The unfolding political crisis in Maldives

Democracy versus authoritarian stability
A Maldives National Defence Force soldier walks past the president's office building after Maldives President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency, on February 6, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

Maldives has plunged into a major political crisis after the Supreme Court on February 2 in a judgement ordered the government to release 12 members of the parliament who were stripped off their posts and held by the government under different charges and order retrial of the case. This unexpected judgement pushed Maldives into a new political turmoil as the government of Abdulla Yameen refused to respect the court order and announced 15 days of state emergency. The Maldives Defence Force surrounded the Supreme Court and arrested the chief justice and another judge on charges of graft while the three other judges party to this unanimous judgement declared the order null and void.

While there was international outcry against the Yameen government and its treatment of judiciary and opposition politicians, the Yameen government leaned on China to deflect the pressure while opposition leader and former president of Maldives made an appeal to India to intervene militarily to save democracy in Maldives—an option that is not on the table for New Delhi.

The tussle between the incumbent president and the Maldives United Opposition (MUO) has intensified since last year after this united political platform was established by all the leaders opposed to Abdulla Yameen's regime. The opposition movement against the regime found political momentum after the president's half-brother and former president of Maldives Maumoon Abdul Gayoom broke away from the ruling party, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), after a tussle for the control of the party started.

The main issue of contention was Gayoom's refusal to nominate Yameen as the presidential candidate of the party in the 2018 election. However, the court, in June 2016, declared Abdulla Yameen as the legitimate leader of the party declaring former president and Yameen's half-brother Gayoom "incapable of attending to the duties of his job," forcing Gayoom's exit from the PPM. As a result, the party was divided between Gayoom's loyalists and Yameen's loyalists reducing the government to a minority. Yet, it was the judiciary that kept the government alive sanctifying all its decisions and joining hands to punish the political opponents.

Inside the Majlis the opposition was not allowed to move a no-confidence motion against the speaker as the government made changes to the rules of procedure that increased the signatures required from 15 to 29 to 42 MPs. Therefore, the MUO could not succeed in overthrowing the government even after some ruling party MPs joined hands. The ruling party MPs were later disqualified and lost their seat in the parliament under the anti-defection law.

The Supreme Court decision that ordered the release of the prisoners and retrial was a major challenge to the government that is preparing for the next parliamentary election scheduled this year. Under no circumstance would the government allow its arch-rivals to contest the election which has meticulously been planned to see Yameen elected for another term.

The government defended its decision to impose emergency saying emergency is necessary for the smooth running of the state as there was no other option. It used the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) to arrest the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Abdulla Sayeed, and his colleague Justice Ali Hameed, and pressurised the other three of the five judges who gave the decision to reverse it. Three judges reversed the decision of the Supreme Court that ordered the release and retrial of the arrested politicians and confirmed that the Supreme Judicial Commission has the power, authority and right to investigate the Supreme Court judges including the chief justice. It appears that as long as President Yameen has the support of the MNDF, it is difficult to dislodge him even though President Yameen has lost majority in the Majlis.

In the past few years, following his controversial election in 2013, President Yameen has been keenly engaging China and Saudi Arabia though there are allegations of corruption against the regime in the manner in which important infrastructure projects were allocated to China and Saudi Arabia without competitive bidding and without taking into account the implications for the environment and economy. It was clear that Yameen courted these two countries keeping his political interest in mind. While Saudi Arabia is providing ideological recourse to the Muslim-majority country, which is evident from the fact that a large number of Maldivians were fighting alongside ISIS, China's presence was appropriately leveraged to nullify India's influence—a country that is seen sympathetic to his political rival Nasheed and is critical of Maldives' turn towards autocracy.

During his visits to India, though Yameen emphasised on Maldives' 'India first' policy, Yameen realised that the China factor would restrain India and limit various policy options it could exercise if the situation did not develop to India's liking. This is the success story of Abdulla Yameen's continuation in power. Earlier, in December 2017, three local councillors belonging to the opposition, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), were suspended for meeting the Indian ambassador without permission. This reflects Yameen's deep suspicion of India.

In spite of former President Nasheed's Twitter appeal to India to intervene, and China's statement that cautioned against any interference in Maldives' internal affair, the policy choices for New Delhi remain limited. It is nobody's interest if Maldives moves to an era of autocracy with democratic pretentions of a sham election this year as the opposition leaders remain technically disqualified after being convicted in criminal cases. For New Delhi, which is cautiously watching China's rise in the neighbourhood, it is its geo-political interest in the Indian Ocean that would take precedence.

Dr Smruti S Pattanaik is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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