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Maldives: A new democracy in crisis

  • Published at 06:25 pm March 20th, 2015

While the azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean around the capital Male give an impression of peace and serenity, the former President Nasheed is arrested and unceremoniously dragged to jail on trumped-up charges of “terrorism.” Denied legal representation on time, he is sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment by a bench of judges of dubious reputation.

The world is shocked by President Yameen’s brutality. Nasheed was the country’s first democratically elected president. In 2008, he had defeated autocratic Gayoom, who had ruled for 30 years. He was ousted in 2012 by a coup that Nasheed claims was engineered by Vice President Waheed and Gayoom.

A presidential election was then held in 2013, in which Nasheed secured 45.45% of the votes while Yameen, Gayoom’s half brother ,won 25.35%, and Gasim 24.07%. Since no candidate won 51% a second round was held.

It was fraught with discrepancies, delays, and illegalities. Supreme Court Judges violated Article 107 of the constitution, despite the speaker’s protest, and again violated Articles 262 and 268 to allow Yameen to win the election.

 As president, Yameen has acted as an autocrat but recently found that his ruling coalition was collapsing like a house of cards. He began to purge political opponents. His defense minister was jailed and warrants of arrest were issued against senior members of the opposition. Former President Nasheed’s sentence is an integral part of this “broad sweep.”       

Nasheed had already once been jailed for over six years for introducing democracy to the country. He was declared an Amnesty International “Prisoner of Conscience.” After his 2008 defeat of Gayoom in a fair presidential election, he gained international recognition by his climate change initiative to make Maldives “Carbon Neutral by 2020.”

The arrest and jailing of Nasheed is only the latest act of Yameen’s misrule. The chief justice of the Supreme Court and a former auditor general were dismissed by quick legal amendments which reduced the Supreme Court bench from seven justices to five and empowered Yameen to appoint a new auditor general.

Ali Hamid, whose sex tapes with prostitutes at a hotel in Sri Lanka leaked online in 2013, has now been appointed as chair of the judicial service commission. 

India’s request to Yameen to release Nasheed and begin a process of national reconciliation failed and Prime Minister Modi dropped a planned visit to Maldives. Relations between New Delhi and Male have clearly deteriorated.

Indeed there seem reasons to suspect Yameen has a hidden agenda in favour of China. Yameen signed the Maritime Silk Route Agreement with China and a large GMR contract of US$500m has been taken away from an Indian firm and given to China. In September 2014, China’s President Xi Jinping visited Maldives.

China has shown interest in converting two islands into transshipment ports and in the development of the country’s second international airport at Haanimadhoo. China also plans to establish a naval submarine base in Marao, a move covered in mystery.

While it is legitimate that China should assist the country in its socio-economic growth, infrastructure, and human resource development, it appears that China primarily aims to secure sea routes for its trade and a degree of control over the Indian Ocean.

How will the Modi government respond?  India has certainly recognised China’s intense interest in the Indian Ocean and the implicit challenge to India’s authority. What might be India’s diplomatic moves at this juncture? 

Tourism is Maldives’ largest economic activity, accounting for more than 30% of GDP and over 60% of its foreign exchange. The second leading sector is fishing, which is declining in recent years. In 2011, excessive spending and low tourist arrivals led to a crisis in the balance of payment which was temporarily eased by a $79.3m IMF agreement.

But after the first two disbursements, the IMF suspended payments due to the growing Maldives budget deficit. In 2012 the government introduced a GST on tourism which eased the situation. But with an unemployment rate of 28% and estimated budget deficit of 12.3% of GDP in 2012, the country faces massive challenges.

In recent years, total foreign reserves have hovered around $300m, only enough to finance two to three months of imports. Although the GMR contract with India was terminated President Yameen, in desperation, visited India in 2013 seeking a loan of $25m. Now Yameen is flexing his muscles against domestic opposition, but for how long?

A major threat to Yameen arose when Nasheed’s MDP gained a new ally in billionaire Gasim of Jumhooree Party. Recently, MDP has also adopted a resolution to work with the religious Adhaalath Party who had called for “national unity alliance” against the government.

Opposition to Yameen is gathering momentum. This seems to explain the blatantly irregular arrest and jailing of Naseed, but has already led to mass protest demonstrations.   

Besides the possibility of suspension from the Commonwealth and targeted sanctions hitting the tourist industry, Maldives has to import almost all foodstuffs, spices, medical supplies, hospital services, and goods, usually from India, its close neighbour.

Similarly, Bangladesh provides the largest number of migrant workers, a few physicians, and nursing staff. The writer recalls that once when rice and ginger import from India was stopped for a month, Maldives was in a state of panic. India could exercise pressure, without explicit sanctions, by gradually reducing export of essential foodstuffs and goods. Sri Lanka, an ally of India, might do the same. 

Maldives’ young democracy is in acute danger. Yameen would do well to remember the country’s manifold dependency. How far would China be able to support him in the face of rising local opposition to his increasingly autocratic rule?