“It’s now time to bring peace, the people have decided. It’s now time for development,” said Abdulla Yameen, the sixth president of the Maldives on November 16, 2013 when he was democratically elected to represent the South Asian island country. In the past few days though, the Maldivian Republic has witnessed politically chaotic times, with rumours floating in the air of a possible impeachment of the president by the Supreme Court. The government on the other hand, has stood its ground of resisting any such attempt by the Supreme Court.
Trouble began in Maldives last week when the Supreme Court ruled that all politicians opposed to Yameen, including the former president Mohamed Nasheed be released. Additionally, the court has also reinstated 12 lawmakers who had been ousted for switching allegiance to the opposition. With their return, the Progressive Party of Yameen would lose majority in the 85-member parliament and there is a possibility of a section of the government working against the president.
Born in May 1959, Yameen has been a part of the Maldivian governing body since 1993. He is the half brother of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had been president of the Maldives for straight 30 years and occupied a status of near autocrat. Yameen began his political career in 1993 as minister of trade and industries and later took on several other portfolios in the cabinet of his half-brother. His coming to power in 2013, though democratic, was seen as a warning by many of a possible return to autocracy. The current crisis faced by the president needs to be located in context of the short history of the South Asian archipelago where democracy has been on shaky grounds ever since it set itself loose from the clutches of the British Protectorate in 1965.
A tumultuous political regime preceding Yameen
A group of low-lying atolls lying south-west of India, Maldives transitioned from a monarchical form of government to a republican form in 1968, after its last sultan was deposed and Ibrahim Nasir became president. In 1978, the presidential post was won over by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who remained in power for the next 30 years.
In the ensuing decades, Gayoom won six consecutive elections unopposed. During his presidential term, a period of economic and political stability was brought about in the Maldives and particular growth was noticed in the tourism sector. Many, however, considered Gayoom to be an autocrat who cut down on any kind of political dissent. During his 30 years of presidential rule, he survived three coup and one assassination attempts. However, it was the tsunami of December 2004 that devastated the Maldives and the political career of its president.
As per a report by the UNDP, the tsunami led to an economic destruction amounting to more than 60 per cent of the country’s GDP and a loss of lives numbering in hundreds. It was during this period of economic and social despair that Gayoom faced a large number of political dissidents. One of his opponents, journalist and human rights activist, Mohamed Nasheed formed the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and actively agitated for political reforms. In 2008, a new constitution was approved and a fresh set of presidential elections were held which was contested by multiple parties. Mohamed Nasheed emerged victorious here, carrying with him the badge of the first democratically elected president of Maldives.
“Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office. Long after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies,” wrote Nasheed in an editorial in the New York Times towards the end of his term. Nasheed’s political term, though historic in nature, was caught up in large amount of trouble right from the time it took off. During his initial days as president, Nasheed carried out a number of ambitious reforms including a public ferry transport system and universal health care. However, lacking a clear majority in the government, a number of his reforms were always under attack and frequently stalled by the opposition. The antagonism between the government and other state actors soon led to public discontent, over economic mismanagement. Also there emerged during this period several groups of Islamic nationalists who saw in Nasheed’s administration a plan to destroy Islam in the Maldives.
Matters came to a head when he ordered the imprisonment of a judge on accusations of corruption. Nasheed’s decision was seen as politically motivated by his opponents, who held a huge protest in Male. Eventually he was forced to resign, allegedly with “a gun held to his head.” Nasheed’s resignation was seen internationally as a sign of dictatorial elements breaking down democracy.
A fresh set of elections were held in late 2013, and Abdulla Yameen emerged as the people’s choice winning over 51 per cent of the votes as opposed to Nasheed’s 49 per cent.
The return of autocracy under Yameen
The election of Yameen over Nasheed in the controversial elections of 2013 was widely noted to be an attempt made by Gayoom’s party to return to a state of autocracy. He developed an anti-Western rhetoric whereby Islam was made as a tool to mobilise public support.
From 2015 on, however, facing huge amount of political opposition, the president had ordered a number of arrests and declared a state of emergency in the country. The emergency, declared in November 2015 came two days before a planned demonstration by the opposition party headed by former president Nasheed. Further, he ordered the arrest of Nasheed under charges of “terrorism” and he was later exiled. Vice president Ahmad Adeeb along with 17 of his supporters were arrested under what was termed as “public order offences.”
When the Supreme Court ordered the release of the political opponents, Yameen is reported to have remarked that he did not anticipate the court’s ruling and would ensure a smooth implementation of the order. He has also promised a fresh set of elections as a means to testing his popularity among the people of Maldives. However, none of the prisoners have been released yet and the opposition, including the former president, continues to accuse the present government of attempting to silence every kind of dissent.