Opinion Politics

Birds of a feather and the curse of the state visit

Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left the Maldives last July after a three-day official trip, having been the chief guest of President Abdulla Yameen at Independence Day celebrations and received at the airport with pomp and ceremony by the first couple.

The visit was supposed to cement bilateral relations between Pakistan and the Maldives, while also having the unspoken goal of needling India.

But by the time his return flight landed in Islamabad, Nawaz had been effectively stripped of his premiership. The Pakistani Supreme Court disqualified him as prime minister and ordered a graft probe after the Panama Papers revealed his family’s vast quantity of unaccounted for wealth.

Nawaz’s dismissal, in itself, was not a surprise as no Pakistani PM has completed a full term since the country adopted a parliamentary system in 1971.

But his visit – or rather what happened afterwards – becomes more interesting when the next visiting leader’s fate is taken into account.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor visited the Maldives in December at Yameen’s invitation.

Months later Najib was ousted in a shock result, losing out to his former mentor Mahathir Mohamed.

Two strong allies of Yameen –  and two successive heads of government to visit the Maldives – lost their jobs following their trips to Malé.

Are dignitaries on official visits to the Maldives cursed?

— Birds of a feather —

The similarities between Nawaz, Najib and Yameen are striking as all three have been dogged by allegations of massive corruption.

The Panama Papers revealed that Nawaz and his three children owned expensive property in London. The Supreme Court, while stripping him of his rule, said his salary didn’t tally with the wealth he had acquired.

The Malaysian election, meanwhile, was almost a referendum on the graft allegations that have hounded Najib.

He is accused of syphoning off nearly US$700 million into his personal accounts from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government-run strategic development agency.

Mahathir and the opposition parties he joined forces with drove home this point, calling Najib a thief on the campaign trail.

Yameen’s tenure continues to be overshadowed by allegations of graft. Be it his development projects like the Hulhumalé bridge or the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, which critics say are grossly overpriced, or accusations of money laundering and oil smuggling.

An undercover Al Jazeera investigation also showed a Malaysian connection. The documentary Stealing Paradise uncovered a US$1.5 billion money laundering scheme by Yameen’s regime, involving Malaysian and Singaporean businessmen. One scene shows a reporter meeting a Kuala Lumpur-based financier who offers to launder ‘palettes’ stacked with cash.

After Najib was toppled, Yameen’s political party the PPM rushed to embrace Mahathir. It drew parallels between the two men. MP Ibrahim Falaah said: “Malaysians elected Mahathir because he brought development to Malaysia, likewise Maldivians will re-elect Yameen as he is bringing development.”

— You Do You Boo —

The Maldivian opposition has rejoiced over the Malaysian election result. The former autocrat Mahathir joined forces with his one-time adversary, the oft-jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, in order to oust Najib.

In the Maldives, the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has teamed up with his one-time adversary, the oft-jailed Mohamed Nasheed, in a bid to oust Yameen from power.

Both autocrats helped install the leaders in the first place and jailed adversaries during their rule. And Mahathir and Gayoom have reformed their image from dictator to democrat in recent years.

Maldivian opposition supporters hope that Gayoom and Nasheed can achieve the same feat as Mahathir and Anwar, by ousting Yameen and assuming power themselves. However, an age cap and a jailed Gayoom makes that goal more difficult.

mahathir and gayoom

Gayoom and Mahathir have been political allies for decades. Gayoom describes Mahathir as “a close and trusted friend” and met him in Kuala Lumpur.

Jared Genser, a member of Nasheed’s international legal counsel who played a pivotal role in freeing him from jail in 2016, is also lead council to Anwar Ibrahim, who was languishing in jail in Malaysia until he was given a royal pardon and released.

Mahathir has announced he will hand over the premiership to him after a year or two.

Less well known is Nasheed’s communications with senior Malaysian opposition figures. In February 2016, Nasheed met with Nurul Izzah Anwar, a parliamentarian and senior opposition figure who is also Anwar’s daughter.

Around the same time as that encounter, Nasheed was in secret talks with Gayoom to establish a broad coalition against Yameen. In March that year, Anwar’s PKR party entered into a formal alliance with Mahathir.

Both the Maldivian and Malaysian opposition movements have travelled along similar trajectories, as have Najib’s and Yameen’s administrations.

Najib lost despite (suspected) gerrymandering, jailing his foremost opponent, massive corruption, and doling out cash to voters. Yameen stands accused of the same tactics, albeit pursuing them more ruthlessly and brazenly than Najib did.

The Maldivian opposition faces a tougher battle, as all its leaders are either in jail or exile, and only time will tell if this alliance can be as successful as its Malaysian counterpart.

As for foreign leaders contemplating an official trip  to the Maldives, it will be interesting to see who dares take up the challenge, given the political demise of the previous two visitors.

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Source URL:  Maldives Independent

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