By Omkar Khandekar
Ever since Mohamed Nasheed came to Britain in January 2016, he has made a series of public appearances. His message has seldom wavered: Maldives, the archipelago that used to be a British protectorate, is now in turmoil. The country had seen 30 years of dictatorship before Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) swept into power. Now, it had reverted back to it.
On the chilly morning of 1 June 2016, as he took the stage at the non-profit Royal Overseas League in London, he was, in the eyes of the Maldivian judiciary, a “terrorist” on the run. But he wasn’t the only one who had fallen out of favour with the judiciary, and by extension, its President Abdulla Yameen. Sharing the stage with Nasheed were four members of the country’s political elite, each with a complaint of their own.
While the banner behind these speakers read ‘Maldives United Opposition’ (MUO), the four had more in common than a common enemy. Every one of them had played a crucial role in the coup of 2012, setting the stage for Yameen to take over the presidency in farcical elections the next year.
But Nasheed played down the chequered past of the members of his newly formed alliance. “We have had our differences,” he told his audience, which consisted of nearly 30 members of the British media, politics and civil society. “But today, we have come together in one united opposition.”
He then laid out their agenda: “We don’t believe the present government in Maldives is willing to have free and fair elections [in 2018]. We must find enough leverages over the government so that it will relent and speak to us.”
For those present in the room, the subtext was clear: the former president, ousted in a coup, intended to overthrow the government using the same forces. In this endeavour, he would be helped by his friends, foes-turned-friends and friends-turned-foes-turned-friends.
Over the next hour, the MUO panel explained that its election strategy involved the appointment of a shadow cabinet, on the lines of the British parliamentary system. Each cabinet portfolio in the government of Maldives would have a shadow minister in the opposition, responsible for “reforming” the institution. The cabinet would be led by the former Vice President Mohamed Jameel, who was sharing the stage with Nasheed that day and had fled the Maldives after a motion of no-confidence against him was passed in parliament last year. The MUO, its members explained, would take over as the interim government if—and when—the one led by Yameen fell out of favour of the people of Maldives.
Accompanying Nasheed and Jameel at the event was Fathmath Liusha. She was representing her husband and Jameel’s successor Ahmed Adeeb, who had been jailed for allegedly plotting to assassinate the president. Ali Zahir, the deputy head of the right-wing Adhaalath Party, was present on behalf of his party’s leader, Shaikh Imran Abdulla, while Adam Azim represented his brother and former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim. Both Imran and Nazim are being held in captivity in Maldives.
In essence, the formation of the MUO is a response to the rising tide of discontent against the Yameen government. In the years after the coup, Nasheed was arrested and prosecuted in a series of trials that the United Nations described as “politically motivated.” In February 2015, he was photographed being dragged to the court by the police. The former president—his glasses broken, shirt torn and face contorted in pain—made headlines across the world, and prompted the human rights activist Amal Clooney to announce that she would take up his case pro bono. Thousands of MDP supporters showed up at the May Day rally held that year, demanding Nasheed’s release. In response, President Yameen launched the biggest crackdown in a decade. Nearly 200 people were arrested, including leaders of the opposition. The courts remanded them in custody for two weeks.
Like Gayoom, Yameen, too, has been accused of misusing the country’s independent institutions for personal gains and political vendetta. The accusations started right after he was elected in 2013, following an unprecedented sixth attempt at conducting elections. During his term, the Maldives has rejected old allies such as India and Iran in favour of those with little concern for human rights such as Saudi Arabia and China. Religious extremism is on the rise, press freedom has been threatened, capital punishment has been revived, and the government is now mulling over making defamation a criminal offence.
Street protests have often led to remarkable changes in the Maldives. In 2003, they prompted Gayoom to initiate reforms for a transition to democracy. In 2012, they helped topple Nasheed’s government, a turning point that marked the country’s slide back to dictatorship. Aware of their potential, Yameen’s government banned street protests in November 2015, only weeks after a state of emergency was declared in the Maldives. Ahmed Mahloof, an independent MP and spokesperson for the MUO, however, has plans to defy the ban on 14 July and hold several street protests as a part of their campaign.
Meanwhile, there has been turbulence in the president’s cabinet as well. Over the past weeks, murmurs of a long-suspected fall-out between Yameen and Gayoom have become louder. On 21 June, the home minister Umar Naseer resigned, becoming the eleventh member of the cabinet to exit since Yameen assumed the presidency. Although the members of the MUO duly congratulated him on the move, it was a dubious win for them. Naseer had admitted in an interview that he had coordinated with the protestors and politicians through a “command centre” in 2012. Nevertheless, it was yet another affirmation that President Yameen’s influence was waning. On July 1, Naseer tweeted that he would be contesting the presidential elections in 2018. Many read it as a sign that Gayoom no longer favours Yameen, and is throwing his weight behind a new candidate.
While the president’s office has maintained its composure over this falling house of cards, it has been creating obstacles for the eventuality that the opposition gains widespread support. On June 22, after having worked for seven months without a deputy, Yameen appointed his Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad as the third vice president of Maldives in less than a year. In the event of Yameen being forced to resign, Jihad would immediately succeed him. Five days later, the Supreme Court upheld the terrorism charges against Nasheed, making him constitutionally ineligible for the post of president.
Despite indications to the contrary, Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, the international spokesperson for the president’s office, said in late June that the government didn’t think of the MUO as a threat. “Given their differences… and track record of working together, we do not believe that they warrant any significant response. It is a marriage of convenience,” he said.
Shihab’s is an opinion shared by many observers. Shortly after the announcement of the coalition, Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, a former Ambassador of Maldives to the United States, wrote that Nasheed’s partners wanted to capitalise on the dissent within the country to realise their own political aspirations. Another reason for their compliance, he added, was the possibility that “membership of [MUO] is being sought as a means to escape prosecution… and obtain immunity from the future government.”
When asked about the belligerent past they shared with Nasheed’s MDP, both Jameel and Ali Zahir maintained that they had resolved their differences. An MDP member, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, told me that that the disagreements from the past would not resurface in the new union.
“Nasheed has always been a maverick politician,” he said. “If you look at the shadow cabinet, it is made up mostly of MDP members. So there is little chance of the other MUO alliance partners betraying us again. We are prepared to run against each other in the elections of 2018. That said, what better chance for them to whitewash themselves ahead of it?”
The first protest rally begins tomorrow night. A divided government now readies itself to face a fragmented opposition, setting in motion a battle for legacy in the Indian Ocean.
A version of this article first appeared on The Caravan. The author is a freelance journalist and a writer. He has worked for two Mumbai-based newspapers and has been published in two short story anthologies.