By N. Sathiya Moorthy
With President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih indicating disciplinary action against 14 ‘rebel’ MPsowing allegiance to Party Chief and parliamentary Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, the affairs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) seem to be heading for a showdown as the year 2022 is coming to a close, a month from now. This is accompanied by the criminal court’s announcement on pronouncing the verdict in a second money-laundering case against arch-rival and former President Abdulla Yameen, by December, leading to his possible electoral disqualification—making it an interesting, rather, intriguing year-end, in the long run-up to the presidential poll by the fourth quarter of 2023. Will it all lead to political instability is the question that is looming in most Maldivians’ minds.
Including Nasheed, his camp now has a demonstrated strength of 15 MPs (against the rumoured figure of 20) in a total MDP parliamentary strength of 65 in the 87-member House. An open division in Parliament seemed imminent earlier in the month over the ‘Chagos issue’ involving Mauritius, but many members of the Solih camp also voted with the Nasheed group, that too for the Opposition Yameen-centric PPM-PNC combine’s emergency motion for the House to discuss the matter. This time around, there was no such question as the government needed to get the bill for higher GST-and TGST (tourism GST) passed.
There was no ‘tie’ on the GST bill, which was passed 54-26, for Nasheed to register the ‘casting vote’ vote of the Speaker—and get ‘identified’ officially. Unlike him, 14 MPs from his camp defied the customary three-line party whip issued by MDP Parliamentary Group Leader Mohammed Aslam. A local media site quoted Aslam that the leadership would initiate disciplinary action against the errant MPs lest it should send out a wrong message to loyalists, both MPs and cadres alike. The question is if Nasheed as party chief would resort to a tit-for-tat strategy in the organisational wing, or the Solih camp would stop with a gentle tap on the knuckle of the Nasheed MPs, if at all, to avoid a direct confrontation ahead of the party primaries, followed by a long drawn-out campaign for the presidency.
The MDP has announced that the party primaries for the presidential polls will be held once the administrative arrangements are completed. It is expected in the first quarter of the New Year, and Solih has already thrown his hat in the ring. Though his supporters argue that under the current party constitution, an incumbent President has an automatic option to run for a term, the mandatory upper limit if elected, Solih has been keen that he should obtain the party’s approval five years after assuming office.
At last count, Nasheed, who has been blowing hot and cold on backing Solih, has declared his opposition to his friend and trusted stand-in. Speculation is thus rife on his choice of a nominee for the party primaries, including the question if he would himself enter the fray. There are, however, apprehensions at thecadre level in both camps that a last-minute leadership-level patch-up would not fool anyone, especially the huge rank of ‘non-committed voters’, who have decided past elections.
In the rival camp, all eyes are set on the upcoming verdict in the Yameen case, which could decide his electoral fate. He is the only political party candidate in the fray for the presidential polls now, his PPM-PNC combine announcing its decision on the matter some months ago. Any disqualification flowing from a trial court verdict would upset party leaders and voters alike.
There is an aspirational second line, whose silent ‘Yameen-or-me’ slogan reverberates inside party circles. But the more-than-half-a-dozen aspirants are all aware that they do not stand even a distant chance without Yameen’s endorsement. They also know that loyalty would be the main criterion for such endorsement as if elected, the new President’s main job would be to ensure the early return of Yameen.
This entails an equally loyal vice-presidential candidate and the possibility of Yameen running for the parliamentary elections after the restoration of electoral rights and becoming Speaker, a la Nasheed in the 2018-19 period. Under the Constitution, the Speaker is made President for 60 days in times of vacancies in the top two slots, and Yameen might want to run for the presidency from a position of relative strength. Or, so is the surmise, both within and outside the PPM-PNC combine.
Yet, with the presidential poll only months away, it would then become difficult for the combine to run a personality-centric poll campaign without Yameen in the fray—which is what it is all about in the country—at least until the final verdict is known in the matter. The reverse is also true. What if the trial court acquitted Yameen? Would the government go on in appeal?
