Earlier this month, the Maldives Supreme Court overturned the money laundering conviction against former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayyoom. In November 2019, Yameen was sentenced to five years in prison for money laundering, where the charges focused on a payment of $1m by a private company that was meant for the government.
Yameen’s newfound freedom has implications not just for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in the Maldives in 2024, but also for wider Maldives-India relations. Just days after his release, the main opposition party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), began issuing official statements using the ‘India Out’ phrase, having been emboldened by their leader’s acquittal.
The former president had served as president for five years before his surprising defeat in the 2018 elections with Ibrahim Solih becoming the country’s new leader. During his tenure, the hardliner Yameen’s open preference for Saudi Arabia and China and his hostility towards India became a part of the wider geopolitical battle between New Delhi and Beijing.
Yameen’s previous tenure has been heavily criticised for its infringements of human rights, the suppression of dissent, controlling freedom of speech and expression and other violations that the Human Rights Watch had labelled an “all-out assault on democracy”.
Now, with Yameen free from legal restrictions, and with the other domestic political developments in the Maldives, India may have reason to be concerned if these eventually result in the political leader being once again at the helm of the country.
Domestic political context
The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has been beset with internal fractures that are more visible than before, giving rise to concerns of how the party will eventually perform in the upcoming elections. It is important to remember that Solih did not win the last elections on his own—he was a coalition candidate supported by other parties, explains Dr. Gulbin Sultana, a research analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, whose area of research includes the Maldives.
The internal fractures in the MDP are primarily the result of a disagreement between President Solih and former President Mohamed Nasheed, where the latter wants a change of government system from presidential to parliamentary, which Solih does not want. Earlier this year, Nasheed had asked Solih to work towards implementing this change, which Solih had refused to do, saying that his priorities were fulfilling the election agenda, says Dr. Sultana. “Solih’s coalition partners don’t agree with Nasheed. They want the continuation of the present system. Solih is not saying that he will not support the parliamentary system, but rather his view is that it is the will of the people, which he as president cannot arbitrarily make.”
While Solih has been relatively quiet about these internal divisions within the party and disagreements with his colleagues, that has not been the case with Nasheed. Just weeks after Nasheed survived an attack in Malé, he issued a statement in July to “course-correct before it is too late”. In that statement that stood out for its directness, Nasheed accused President Solih, saying that the leader had reneged on his campaign pledge to tackle religious extremism.
Nasheed was specifically referring to a recent Bill that would criminalise hate crimes that had been tabled after the May 6 explosion in which Nasheed and several others had been seriously injured. In that statement, Nasheed went on to openly name the Adhaalath party, saying that “when the conservative religious parties who are part of a political alliance with the government objected, the government withdrew support for its own Bill…”
Over the past few months, there have been several such instances where the disagreements have spilled out publicly. That is cause for concern, especially if it ends up impacting the MDP’s performance in the elections. Dr. Sultana points to the party’s performance in the Malé city council elections that were held this past April where the party lost their seat to the PPM.
Following the disastrous results in these elections, Nasheed spoke to some Indian media saying that the party had lost the election because they had let go of the party’s core values, where voters felt that their beliefs were ignored and that the government had been acquiescing to minority views. “40 percent of the population lives in Malé and it is a prestigious seat that they lost,” explains Dr. Sultana.
It is not simply a case where if President Solih were to agree to Nasheed’s views it would end the MDP’s internal dispute. The party’s coalition partners may not agree to Nasheed’s proposal. “If that happens, it may affect the MDP’s performance in the next presidential elections. So both cases are likely to cause problems,” Dr. Sultana says.
The ‘India Out’ campaign has been prominently featuring photos of Yameen in their social media posts and posters, particularly since the party leader’s acquittal—a move unlikely to happen without the leader’s consent and knowledge. Over the past few days, Yameen has been attending rallies and giving speeches organised by the ‘India Out’ campaign and has also spoken about what the campaign claims is Indian military’s presence in the Maldives, that has been a bone of contention between the PPM, the ‘India Out’ campaigners and the Solih government.
This is an important development, especially in the context of the upcoming elections. “The ‘India Out’ campaign has become more politically active because now they have a leader, a strong face, with Yameen. That wasn’t there before. Now it is no longer a civil society movement. It is definitely a political movement,” says Dr. Sultana.
What had started out as a grassroots campaign has transformed into something larger and more organised, with a very visible face, that of the charismatic leader Yameen. “Now their aim is the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024,” Dr. Sultana says of the campaign organisers.
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What changes with Yameen
If Yameen were to become the next Maldivian president, it is likely to cause some concern for New Delhi. India would hardly want to go back to the way relations were with Yameen’s Maldives between 2013-2018. But much has changed over the past few years in India’s relations with the Maldives and there might be too much more at stake for Yameen to engage in a way like he has before.
Despite Yameen’s inclination towards China, it wasn’t as if India and the Maldives had no diplomatic exchanges or any progress at all. Even during his tenure, Yameen did focus on an ‘India First’ policy and did attempt to build people-to-people relations. Also, what Yameen may say as an opposition leader, would not necessarily continue if he were to become the leader again.
“Ultimately the Maldives does need assistance from India. It is not a very big power in the region and India is an important country,” says Dr. Sultana. Particularly now, given how much India has invested in the country, making it one of the largest in the Maldives. “Yameen may not be able to do what he did in the previous tenure. Now India is not involved in just one project, there are many. So if they ask India to cancel all projects, it will be a heavy financial burden,” says Dr. Sultana.
For starters, the country’s economic situation is not like what it was back in 2013 during the Yameen government. Heavily dependent on tourism and the flow of international tourists, the Maldives has suffered economic losses after Covid-19 brought global travel to a screeching halt in 2020. Although the country opened its borders for tourists, the ongoing pandemic and the emergence of variants have continued to impede its economic recovery progress.
Prior to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the Maldives’ Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer speculated that the country will experience faster economic recovery in 2022 and comparatively faster recovery in 2023 and 2024. Local Maldivian publication ‘The Edition’ quoted the minister saying that the country expected a “stronger influx of international tourists” in the next few years.