For those looking for a bright side in the rather anticlimactic win of the much delayed/canceled/rescheduled Maldivian Presidential elections by the anti-democratic coalition led by Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, there’s some solace that this will probably be the final episode of the overly drawn out election saga.
Had President Nasheed won, there might well have been an endless number of elections till the anomaly was rectified.
Local democrats as well as the international community was waiting in apprehension to observe what clever trick would be employed to undo the election should Nasheed win again. Thankfully, the Maldivian public had other plans and rendered the whole discussion moot. It voted in another Gayoom to power.
Gasim Ibrahim – who won 23% of the votes in first round – proved to be the decisive factor.
Yameen’s last minute deal with Gasim, who had just a day earlier hobnobbed with MDP leaders and publicly announced that 60% of voters of his voters would never vote for Yameen, clinched the victory by a slim margin of merely 5374 votes.
The election so far har been ugly affair, with the anti-democratic forces pulling every stop and resorting to every dirty trick – from subverting the electoral process, getting anti-constitutional rulings from the Supreme Court, harassment of the Elections Commission, flexing muscles available in the form of the Maldives Police Service to obstruct elections, and holding the whole process to ransom by refusing to sign voter registries – and hemorrhaging millions in public funds all the while.
However to Yameen’s credit, he did win the election – at least this round of it – fair and square.
For his part, President Nasheed had some gracious words of defeat and congratulations to the winner, pledging to respect the people’s verdict and uphold the democratic process.
Reading into the results
The elections prove one thing: the Maldives electorate is yet to mature. The outcome of the election was more or less decided on November 9th, when – despite all the ugly episodes that played out in full public view – the public actually rewarded Abdulla Yameen with a slightly increased vote share.
It was clear that a large section of the public was not going to be swayed by an actual manifesto, or promises of justice, and police and judicial accountability.
President Nasheed handsomely won all the major population centers, resorts and foreign boxes. However, it is clear from the results that there is still another Maldives. A more isolated, isolationist, xenophobic and paranoid Maldives that is still susceptible to dangerous emotive politics.
It is remarkable that this victory was pulled off on the back of exaggerated anti-Nasheed rhetoric with strong Islamist and hyper-nationalist overtones, as opposed to any realistic development plans or policies.
This rhetoric was often of fantastic nature – ranging from evil Christian Westerners and Freemasons trying destroy Islamic unity in the Maldives, to Nasheed attempting to build temples for GMR staff and other such absurdities. Yet, it found resonance among a large section of the population. Voting for ‘dheen’ and ‘qawm’ became the catchphrase for the anti-Nasheed voters, although it isn’t immediately clear what exactly Abdulla Yameen has ever done to protect or uphold either.
Nevertheless, the result is what it is, and in a democratic process, the public verdict is supreme.
With any luck, the newly installed government will not pursue overtly isolationist, xenophobic policies while in power. After all, the Maldives – which is dependent on imports for everything from oil to basic foodstuffs – is no North Korea.
Challenges and fears
The most immediate challenge facing Yameen Abdul Gayoom is the tanking economy which has largely been in free-fall since the February 7 2012 coup d’etat. He inherits a nation on the verge of bankruptcy and – unlike the previous Dec 23 coalition that disastrously fell apart – it will take an extended period of stability within his large coalition to pull off a sustainable recovery.
The concerns for liberals are clear. Would the extremist Islamist Adhaalath Party be put in charge of the Education ministry as speculated? Will the mullahs be oversee the curriculum for our young students? Subjects such as science and history are usually the early victims of subjecting the school syllabus to Taliban scrutiny. Pakistan has already attempted this with disastrous results. Five years of Adhaalath extravagance is sufficient time to destroy one promising generation of Maldivians.
The fear is that instead of a modern, cosmopolitan outlook necessary to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world, children may be inculcated with inward looking, ignorant ideologies that the Adhaalath party favours.
The Adhaalath party controlled Ministry of Islamic Affairs of the Nasheed government attempted to ram through the Religious Unity Regulations in 2010 that would have severely curtained media freedom, given expansive powers to the clerics to censor media and publications, and would have explicitly banned the mere criticism of mullahs under the threat of five years in prison.
Liberal actors within the Nasheed government stopped that heinous piece of anti-democratic drivel from being gazetted as law, thereby preserving media freedom and basic liberties for a little longer.
Would Abdulla Yameen similarly step in to defend the public from the censorship friendly mullahs? Would he defend the free media and ordinary citizens and bloggers’ rights to challenge authority? Or would he continue in the family tradition of locking up potential troublemakers and/or making them disappear?
Would the Yameen regime continue to uphold the unwelcome precedent of extreme media hostility set by Waheed? The Waheed regime – supported by the same actors that won yesterday’s elections – routinely boycotted opposition media, explicitly denied them police support (in violation of the constitution), and have sat in silence as their journalists were attacked, pepper-sprayed and harassed in public by police and other outlaws. Raajje TV was also subject to serious arson attack that destroyed the station this year, despite receiving advance warning and requesting for police assistance.
The Maldives Press freedom index has been one of the biggest casualties since the fall of the last elected government – having reversed all the giant leaps it made under President Nasheed and returned to abysmal pre-democracy levels.
One would hope that President Yameen will channel his efforts towards rectifying the media situation. But it doesn’t seem an encouraging prospect, considering Yameen’s own party, PPM, continues to boycott media channels that it sees as being aligned with the opposition.
Yameen’s electoral victory is also a possible shot in the arm for wanton police impunity which has been on public display since the overthrow of the Nasheed government last year. Police brutality has gone unaddressed under Waheed’s regime – indeed, it has been richly rewarded with perks and promotions and flats. This is likely to continue under Yameen. As a candidate, Yameen has actively sought Police support with the promise of housing, supplies and weapons.
On the subject of the runaway judiciary, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has thrown in some kind words for the international media’s sake about how it requires reform. However, it does not seem likely that Yameen would do anything to threaten his friends in the Judiciary who ensured him multiple attempts at resurrecting his lacklustre campaign, which allowed him to eventually emerge as winner.
Finally, it remains to be seen how the MDP deals with the electoral loss. When the MDP was in government, one of the most frustrating deals was the lack of a capable or democratic opposition to hold the government accountable. The then opposition routinely failed to challenge the MDP government on corruption or policy, choosing instead to pick up far more far reaching national issues like random statues and Israeli airlines and massage parlours.
Some commentators hope that the MDP could now actively play that lacking role in the Yameen government. President Nasheed has pledged as much.
Yet, one can predict right away that the horse trading season will begin soon on the parliament floor, and quite a few MDP MP’s are likely cross the aisle looking for greener pastures. This possibility means quite simply that the MDP might have reduced effectiveness going forward as an Opposition party.
Furthermore, if MDP loses its Parliament strength – and it likely will – it further reduces chances of judicial reform or oversight from the elected Parliament.
After nearly two years of punishing instability and conflict, the Maldives and its economy desperately needs some stability and return to the rule of law. While the return of an elected government is welcome, democrats remain apprehensive of the Gayoom clan.
When slightly more than half the voting public gives a mandate to a media-hostile, blatantly anti-democratic coalition put together by a former dictator, it surely justifies this apprehension.
Furthermore, keeping together the chaotic coalition will be an interesting challenge and one that constantly threatens us with instability. For now, the coalition has been given a mandate to protect of ‘dheen’ and ‘qawm’; we will see Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s final report card five years from now.
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