What does by-poll result mean for Maldives politics

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PUBLISHED 10 February 2022

With the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader of the ruling alliance retaining the Komandoo parliamentary seat in the most hotly contested by-election after Maldives became a multi-party democracy in 2008, the focus has returned to the Presidential poll that is due late next year. An allied question has arisen if the Opposition PPM-PNC would focus away from its ‘India Out’ campaign in favour of ‘development politics’ that is identified with alliance leader and former President Abdulla Yameen.

The 5 February by-election was held because Hussain Waheed’s (53)death left the Komandoo seat vacant. Official results are awaited but the unofficial figures acknowledged by all three candidates showed MDP’s Mohamed Raashid winning by 240 votes. He polled 1,401 votes (48.56 percent) against Moosa Fathuhee of the Opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) obtaining 1,161 vote (40.24 percent). A third candidate, Abdul Hannan representing the fledgling Maldives National Party (MNP), polled 323 votes, working out to 11.95 percent.  A total of 2,932 of 3,309 eligible voters (88 percent) cast their lot. There were 47 invalid votes, a new high by Maldivian standards, indicating possible voter-disenchantment.

The hotly-fought campaign witnessed President Ibrahim Solih and also Parliament Speaker and ruling MDP Chief, Mohammed Nasheed, touring the three-island constituency multiple times. Almost every minister in the Solih government, coalition MPs, and other functionaries spent time campaigning. MDP’s alliance partners, Home Minister Sheikh Imran of the religion-centric Aadhalath Party (AP) and Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party (JP) too were there, with the latter making it a display for personal prestige.

However, the MDP’s fourth ally, Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM) of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was standing out due to its leaders’ absence. The party issued a pre-poll statement, expressing concern about electoral corruption without taking names, but at the same time, welcomed President Solih’s annual address to the Parliament for the features it contained.

Yameen and many of his party leaders also toured the constituency and  addressed the 700-odd Komandoo voters in capital Malé.

Spoiler or game changer

The MDP has promptly attributed the by-poll victory to the effective implementation of the party’s ‘Agenda 19’ manifesto for the 2019 parliamentary elections. While conceding the election, the PPM-PNC combine lost no time in claiming that it owed to the misuse and abuse of government machinery, creation of poll-eve jobs for the constituents, and the sanctioning of new projects not mentioned in the year’s budget. The Opposition PPM-PNC, while conceding the election, has said that the MDP should be embarrassed by the ‘pyrrhic victory’.

The PPM-PNC combine has taken up multiple allegations of corrupt practices to the Election Commission and also to the constitutionally-mandated Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which is ineffective at present after all its members quit. The second runner-up, MNP, has levelled similar charges, going as far as to allege that the Election Commission was not responsive.

For the record, the MDP’s poll-figure of 1,401 is lower than the 1,553 votes obtained in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Rivals call him a spoiler, but in effect, the third-party MNP candidate may have been a game changer. The party will need to analyse from which side of the ideological divide did its votes come, and if it could be a part of an evolving pattern that would be reflected in the 2023 Presidential polls and the Parliamentary elections a year later.

Either way, MNP founder, Col Mohamed Nazim (retd), estranged one-time defence minister under Yameen can be expected to contest the first round of Presidential polls and drive a hard bargain for the second round, if there is one. This is because the victor would have to cross the 50-percent vote-mark, even if only in the two-candidate, second run-off round.

The revived debate

As much as celebrating the party’s victory, MDP’s Nasheed has argued that with less than 50 percent votes, the party could retain power only under his pet first-past-the-post parliamentary scheme of governance. Pre-poll, he had promised to do whatever it took to ensure that the MDP retained power, and also said that they would require two more terms to set matters right. Partymen had interpreted this to mean that Nasheed would back Solih for a second term, and promote the parliamentary scheme for a third term for the MDP.

