A small atoll state, Maldives witnessed numerous events in 2013 on the political, socio-economic and diplomatic fronts.
The political issues revolved around the long-delayed presidential polls. The second multi-party presidential elections took place on 07 September 2013. There were four leading candidates in the fray: former president Mohamed Nasheed representing the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP); recent president Mohamed Waheed of Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP); Abdulla Yameen (half-brother of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom) of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM); and Gasim Ibrahim of the Jumhoree Party. Nasheed was contesting on the main plank of ‘restoring’ democracy, development and diplomacy. The PPM slogan was ‘Opt PPM or fail’. Except Nasheed, who was pitching for ‘liberal Islam’, all other parties were wielding the Islamic card. Jumhoree Party had, in fact, appealed for a ‘defence of Islam’.
After dramatic twists and turns in terms of postponements and annulments, Abdulla Yameen, a four-time parliamentarian and half-brother of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was sworn in as the sixth President of Maldives on 17 November 2013. He got 51.39 per cent of the votes, while former president Mohammed Nasheed got 48.61 per cent of the votes. Despite trailing Nasheed by more than 17 per cent (46.93 per cent for Nasheed vs. 29.72 per cent for Yameen) in the first round, Yameen managed to win the second round mainly because of support from a wider coalition of parties: Maldives Development Alliance, Adhaalath Party, Jumhooree Party, GIP and Islamic Democratic Party. Interestingly, this was a repeat of the 2008 trend when the second-placed candidate Nasheed went on to win the presidential run-off with the support of several parties against the then incumbent Abdul Gayoom.
Despite losing by a thin margin (6,022 votes), the MDP leader Nasheed graciously’ and ‘sincerely’ accepted defeat. He neither challenged the elections in a court of law nor took to streets to force another round of elections.
Economically, the country was not in good shape. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Maldives’ “weak macroeconomic situation had resulted in large economic imbalances, both in the domestic economy and in terms of the balance of payments.” Since the Maldivian economy was mostly outward-looking, with tourism and fisheries contributing about 50 per cent of the GDP, the global economic slowdown had a severe impact in addition to the political crisis.
Internally, the issue was high government expenditure. Unemployment was another serious issue staring at the government with the unemployment rate at a two-figure mark in 2013. The ouster of foreign entities like GMR and Nexbis did not go down well with the business community. The main economic challenge before the new president, therefore, was reducing governmental expenditure on the one hand and to make Maldives more business-friendly.
Islamic radicalism was yet another challenge that confronted the country. In recent years, Maldivians in increasing numbers have been drawn towards Pakistan-based madrasas and jihadist groups. Lashkar-e-Toiba, through its charitable front organisation, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, has established a foothold especially in the southern parts of Maldives in the garb of relief operations after the 2004 tsunami. Events in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan have also influenced Maldivians towards radicalisation. Lack of adequate educational and employment opportunities have been pushing the Maldivian youth towards jihadist groups. What is of concern is that at any point in time, a number of Maldivian nationals pursue religious studies in Pakistani madrasas controlled by various jihadist groups. And very many numbers are enrolled in Saudi Arabian madrasas. On their return, they come back not only with radical ideas, but also with jihadi networks. These madrasa-educated Maldivians are influenced to fight in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. They also help in the direct recruitment of Maldivians for jihad.
Surprisingly, Ali Jaleel, who was involved in the 27 May 2009 suicide attack on the ISI headquarters in Lahore, was a Maldivian. Many remote islands of Maldives are also ideal for instituting training facilities, especially on maritime aspects. The Local Maldivians’ superior knowledge of the sea is a major asset to any terror group that wishes to employ maritime terrorism.
Diplomatically, the image of the country suffered a huge dent due to the political uncertainty of the past two years. For a brief period, the Commonwealth placed Maldives in the CMAG (Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group) agenda, implying its suspension from the grouping. The EU also considered taking ‘appropriate measures’ if the country did not elect a president. As a micro state, it was important for Maldives to be in the good books of the international community. On its part, India maintained strict neutrality, though it nudged all parties to hold free and fair elections. New Delhi’s only concern was political stability in the atoll.
For the way forward, image, objectivity and efficiency of governmental institutions like the legislature, judiciary and defence forces require serious work. During his term, Nasheed could not function properly mainly because of lack of cooperation from these institutions and hence had to go midway. Comparatively, Yameen is best placed to handle these institutions because his coalition has a majority in the Majlis; judiciary and defence forces are expected not to create any problems for him due to their favourable disposition towards former president Gayoom. However, the challenge before Yameen is to gradually get these democratic institutions to function constitutionally, with proper checks and balances. The Maldivian democratic constitution is just five years old. It is important, at this infant stage, to make sure that the constitution is improved upon without giving room for temptations to drift back to authoritarianism.