For either side, any adversarial final verdict from the Supreme Court can upset their poll calculations that much. But if it came to that, Yameen cannot but afford to appeal his conviction, if any, by the lower court. The government can still take chances, but then the Solih dispensation could face loud protests from within the party and also the residual ‘neutral voters’ of the MDP if it decided against moving the high court and/or the supreme court in their time.
Haircut for the tourism industry
Going by political reactions, there seem to be popular reservations about the GST-TGST hike that the government might be prepared to accept. President Solih has assented to the twin laws since they are in force and because they can make a difference. Insiders hope for a grudging acceptance of the current reality by the people, but they also anticipate mounting protests by each passing week, each passing month, between now and the presidential poll.
The perception is that the tourism sector which is picking up slowly but surely is opposed to the new rates as they may have to re-work their costs, which overseas tour operators might not accept when the new season is already here (December-March). This implies that individual operators would have to take a haircut. Incidentally, the tourism industry is a big financier for political parties and candidates, and also is a big employer outside the state sector, thus, translating into votes, including family members.
Even the common man is not spared, because the general GST has also been increased. In a country where the government fixes the price of only four commodities—namely, fuel, rice, refined wheat, and sugar—with and without the tax hike, prices of other commodities have shot up like never before. This is when family incomes have not reached pre-COVID levels, with or without providing for inflation.
With the perceived public mood being what it is, political parties seem to be moving cautiously on the economic situation, given that the Sri Lankan crises in the immediate neighbourhood have triggered apprehensions in Maldivian people more than the government is willing to concede. The open market rate of the US dollar is as much an issue of concern for the people, as is it for businesses.
This is because Sri Lanka is home to around 30,000 Maldivians, including those who work and study there. Thus, every atoll and island have real-time updates on the economic situation and attendant public protests and political crises in the immediate neighbourhood, even as it was unfolding through the past months.
Looming Forex Crisis?
Now, with the campaign of an impending forex crisis, which the government continues to deny stoutly, there is anticipation of a real shortage of dollars through the banking system and a steep rise in the open market rates. Again, the irony is that more than the political Opposition, Speaker Nasheed has been running down the government of the party, of which he has been the elected president for years now.
In Parliament, Nasheed went as far as to declare that the government, according to his information, had forex reserves to meet expenses only for two weeks or so. It was embarrassing to chair Parliament sessions in a country that was heading for bankruptcy, he said further. He also repeatedly asked the government, not to mislead the public.
Given Nasheed’s anti-Solih criticism for much of the past four years of this government, his current statements on the economy have not cut much ice with the people. Yet, there is an undercurrent of palpable tension which has more to do with mental comparisons with the Sri Lankan situation, when the economic crisis began enveloping that country earlier in the year.
It is in this overall background that other political players are looking at the crystal ball for any idea of where the nation is heading and what their own chances are if they chose to contest the presidential poll. They will wait for the major events of December to unfold, before taking a decisive line. In the interim, they have been making ‘people-centric’ statements on the ‘Chagos issue’, the GST bills and the economy.
Among them, the Jumhooree Party (JP) ally of the ruling MDP, headed by billionaire-businessman Gasim Ibrahim, has scheduled their national congress to decide the future course. The fledgling Maldives National Party (MNP) of former defence minister, Col Mohamed Nazim (retd) has already fixed the date for its primaries for the presidential poll.
There is a third player in the Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA), Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, or ‘Sun’ Siyam, who is also said to be weighing his options. Former Home Minister Umar Naseer, who floated the political outfit, Dhivehi National Action (DNA) with ex-foreign minister Dunya Maumoon, daughter of one-time Maldivian strongman, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, with his presidential aspirations, has been lying low for long, and uncharacteristically so.
It seems they all will wait for the court verdict in Yameen’s case and also the outcome of the MDP squabbles before deciding whether to contest the presidential poll, or endorse another candidate. Their options also include the possibility of their contesting the first round, thus hoping to push the results into the second round, and negotiate their support for the top two from the first round, in the interim.
The temptation is also there for them all, after Gasim won respectively 16 percent and 25 percent votes in the first round, respectively in the presidential polls of 2008 and 2013. It is only in 2018 elections that four Opposition parties, including the MDP and JP, joined hands and fielded Solih as the common candidate and trounced incumbent Yameen in the first round itself and by a huge margin.