Maldives has plunged into a major political crisis after the Supreme Court on February 2 ordered the release and retrial of the opposition leader and 11 MPs who were being held on various charges.
The government of Abdulla Yameen refused to respect the court order and announced 15 days of state emergency. Troops surrounded the Supreme Court and arrested the chief justice and a fellow judge on charges of graft while the three other judges who gave the unanimous ruling declared the order null and void.
Amid an international outcry, the Yameen government leaned on China to deflect the pressure while opposition leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed made an appeal to India to intervene militarily to save democracy – an option that is not on the table for New Delhi.
The tussle between President Yameen and the opposition has intensified since last year when the latter united to form the Maldives United Opposition (MUO). The movement against the regime was boosted when Yameen’s half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom broke away from the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
The main issue of contention was Gayoom’s refusal to nominate Yameen as the presidential candidate of the party in this year’s election. However, the court, in June 2016, declared Yameen to be the legitimate party leader and Gayoom “incapable of attending to the duties of his job”. As a result, the party was divided between Gayoom loyalists and those allied with Yameen, reducing the government to a minority. The judiciary then kept the government alive, sanctifying all its decisions and joining hands to punish the political opponents.
The MUO was bolstered by defection to its ranks of several ruling party MPs, but the government staved off a motion of no-confidence by increasing the number of signatures required from 15 to 29 and then 42 MPs.
The defectors were then disqualified as MPs under the anti-defection law.
The Supreme Court ruling for release and retrial is a major challenge to a government that is preparing for elections this year. Under no circumstance will Yameen allow his arch-rivals to contest a vote which has been meticulously been planned to land him another term.
The government defended its decision to impose the emergency saying it was crucial to ensure smooth running of the state. It used the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) to arrest Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdulla Sayeed and his colleague Justice Ali Hameed, and pressured the other three judges to reverse their ruling. Despite having lost his majority in parliament, Yameen is impossible to dislodge while he retains the support of the MNDF.
Since his controversial election in 2013, Yameen has bolstered ties with China and Saudi Arabia, awarding them important infrastructure projects without competitive bidding and without taking into account environmental and economic considerations. No surprise then that his regime has faced widespread allegations of corruption. It is clear that Yameen courted these two countries with his own political interests in mind. While Saudi Arabia is providing ideological support to the Muslim-majority country, which is evident from the fact that a large number of Maldivians were fighting alongside ISIS, China’s presence is being leveraged to nullify the influence of India – seen as sympathetic to his political rival Nasheed and critical of Maldives’ turn towards autocracy.
Such is the success story of Abdulla Yameen’s grip on power in this strategically important island paradise.
In December, three local councillors belonging to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were barred from politics for meeting the Indian ambassador without permission. This reflects Yameen’s deep suspicion of India.
Despite former president Nasheed’s Twitter appeal to India to intervene, and China’s response cautioning against any interference in Maldives’ internal affairs, the policy choices for New Delhi remain limited. It is in nobody’s interest for Maldives to enter an era of autocracy with a sham election while opposition leaders remain disqualified thanks to trumped up criminal charges. For New Delhi, which is cautiously watching China’s rise in the neighbourhood, its geo-political interest in the Indian Ocean has suddenly taken on a new urgency.
Dr Smruti S Pattanaik is a research fellow at Bangladesh’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.