It was a tweet that shocked the Maldives and the international community.
“In light of the fact that @ElectionsMv have written to MDP saying I can’t contest in the upcoming presidential elections, I have decided to relinquish my presidential ticket,” said Mohamed Nasheed.
The former president followed up on his promise, announcing he was stepping aside as his party’s candidate a few days later.
In a heartbeat, tens of thousands of Maldivians realised their preferred candidate’s name would not be on the ballot paper this September.
There was an air of inevitability to his announcement, however. His candidacy had been at the centre of debates raging between his detractors and supporters for more than a year in homes, sai hotaas (tea shops) and even marital beds.
Nasheed can deliver about 42 percent of votes in a presidential election. He won around that proportion in the first round of the 2008 and 2013 polls, and netted almost 44,000 votes from Maldivian Democratic Party members in a primary where he was the sole candidate.
Some took it as a personal slight then, that the Election Commission ruled him out as a candidate because of a controversial and widely condemned criminal conviction. They were convinced he could be a candidate because history was on their side.
Nasheed had been initially barred from standing in both the 2008 and 2013 elections but he was able to run by the time polling day came around.
– Cult-like following –
This blind faith is, at times, used as evidence of a cult-like following that has formed around him.
His critics say the MDP is built around him. But talk to Nasheed supporters and the amount of personal trust placed in this one man is striking.
“We trust him to do right by us, to do good for the country, it is with him and his colleagues we learnt the concept of democracy, freedom and rights,” says 40-year-old housewife Maryam Moosa. “I didn’t even believe that he would get elected in 2008, that change was a possibility and it happened. He showed us what a just leader looked like. He earned our trust with all those years he spent in jail fighting for our rights, by never giving up on us, he believed in a better world for us when we ourselves didn’t believe it.”
Nasheed’s electoral win in 2008 smashed the old world order in the Maldives. Suddenly there was a leader who talked about universal healthcare, a right to housing, pensions for the elderly, aid for single parents and freedom of speech. A president who was accessible to many and didn’t only visit islands close to election dates promising harbours and jetties like his predecessor did.
He used to say that development was something that happened to the minds of people. He gave space for dissent and invited people to criticise him – a rare trait in a Maldivian leader.
But a lot of Maldivians also disliked him for these reasons. He was considered not aristocratic enough, in his manner and being. He was too ordinary, too accessible.
His refusal to play the game by deploying religion as a political tool also worked against him.
The freedom for Maldivians to voice their dissent was exploited by the opposition to paint him as someone who disrespected Islam.
His liberalism, together with his growing popularity in the international community, was used as proof of his antipathy towards religion.
This narrative proved particularly compelling to those Maldivians who felt the West was out to destroy one of the last countries that could claim to be 100 percent Muslim. It was an identity that had been honed by his predecessor, the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and one that his half-brother and current President Abdulla Yameen pounces on when attacking attack opposition leaders.
– Lust for power –
Nasheed’s brashness also alienated his colleagues. Even some of his supporters, like Moosa, look askance on the actions that ended his presidency in 2012.
“The whole judge arrest thing was a fiasco, Nasheed didn’t handle it well,” she said, referring to Nasheed’s ill-fated detention of a judge. “The judiciary is a joke in this country but as president he should’ve come up with better ways to fix it,” she said. Moosa admits to initially being angry and upset with Nasheed over what the MDP say was a coup.
His exit in the wake of a violent mutiny by Special Ops and military elements remains a polarising subject.
Nasheed said he quit under duress in order to protect his family and prevent bloodshed, but a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry later concluded that the transfer of power to his deputy was constitutional.
“I felt in a way that his (Nasheed’s) actions messed up our one chance for democracy,” says Moosa. “Granted it was his hard work that led us there, but we all had such high hopes. He needed to walk that tightrope to get us through to establishing a functioning democracy.”
Despite her misgivings about this period in recent Maldivian history she still stands by him and he continues to be her candidate of choice.
There were also those who were waiting to see what Nasheed would do, with some questioning the fixation their friends had on his unlikely chance of being the MDP candidate.
“It is dangerous when an election becomes about one man, when the goal becomes installing that man and not democracy itself,” says 33-year-old business owner Amir Ibrahim. He was waiting to see if Nasheed withdrew of his own volition and not at the last moment. “The lust for power corrupts a lot of people, so it was important to see if he knew when to give in.”
– Safe pair of hands –
With Nasheed no longer in the frame, will his disillusioned supporters rally round the party’s alternate?
Ibrahim Mohamed Soli – popularly known as Ibu – is the quiet and solid one. A safe pair of hands who has always been in the picture, but never in the limelight.
He has been in parliament since 1994, carving out a niche for himself at a local and national level, but has no government or international experience and became a presidential hopeful in unusual circumstances.
He also has to shrug off the label of ‘Nasheed’s puppet’ that the ruling party has been chucking at him. But his calm demeanour and reputation as a consensus builder will help him going forward.
Ibu might also hold greater appeal to first-time youth voters, as he is untainted by the horse-trading, cronyism and backbiting that comes with Maldives politics.
His pedigree as an islander ensures that, for the first time, Maldivians can vote for a party-backed presidential candidate who is not from a prominent Malé family as is usually the case. Whether his outsider status appeals to the capital’s elite remains to be seen.
Ibu’s push for democracy alongside Nasheed has also made him a constant and trusted presence in the MDP.
– Eyes on the prize –
Some Maldivians, who initially floated the idea of boycotting the elections, have come around to accepting the current situation. The MDP maintains the September poll is the only way forward and that boycotting it would only bolster Yameen.
Gone are the days when Nasheed’s work, and pressure from the international community, would sway those in power and allow him to run for office. China is the new player in town, its influence and money a buffer that protects the current president.
This pragmatic view is shared by young Nasheed supporters such as 25-year-old Aishath Ibrahim.
“There comes a moment in time when things are bigger than a person or a party,” she says. “This election will decide the direction this country will take. The MDP stands for an ideology, to take that forward we need to do whatever it takes.
“Nasheed’s withdrawal is inherently unfair, for him, for those of us who voted for him, and would like to vote for him. Nasheed didn’t get to complete his term because of the coup, and we don’t get to right that wrong. But we have to keep the bigger picture in mind.
“At this moment we are obliged to play by Yameen’s rules so we shall play. Let’s see if Yameen has the guts to hold a free and fair election.”
Despite Nasheed’s name being left off the ballot he is still the most relevant player in the political arena. As Ibrahim puts it, the MDP needs to bring in the 42 percent of Nasheed voters for Ibu. There is also a quiet feeling of pride among Nasheed supporters like Ibrahim.
“The bridge, the skating rink, all that money being thrown about, all the dictatorial ways, locking up almost all the opposition, and yet despite all this the PPM is not confident they will win. They are still too scared to allow Nasheed to contest,” she says with a smile.
Nasheed would have to throw his weight behind Ibu and bring with him his core voters for an opposition win, leaving the rest of the alliance to work at hauling in the other eight percent to propel Ibu across the 50 percent finishing line.