Long-awaited direct talks between the Maldivian government and the opposition are expected to begin in mid October, Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee has said.
The government is open to discussing the release of opposition leaders and has agreed to an opposition demand for mediation by the United Nations, Shainee, the lead representative for President Abdulla Yameen, told reporters on Thursday.
The thaw comes in the wake of a Commonwealth threat of suspension if the Maldives fails to tackle a protracted political crisis, which was triggered by the arrest and jailing of key opposition figures, including former President Mohamed Nasheed and former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, more than a year ago.
The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party and the Adhaalath Party, which had earlier refused to begin talks until jailed leaders were released, have now said they are willing to sit down without preconditions.
Shainee said the government is awaiting the return of Tamrat Samuel, the UN official whose attempts at spurring dialogue through proximity talks had failed earlier this year as warring factions remained deadlocked over the release of political leaders.
“We believe talks will begin in mid October. The UN representative has informed us that he will return by then. We, the government, want to start as soon as possible,” Shainee said.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group had warned the Maldives of suspension on September 23, noting the country’s lack of progress on six priority areas it had outlined in February.
The CMAG went on to urge both the government and the opposition to initiate time-bound dialogue without preconditions “to achieve national agreement on institutional reform, and to ensure a conducive environment for credible and inclusive presidential elections in 2018.”
The MDP promptly welcomed the CMAG’s recommendation, with its national council resolving to set aside conditions for talks on Monday.
Some members, citing the president’s refusal to honor commitments during a first round of talks in July last year, continued to question his sincerity, but others suggested concessions were more likely with the government under more pressure.
The MDP and the AP are yet to propose representatives for the talks.
The Jumhooree Party meanwhile set its representatives for the talks on Thursday. They are MPs Abdulla Riyaz, Ali Hussein and Hussein Mohamed.
The party said it will ask the government to repeal a constitutional amendment that set an age limit of 65 years on the presidency, barring its leader Gasim Ibrahim from the presidency.
The JP also said it plans to contest the 2018 presidential polls.
Shainee had previously said the government is willing to allow Nasheed and Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla to represent their parties. But Nasheed must return to the Maldives, he said.
Imran, who is serving a 12-year jail sentence related to a terrorism charge over a speech he gave at a mass anti-government rally on May 1 last year, was transferred to house arrest ahead of the CMAG’s meeting in April.
The government has since revoked the passports of Nasheed and other exiled opposition leaders. The criminal court has also issued warrants for their arrest.
The opposition leader was granted asylum in the UK last May after he was authorised to travel for medical treatment.