Nasheed may have a point. While contesting as the common candidate of the four-party coalition in 2018 elections, Solih bagged the highest-ever 58-percent vote-share and became the first-round victor since the nation ushered in multi-party democracy in 2008. Unlike as claimed, incumbent Yameen’s 42-percent vote-share was no less substantial.

The MDP, contesting the parliamentary polls almost alone a few months later, swept the seat-stakes (65 of 87) but with a low 46-percent vote-share. At the time, all non-MDP parties, including allies, had polled more votes together. This time, as Nasheed implies, with the coalition nearly intact and all leaders campaigning hard, the alliance candidate (incidentally belonging to the MDP) could not cross the 50-percent cut-off mark required to win the Presidential poll.

But the question, for and against Nasheed’s contention and also on the MDP’s by-poll victory, is if this would be enough. In the past, most MDP leaders barring Nasheed had not commented on his proposition. All three allies and the Yameen camp had opposed the move. Granting Yameen’s consistency in the matter, now, it remains to be seen how the MDP, especially the Solih camp and the allies react to Nasheed’s idea, or rather his timing of  reviving the debate.

With only over a year for the Presidential polls, the ruling alliance has to take a decision either way and enforce the same, without expending time on this continual debate. For the MDP—and the allies, possibly—the party’s National Council meeting, which is due anytime soon for the election of a new chairman and also the parliamentary group leader, should set the tone and tenor for the future.

A setback?

From an Indian perspective, the question arises if the PPM-PNC defeat in the by-election implies a setback for Yameen’s variously-phrased ‘India Out’ and ‘India Military Out’ campaign(s). Komandoo is a traditional MDP seat after all, yet independent of the by-poll results, Yameen camp was already seen as broad-basing its political campaign after flagging ‘India Out’, both inside and outside the constituency in the initial days.

However, the MDP’s bid to criminalise criticism of ‘friendly nations’, though without naming India, can embarrass New Delhi, for no fault. Yameen has decided to take the new law, if passed, to the people, where India will be in the cross-hair for an indeterminate period of time. He has also decided to challenge the constitutionality of a new law in the Supreme Court.

The MDP parliamentarians, cadres, and supporters are aghast at their self-styled pro-democracy party seeking to stifle ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘right to protest’, whatever the justification. There is also concern that if this condition is taken up retrospectively in the future, Nasheed too could be hauled up for his continual criticism of China—another ‘friendly nation’; past, present, and future.

Yet, assuming that Yameen has retained his 40-plus percent vote-share from 2018 , he can hope to garner an additional 10-plus percent votes to re-take the Presidency only if he re-focuses on  people-centric developmental issues—which was his strong point while he was in power. A single-agenda item like ‘India Out’ or even a restricted ‘India Military Out’ may not help, as the targetable neutral voters  only have reasons to thank India for its benevolence, and not much by way of alleged maleficence.

There is another possible impediment that Yameen may have to consider as a part of his poll strategy. After being freed by the Supreme Court from a graft charge last year, Yameen is expecting trial court verdicts in two others by mid-June, with the attendant question if he would ultimately be allowed to contest the Presidential poll or not.

Until the year-end, Yameen may be tied down to the cases, all the way up to the Supreme Court, and may also fashion an alternate strategy. Granting he is able to identify a candidate to whom he could transfer his huge committed vote-bank from 2019, there is the question if another candidate in his place could convincingly shoulder his personalised ‘India Out’ campaign with the same electoral outcome.

While it is in the future, outside observers, including Indians, may have noticed how the Komandoo campaign was devoid of any reference to internal security and religious terrorism, that too when it was the first electoral outing after the 6 May terror-attack on Nasheed in Malé last year. Nasheed too was not known to have flagged the issue either in Komandoo or elsewhere in recent months.

This provides an additional angle to the Maldivian debates on political stability, along with Nasheed’s revival of the parliamentary scheme debate. This continued tentativeness can upset the international understanding of the emerging Maldivian situation, and also upset MDP and the alliance supporters and also ‘non-committed’ sympathisers—accounting for around 30 percent of the electorate or even more.