Presidential elections are due to be held in the Maldives later this year, with opposition parties in talks to field a unity candidate to defeat Abdulla Yameen. But the Maldives Independent can reveal that discord among opposition leaders is threatening to derail efforts.
Opposition sources have confirmed that disunity among the leaders is a major concern. The division is at odds with the united front on display for the public and media.
Talks are under way between representatives of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former president and leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Jumhooree Party Gasim Ibrahim and leader of the Adhaalath Party Imran Abdulla.
But a highly placed source in the Gayoom camp told the Maldives Independent that Gayoom and Nasheed have not spoken to each other since March 2017 – when the two former rivals signed an historic agreement to work together to “restore democracy” to the country.
“They have not had any phone calls. Some senior politicians on both sides have tried to arrange meetings where both leaders can sit down and talk. So far this has not happened,” said a senior official who has worked closely with Gayoom.
The alliance between Nasheed and Gayoom took a long time to form after the Gayoom faction split from the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).
Nasheed touted a “new political alignment” when he told reporters in 2016 that he was engaged in talks with Gayoom to “legally topple” the government of Gayoom’s half-brother President Abdulla Yameen. Nasheed’s claims prompted Gayoom to deny the story, with a spokesperson telling media that Nasheed was “lying to bring President Maumoon into disrepute and to create discord among PPM members.”
A few days prior, Al Jazeera reported that Gayoom had demanded money from Nasheed as a “goodwill gesture” ahead of the formation of any alliance.
“He is in talks with Nasheed over an alliance. We understand Gayoom demanded $100,000 from Nasheed earlier this year, as part of those negotiations. He claimed the money would show goodwill. Sources say Nasheed paid at least one installment of $50,000, although he denies the allegation,” Al Jazeera reported at the time.
Gayoom and Nasheed have denied any exchange of money took place.
A senior MDP official referred to the initial distrust between the former presidents, telling the Maldives Independent they had not been able to work through it.
“I think initially even, there was a huge lack of confidence between the both of them and it has shown throughout last year. It has been quite difficult to find areas where everyone is willing to compromise in order to move forward.”
The MDP official, who has close links to Nasheed, corroborated that Nasheed and Gayoom had not spoken since the coalition was formed but refused to elaborate.
The senior PPM official said communication between the opposition leaders only took place in WhatsApp chats.
Senior opposition politicians worry the distrust between their leaders might thwart efforts to find a unity candidate.
The idea of a single candidate was first proposed by Nasheed in January 2017, even before Nasheed and Gayoom announced they would be working together.
“I don’t think we will have a free and fair election as things stand now. So we will have to have the whole opposition together and come out with a single candidate,” Nasheed told AFP during a visit to the US.
However, as late as November 2017, Gayoom was dismissing questions for comments on whether a single candidate would be fielded.
“It’s a bit early for that so [we] haven’t talked about that at all,” he told reporters when asked about ruling party lawmakers saying the opposition coalition would collapse over the issue of a unity candidate.
While the opposition announced its confidence that compromises can be made in order to field the mythical unity candidate, the diplomatic community is discouraged by the indecisiveness and what is perceived as a “hesitancy to commit.”
“Earlier it looked encouraging – especially Gayoom and Nasheed reconciling,” said a former diplomat with knowledge of the Maldives. “However, they are facing the problem everyone expected now. With everyone seemingly wanting power, can the opposition compromise and field a single candidate?”
The international community’s concern over the opposition’s uncertainty is trumped only by concern about whether the country is in a position to hold free and fair polls.
“The fact that the election shall be free and fair is from my point of view the most important issue,” said Germany’s ambassador to the Maldives Jörn Rohde.
“In a competitive environment, political division is never a winning formula,” he told the Maldives Independent. “It is always an advantage to present a common candidate with a convincing personality together with a political platform offering voters a clear alternative.”
There are also doubts in the diplomatic community about Nasheed being able to run for president at all.
“Nasheed’s supposed gambit of pushing for an international deal to allow him to contest will be harder to achieve than it was in 2008 with Yameen being uncompromising,” said the ex-envoy.
“Yameen appears to have lost many friends over the last few years but has increasingly proved that he is capable of manoeuvering himself out of tight situations, either by shifting the goalpost or playing on the disunity of the opposition,” the ex-envoy added.
Photos: Auf Majeed