This year’s elections are the last chance to save democracy in the Maldives, former president Mohamed Nasheed said Monday in his first major political speech of 2018.
The polls were important for the country and region because of a land grab and a religious extremist takeover in the honeymoon destination.
Nasheed, who is the exiled leader of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, cannot run for president due to a conviction on a controversial terrorism charge. A UN panel ruled that his detention was arbitrary, politically motivated and violated international treaties the Maldives is party to.
He was granted asylum in the UK after he was authorised to seek medical treatment there amid mounting foreign pressure.
The opposition would put forward a unity candidate if he were prevented from running, Nasheed said, explaining why it was important to vote out President Abdulla Yameen.
“A large, emerging power is busy buying up the Maldives,” he told reporters at a five-star hotel in Sri Lanka’s capital. “Buying up our islands, buying up our key infrastructure, and effectively buying up our sovereignty. This land grab is very worrying.”
The land grab was happening because of a Free Trade Agreement, Special Economic Zones and an amendment to the constitution authorising foreign ownership of land or freeholds, he said.
The constitution previously prohibited foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory but was changed in 2015.
In July that year the MDP issued a free whip on an amendment to allow foreign freeholds, with 10 MDP and nine MPs of the Jumhooree Party voting in favour of the amendments.
Nasheed did not refer to his party’s role in changing the constitution, but said the land grab involved “16 or 17” islands with the purchase of leases lasting hundreds of years. He did not give specifics on who or what was behind the land grab, telling reporters “an island can be many things.”
The second threat to the Maldives was extremism, he said, claiming there was a parallel state of religious radicals ready to overrun the country.
He backed the US State Department’s travel advisory about the threat of a terror attack.
“Three hundred of our nationals are fighting in Syria and Iraq. If they are flushed out of these countries they are bound to return. Very few of our fighters have been taken prisoner and not all of them are dead,” he said. “We don’t see our authorities dealing with it. Once they establish themselves in the Maldives it’s difficult to see how they can be contained.”
Last week the media wing of Maldivian fighters in Syria released a video purporting to show jihad training. It appeared to be propaganda material aimed at attracting recruits.
The news conference also addressed his quest for candidacy, with Nasheed saying his legal team had written to the United Nations Human Rights Committee about Yameen’s decision to prevent him from standing.
The opposition would not boycott the elections if Yameen ignored any UN ruling, he added, and the four leaders were “in principle, in agreement, about fielding a common candidate.”
He later said current talks were not about who to choose, but about the process of choosing.
“We are discussing a process, we are in a deliberation of a process,” he told assembled media.