On the eve of Ramadan, the Islamic ministry invited all Maldivian citizens to a communal feast at the Republic Square. First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim was the chief guest. The Islamic minister kicked off the feast thanking Fathimath for the importance she gave to religious affairs. She smiled, took a perfunctory bite of the food and left quickly. Only a few dozen people had turned up. The booths, housing sheikhs in Arabic garb ready to impart religious advice, stood empty.
President Abdulla Yameen and his wife have increasingly taken to feasts, festivals and colourful ceremonies, attended by fawning ministers and MPs, as the president’s popularity sags amid a historic corruption scandal.
All arms of the state have been employed for the publicity push. More worryingly, it has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent.
Officials of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives said the effort is spearheaded by Yameen’s re-election campaign office, led by Fathimath or ‘Madam Fathun’. “She is phenomenal,” said majority leader Ahmed Nihan. MPs and ministers are being deployed to their constituencies to listen to the public concerns, he said. These will be discussed among the parliamentary group and ministers and taken to the president, who will then decide on priorities.
Lines have now blurred between the party and the government. The presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Muaz Ali, is the spokesman for the campaign office, a separate entity from the PPM. The heads of state-owned enterprises, Ismail Adhly of the Fisheries Company and Abdulla Maumoon of the State Trading Organisation, are Fathimath’s most trusted aides.
In mid-May, the First Lady spearheaded what the spokesperson stated was the biggest sports festival to be held in the Maldives. It was held despite bad weather across the nation. The festival was to mark Yameen’s 913th day in office. “This is not a party event. This is a national activity,” Maumoon was quick to stress at the time. “We will not be using pink, but rather the national colours, red, white and green.” Pink is the colour of the PPM. The top ten performers of the popular Maldivian Idol were to sing at the festival; many were not aware they were to perform when The Maldives Independent called. At the time, massive loudspeakers had been set outside the main ferry terminals advertising all the prizes and raffle draws festivalgoers could expect.
The campaign office was vague when questioned over the source of finances. “We have a lot of well-wishers,” the spokesman said. It is difficult to find out whether state funds are spent because the finance ministry had stopped publishing monthly expenditure reports soon after Yameen assumed the presidency.
When the day came, it was a rather soggy affair. There were volunteer sweet-girls distributing candy at the entrance of the festival. Campaign staff in t-shirts bearing Yameen’s silhouette rushed around the national stadium attempting to generate some order over the roaring winds that had felled flag posts. School students played football in the rain as a Disney princess in a muddied gown waved on.
“There’s no support for the actual sports events here. It’s just a place to draw in kids,” said children’s football coach Mohamed Aboobakur, 42, at the festival. “It doesn’t make me want to vote for Yameen.”
School students and civil servants, too, have been coerced to attend Yameen’s events. Schools were closed down in the first week of May when Yameen visited Laamu Atoll and students and parents were ordered to receive the president. Free transportation was provided. In late April, the Dhaalu Atoll Education Center told students that teachers would check who was absent at the harbour area to welcome the president.
Yameen, formerly reclusive and rarely seen in public, has visited eight atolls in 2016, compared to a handful last year. He has opened mosques and harbours across the country. When questioned on the sudden increase in visits to the atolls, Nihan, the majority leader, said: “President Yameen has previously said he wants to go to the people with gifts, completed development projects.” Some opposition members, and even a former president, however, have claimed the president is taking credit for development projects that began under previous governments.
Yameen’s predecessor, Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, insisted last month that discussions with China for financing for two major projects of the Yameen administration – a road in southern Laamu Atoll and the bridge connecting Malé to the airport – began during his 20-month tenure.
The campaign office is meanwhile training “campaign leaders” across the country for the election to be held in 2018. More than 1,000 have already received training. The PPM has also dialled up its social media presence with ministries and MPs sharing details of development projects and slick infographics of Yameen’s quotes and pledges. State media has meanwhile become increasingly toadying in its coverage of government activities.
Massive billboards with Yameen’s smiling face have cropped up across the capital with pictures of ongoing or completed development projects. They began appearing after the housing ministry seized the authority to regulate public spaces from the opposition-dominated city council. The ministry has since imposed rules requiring its permission to hang up banners or posters in the city.
“It is the government’s duty to inform the public of its progress. It has the licence to use any and every medium for their messaging, except for the Friday sermon,” Nihan said.
Even the TV screens at the ferry terminals now carry the same pink-tinged messages. The word “good” is stamped on the corner of each picture.
“The people are now only allowed to see what President Yameen wants them to see,” said Anas Abdul Sattar, an official with the main opposition, the Maldivian Democratic Party.
The opposition, weakened by the jailing of its leaders, can no longer protest on the streets or use public spaces for its rallies. “The housing ministry has basically stopped responding to our requests,” Anas said. On June 2, the party was told that a hall it requested at the Dharubaaruge convention was being used for a government function, but the space was in fact reserved for the wedding of a minister’s daughter, he claimed.
“There is no space for dissent,” he said.
Nihan, meanwhile, said the MDP could continue to criticise the government on private TV station, Raajje TV. When asked if the opposition should be allowed billboards in the city, he said: “If they write counterclaims on a rival billboard, that would confuse the public and really only amounts to screaming matches in public.”