Ministers of President Abdulla Yameen’s cabinet, ruling party lawmakers and heads of state-owned enterprises hit Malé’s streets on Saturday outfitted in pink and white t-shirts emblazoned with the words “President Yameen 2018” and armed with clipboards and pens to canvass support for the Progressive Party of the Maldives.
By the end of the day, they had signed up some 11,000 new members.
The PPM, after three years of turmoil and crises that threatened the president’s hold on power, now appears stronger than ever.
Having successfully petitioned the courts to delay January’s local council elections and wresting control of PPM from former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom when he refused to grant his half-brother the party’s presidential ticket, Yameen’s re-election bid and the party’s campaign for local councils is in full swing. Primaries were held in 64 of the 276 constituencies, and ministers and lawmakers are being dispatched to the Maldives’ far-flung atolls: In January, the housing minister paid a visit to some 13 islands in the northern Haa Dhaal Atoll, and the environment minister toured Alif Dhaal Atoll. In two islands, a group of people staged muted protests, but were quickly dispersed. In Lhaviyani Atoll, lawmakers are planning a volleyball competition titled “President Yameen 2018 Challenge” for March.
In a further show of strength, on January 30, as the opposition struggles to recoup from the jailing of its leaders, some 31 councillors from the opposition parties also signed up to the PPM. Some 700 people from the opposition stronghold submitted membership forms to much fanfare on February 8.
All the while, the state TV has provided live coverage of the ruling party’s events and extolled the president’s development agenda. The party’s supporters maintain a strong social media presence, sharing regular updates of on-going projects and pink-tinted pictures of a smiling and confident Yameen.
On Friday, Yameen inaugurated a new party headquarters he had designed. There, Home Minister Azleen Ahmed declared the PPM to be “the most popular party in the world” while MP Abdul Raheem said the party’s aim is to increase its membership to 150,000, nearly two-thirds of eligible voters, before 2018’s presidential election.
Yameen delivered barbs at Gayoom and the exiled opposition leader, former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party. Referring to Gayoom’s allegations of violations of the party charter, Yameen said: “No one person can say they founded the party’s charter and they alone have the power to interpret it. Our party’s charter states that its interpretation will be carried out by the council.” And Nasheed was a dictator who had proclaimed himself to be a champion of democracy, he said: “As soon as he assumed power, he slaughtered democracy and paid no thought to what the public’s rights were.”
The PPM will now travel at rocket speed, he declared to applause.
First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim, known as Madam Fathun, is the power behind the throne: She spearheads the membership drive and has launched a door-to-door for her husband’s presidential campaign. Earlier this month, she toured Noonu Atoll, paying visits to government offices, health centres and disabled. She has launched bashi tournaments, a tennis-like sport, across the country, and found jobs for more than 700 individuals with disabilities in state-owned enterprises. While her husband tends to be reclusive, appearing in public only for selected events, the first lady regularly goes out to meet the public.
Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan described her as “hard-working”, “perfectionist” and a “multi-tasker”. He added: “All aspiring presidential candidates for the 2023 elections must make sure that their wives are of the same calibre as madam Fathun.”
Some 70 percent of the public now support Yameen, he declared. “Our aim is development. There are two ideologies in the country, one constructive, and the other is destructive. Ours is constructive, and that’s why people support us.”
The PPM will take more than 70 to 80 percent of seats in the local council elections, he said. “The PPM has always won the most candidates. This is not to say that the MDP does not have support. Especially in the populous centres, such as Kulhudhuffushi and Thinadhoo. But we will change that in this election. In addition to winning in small populations, we will also conquer the more populous islands.”
Gayoom, however, has remained a constant thorn in Yameen’s side.
The 79-year-old has turned to the media with regular statements, decrying what he calls Yameen’s unlawful takeover of the party.
January’s primaries were fraudulent, he has alleged, asking the elections commission to launch a probe saying it was illegally administered by a new committee Yameen had appointed. Gayoom lamented that he was not informed of the primary despite him holding the position of its elected leader.
The former president also alleged fraud in the Yameen faction’s granting of the party ticket without a primary in some 212 constituencies. Candidates were not informed of the vetting criteria and the ticket was issued to those favoured by senior officials of the Yameen faction, he said. A letter written by a sitting PPM councillor who said he was unfairly disqualified from the primaries was shared with the media. The Yameen faction has denied the claim. ”It is a lie that parliamentarians have a role in giving points. They do not have any role in giving points,” a spokesman said. ”We checked everything, there is no way that anyone’s opportunity was taken away.”
Aminath Nadira, Gayoom’s deputy, meanwhile characterised the PPM’s apparent strength as “a façade.”
“That is all a lie. When they have so much power, they can put on a show,” she said, and reiterated that Yameen was maintaining his hold on power by bribing and coercing lawmakers and threatening to dismiss members of watchdog bodies.
“If a free and fair election is held, there is no way they can gain even 15percent of the vote,” she said. “But there is no freedom. They [lawmakers and senior officials] have all been lured by bait into a net whose strings are held by Yameen.” She went on to allege that a majority of the new members were forced into registering with the party.
However, she remained hopeful of the Gayoom’s factions plans to weaken Yameen’s power through the parliament. This is despite the fact a breakaway faction they formed has lost four of its eight members. “We know why they defected. It was on the media,” she said referring to the government’s crackdown on the businesses of some MPs. “But we will see results,” she insisted.
Nihan, however, said neither the Gayoom faction nor the MDP posed a threat to the PPM.
“There’s a major difference between factions and fragments. To qualify as a faction, they must command some 30percent or more of public support. There is no faction. Just a few people,” he said.
Shafaa Hameed contributed reporting