country’s Election Commission (EC).
JP Policy Secretary Ajmal said the membership numbers were reflective of campaign visits to islands across the country in recent months, which highlighted that Gasim was seen as a “man of the people” ahead of the election.
He added that the addition of other high-profile politicians like one time PPM Deputy Leader Umar Naseer to the JP further highlighted the growing support for Gasim’s candidacy.
Alongside this support, Ajmal said he remained confident that the focus of the JP manifesto on issues such as tax reform would directly address key voter concerns about the current state of the economy.
Among these proposed reforms is a “holistic” approach to tax that would extend taxation beyond the Tourism Goods and Services Tax (T-GST) and general GST introduced and expanded under the former government to include capital gains tax and income tax.
“With taxation, we hope to take a holistic approach to the bare minimum policy of tax we have with T-GST and GST,” Ajmal said.
He added that a JP government would also work to comply with International Monetary Funds (IMF) recommendations to balance the nation’s budget deficit. The IMF earlier this year expressed concern that without raising revenue and cutting expenditures, the Maldives risked exhausting its international reserves and sparking an economic crisis.
Ajmal said that while there were many ways to try and curb the budget deficit, the JP would favour what he called a “optimistic approach”.
“There is not a problem with raising revenue in the Maldives, the problem is in fact related to a lack of infrastructure,” he said. “The wealthy are not being taxed properly and there is an issue with the distribution of wealth in the nation.”
Ajmal claimed that with an estimated 60 to 70 percent of national income now being spent by the government on recurrent expenditure, the JP in government would look to curb the amount of borrowing undertaken by the state.
He claimed one solution would be reducing the state’s reliance on treasury bills by securing “low interest” development loans to try and reduce outgoing payments on national borrowing. The spokesperson was not drawn on whether cuts would need to be made to the country’s civil service.
The JP meanwhile pledged that it would not be increasing the size of the country’s civil service as part of aims to curb recurrent expenditure to about 40 percent, focusing instead on investment in local infrastructure to try and raise revenue through the private sector.
With the JP presently serving within the coalition government of President Waheed following the controversial transfer of power in February 2012, Ajmal said he believed voters saw Gasim as an “individual” candidate, and not someone who would continue the economic policies of the present administration.
“Mr Gasim has always supported all governments, apart from the previous administration when he was betrayed by [former President] Mohamed Nasheed. We as a party are always concerned for the people,” he said. “We believe that voters don’t see us as part of the current government.”
Ajmal said that the party believed Gasim was an individual who voters would understand did not have the powers alone to affect the financial policy of the present government.
“Mr Gasim has supplied some US$10 million to US$12 million though the Villa Foundation on philanthropic matters,” he said.
Ajmal claimed that the ‘Jumhoree coalition’ backing Gasim election had now allowed the JP to position themselves as the “main alternative” to former President Nasheed for all voters wishing to oppose him.
JP coalition “no threat”: PPM
Ajmal’s claims were rejected by PPM MP Ahmed Nihan, who today dismissed any notion that the coalition backing Gasim’s presidency could pose a threat to his own party’s election campaign.
He added that the PPM was certain the presidency would be won by either its own candidate in Yameen or former President Nasheed.
Addressing the members of the ‘Jumhoree coalition’ backing Gasim, Nihan accused the religious conservative Adhalaath Party in particular of having “disintegrated” and no longer resembling the political party it was formed as in 2005.
“In 2005, soon after the election, [the AP] has huge support , but soon after they sold their beliefs to many parties including the MDP,” he alleged.
“Maybe tomorrow they will come knocking on our door,” Nihan added of the party.
As a further contrast to the JP, Nihan argued that only the PPM and MDP had supporters and activists working across islands all over the country that were fully “engaged” in election campaigning and making banners, sometimes at their own expense.
He claimed that during the party’s recent campaign tours, the PPM had not seen any similar support for Gasim, the JP or his coalition.
“[The JP] does not have campaigners all over the country. Gasim has had to pay people to work for him, where as we do not have to pay for support,” Nihan said.
Flying the flag
Taking the example of his own constituency in Vilimale’, Nihan claimed that Gasim had brought supporters across from the southerly Addu Atoll to come and put up banners “bought from China”, 60 percent of which he alleged had been put up across the one island.
The flags are said to have been set up in such significant quantities that one Vilimale’ resident told Minivan News: “On some roads, I can’t see the sky.”
Similar displays of flags and party colours have in recent months begun appearing across the capital of Male’, even resulting in a so-called ‘paint war’ between rival PPM and MDP supporters in June.
However, Nihan claimed that majority of flags and banners produced by the PPM had been handmade by local supporters, reflecting what he said highlighted the overriding popularity of the party in Maldivian politics.
“On [Vilimale’] we don’t see the support for Gasim, but the flags are certainly there,” he said.
Nihan agreed that Gasim did have “loyal” support in parts of the country, but said it would not be enough to challenge for a top two place during national polls.
“I express my gratitude to Gasim as a philanthropist, but his coalition partners will not provide the level of support we have,” he said. “He is spending millions on his campaign.”
Nihan was also critical of the JP’s proposed reforms to taxation, arguing that Gasim as both a parliamentarian and party leader had not previously advocated for increased taxation.
He accepted that before the foundation of the PPM, the majority of the party’s MPs – then belonging to the Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP) before a bitter split – had ultimately supported the introduction of taxation despite initial reservations.
Nihan said that the party’s initial reservations were based on the timing of introducing such taxation starting from 2011, adding that PPM candidate Yameen did support the introduction of tax despite wishing the matter had been handled differently.