On a hot June night, Ahmed Mahloof sat at a dimly lit café by a beach, carefully coating a betel leaf with lime and pan masala. Four years ago, the MP led a series of anti-government rallies that eventually led to the resignation of the then-President Mohamed Nasheed. Now, as the newly appointed spokesperson of the Maldives United Opposition, he discussed plans to ensure the downfall of the government he had helped come to power.
“I really hope it takes two months,” he said. “Whatever we do, we should do it in two months.”
Mahloof is now serving a 10-month prison sentence for two counts of ‘obstructing police duty’. He isn’t the only one. Over the past three months, the police have arrested and interrogated several members of the opposition. Some had their mobile phones taken away, others were jailed for ‘plotting to overthrow the government’. Arrest warrants were issued against the MUO’s leaders, Nasheed and former Vice President Mohamed Jameel who now live in exile in the United Kingdom.
In September, as rumours of President Abdulla Yameen’s ouster started to fizzle out, Nasheed finally admitted to shortcomings in his plans. “There are a number of things that have to happen and we are working on them,” he told The Indian Express on concluding a brief trip to Sri Lanka, one that was said to have been part of a plot to oust Yameen.
For Mahloof and other detainees, there seems to be no reprieve in sight. And the question many are asking is, have the MUO’s efforts to ‘restore democracy’ in the country failed?
It was an attempt that began with much fanfare. On June 1, as Nasheed stood before members of the international media, he spoke highly of his coalition partners – the Adhaalath Party, the Jumhooree Party and family members of former senior government officials who had been sacked and jailed, Yameen’s second Vice President Ahmed Adeeb and his first Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim. Every one of them had allegedly conspired to strip Nasheed of his presidency in 2012.
“I commend all the opposition leaders… I salute them,” Nasheed had said. “I understand how difficult it is to take this step, but we have come to this understanding knowing the gravity of issues faced by our people.”
Their approach appears to have been three-pronged: build momentum through street protests, engage with law-enforcement bodies to arrest Yameen over corruption allegations, and lobby international powers to impose targeted sanctions.
On July 21, nearly 5,000 people defied a ban on street protests in Malé to attend an inaugural rally for regime-change, echoing the MUO’s call for the president’s arrest. But in the nightly protests held since, rued an opposition MP, it has been a struggle to replicate the numbers. Arbitrary arrests, violent crackdowns and long prison sentences for activists seem to have demotivated many.
“Even if thousands of people come out, it won’t help if the police, army and the judiciary aren’t on our side,” said the MP.
Even a long-awaited documentary by Al Jazeera that revealed evidence of how Yameen and Adeeb had stolen millions from state offers, planned attacks on political opponents, and bought the loyalty of judges, failed to prompt people to the streets. Less than a hundred people showed up that night, and were dispersed quickly.
After repeated no-show at the rallies, the opposition pinned its hopes on the Commonwealth once again. On September 21, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the inter-governmental body’s democracy and human rights arm, met in New York. They had before them a report by Dr Willy Mutunga, a special envoy appointed to look into what he would later describe as the “severe democracy deficit” in the Maldives.
“The curtailment of fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly has created an environment of fear and intimidation. The long-term detention of political leaders has eroded the government and the judiciary’s legitimacy,” Mutunga said, recommending the Commonwealth to consider a “full range of options”.
The CMAG ruled to put the country on its agenda – a step short of suspension.
Even as they welcomed the ruling, the opposition could not hold back its disappointment. “Maybe there’s a mismatch between the expectations of the Maldivian people and the action taken by the international community,” said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, an MUO spokesman. “[The ruling] is only marginal by the speed things are happening.”
He expressed regret over what he called India’s silence on the turmoil in the Maldives. Despite being a close ally, it had not taken a public stand even as the Maldives came under fire from other international partners, including the UN, the EU and the US. Meanwhile, a diplomat I spoke to last month said that the West applied targeted sanctions “only in exceptional circumstances”. And even so, this demand is unlikely to be granted without India’s support.
With little going for it, the MUO has been forced to set aside pre-conditons for all-party talks. It had stated earlier that there will be no talks unless the jailed and exiled leaders, including Nasheed and Nazim were released. But in his submission, Mutunga, the Commonwealth’s special envoy, had insisted that a dialogue was “badly needed”.
“The CMAG ruling is an indication to the group [MUO] that the Maldives issue has to be solved internally,” said Mohamed Shainee, the government’s representative for the all-party talks. “You can’t get legitimacy by staying away. There’s a proverb for that in English: out of sight, out of mind.”
Even as Shainee reiterates commitment to a dialogue, it is unclear how successful a new attempt may be, given the government’s past unwillingness to cede ground to the opposition, despite efforts brokered by the UN.
So what have been the achievements of the Maldives United Opposition so far? “That we have stayed together,” says Ghafoor.
But this is clearly not enough. This may be why the MUO now seeks to capitalize on a rift within the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives.
On September 14, Nasheed told the media that he had joined hands with his political-nemesis, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother who had ruled the country for 30 years. The 78-year-old had fallen out with Yameen publicly this July after his son was expelled from the ruling party. He continues to be an influential figure whose support might help turn tide in the PPM-dominated parliament.
The 53-member parliamentary group is Yameen’s main power base. With sanctions a long way off, and having failed to oust the president through protests or orchestrate his arrest, the opposition’s only avenue appears to be impeachment.
However, Gayoom, for the second time in a month, overruled Nasheed’s claims of an alliance. ‘A truth is a truth and a lie is a lie, even if you say it a thousand times,’ he tweeted.
Members of the opposition played down his rebuttal.
It is only when the parliament reconvenes on October 6 that one will see if the Gayoom-faithfuls within Yameen’s ranks will turn against him.
The opposition has now declared that its focus will be on the upcoming local council elections in January. After months of anticipation, there’s little evidence of any transition of government in the near future.
“It will only be seen when it comes out in the open,” says Ghafoor cryptically. “At this moment, everybody is marking time.”