In an uncharacteristic move, President Abdullah Yameen of the Maldives accepted defeat on September 24, 2018 after an astonishing result where he lost the presidential election to Ibrahim Solih of the opposition coalition. Solih won 58 percent of the votes as opposed to 42 percent by Yameen.
Solih represented the coalition parties whose leaders were either in jail or abroad. India, China and the western world commended Yameen for upholding democracy.
However, a proud, autocratic and arrogant Yameen was consumed with anger when he reflected on his defeat. How could he lose? In an equally shocking U-turn on October 10, he claimed that the election was rigged and sent a petition to the Supreme Court. It did not occur to him that he was disliked for his injustice, repressive laws, violence, and corruption. Yameen first assumed power in 2013 as a candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) led by his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He won by blatantly violating Articles 107, 262, 268 of the constitution.
Now, after the second election, his petition to the Supreme Court claimed that the election result should be quashed. Yameen's lawyers stated that the Election Commission had used “disappearing ink” which vanished after a short span of time and used fraudulent means to ensure that Yameen lost. They further added that false ballot papers were used to rig the votes against Yameen who had “three secret witnesses” to testify to support these allegations. The Supreme Court met the Election Commissioner Ahmed Shareef who strongly insisted that voting was free and fair. Yameen, in anger, sent all the commissioners death threats and four of the five election commissioners fled to Sri Lanka. The company which printed the ballot papers was under pressure from Yameen's men but refused to be intimidated declaring the ballot papers were all transparent.
Courageously, the Supreme Court refused to call Yameen's “three secret witnesses.” The US, EU and India threatened sanctions if Yameen did not accept the result of the election. He was cornered and on October 17 appeared before state television conceding defeat.
What is the background to this seemingly farcical tale? Why are world powers so interested in Maldives?
To start with the second question, Maldives, a small state, is strategically located 400km from southwest of India. It has 26 atolls and over 1,000 islands. But its location covering a large area of the Indian Ocean makes it a state with strategic geopolitical significance to both China and India.
The remarkable growth of China with an economy that is five times the size of India's has led to newer ambitions. Maldives lies across China's trade route to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. China now has a military base in Djibouti and controls new ports in Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. It has special interest in the Maldives for diplomatic reasons.
Yameen after winning the election in 2013 ignored Maldives' old ally, India, and cancelled the construction of the international airport by an Indian company called GMR and handed it over to China. He visited China in 2017 and a Free Trade Agreement was signed. Moreover, a number of infrastructure projects in the Maldives are being developed with Chinese financial help and expertise. Three islands were bought by the Chinese in defiance of a law forbidding foreign ownership. Three Chinese warships were docked in the Maldives. Maldives' “India First” Policy of 1965 seemed to be virtually forgotten.
Yameen promulgated an anti-terrorism bill granting him exclusive licence to declare individuals and groups “terrorists”. In 2015, during his administration, popular former President Mohamed Nasheed was convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to 13 years in prison—the charge being detention of a judge! When public protests erupted in favour of Nasheed, Yameen suppressed them brutally. People were fearful of Yameen's reign of terror.
In March 2016 news leaked about the corruption scandal of over USD 30 million. Yameen was alleged to have been responsible, with his cronies benefitting from the heist. In response, Yameen immediately proposed a bill to criminalise “defamation”.
Journalists campaigned against it as it would suppress freedom of the press and debates on political or human rights issues. The slogan of journalists “In Defence of 27” referred to the provision in the constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech. The police arrested some 16 persons in April 2016 breaking up a peaceful sit-in protest staged by journalists outside the president's office. Amnesty International called on the government to not enact the bill into law as it would have a “stifling effect on the right to freedom of expression.” All public outrage was disregarded and the bill was passed sparking fierce criticism from the western world. Moreover, Yameen arbitrarily removed eight MPs who were against him including judges.
Before the latest presidential election, Yameen again asked for nomination from PPM's leader Gayoom for candidature. Gayoom declined due to Yameen's corruption and arbitrary actions. Confrontation arose between the brothers and the PPM split up and Yameen became its leader.
Gayoom, wily and experienced, formed a coalition with old enemies. They were Nasheed from the Maldivian Democratic Party, Qasim from Jumhooree Party, and Abdullah of Adhaalath Party and they signed a declaration to revive democracy. Soon all were jailed by Yameen except Nasheed who was in the UK.
The wheel does indeed seem to have turned. Yet, can we be sure that it has turned full circle?
As former High Commissioner, I have known all the leaders of the opposition parties well. I worry how they will tussle for ministerial positions and benefits, all wishing to be the first among equals with different interests. Also, will China accept a return to at least equivalent friendship and cooperation with India? It is hoped that the coalition will work together democratically. If that does not happen, then Maldives will again fall into chaos and conflict.
Selina Mohsin is a former ambassador of Bangladesh.