Opinion

Maldives Political Landscape

The local elections held in Maldives in May 2017 saw the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) lose seats in three key cities’ councils to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The political climate in Maldives though is marked by suppression marked by Yameen’s crackdown on the opposition and suspension of his half-brother, former president Gayoom, from the PPM.

Moreover, the amendment to the Freedom of Assembly Act is further aimed at restricting protests to certain areas in Male. There is consistent abuse of the judicial system, especially against members of the MDP and this reflects Yameen’s will to suppress any form of political and social opposition. Following the March 2014 parliamentary elections, he ruling coalition has established full control of parliament. Although this has reduced the risk of political instability, it also has ushered in an authoritarian regime marked by strict state suppression.

In June 2016, divisions occurred within the ruling PPM became divided following former President Gayoom’s withdraw of support for his half-brother, President Abdulla Yameen. Consequently, the Maldives United Opposition was formed out of the opposition parties, with the AP fluctuating its alliance to the MDP from the close position it once shared with the PPM.

In March 2017, Gayoom was expelled from the PPM due to forming the opposition coalition with MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed. The new opposition coalition’s aim of removing President Yameen from power shows an increased risk of government instability. MDP leader and former president Nasheed announced in February 2017 that he will run for the presidential election scheduled for 2018, although he was granted asylum in the United Kingdom in June 2016 after being sentenced to 13 years in prison in March 2015. However, he has his task cut out as Yameen’s continued use of the judiciary and security forces to suppress political and social opposition has undermined the opposition’s ability to defeat his government.

Unless his half-brother, long-term dictator until 2008, Gayoom, co-opts the security forces into standing against Yameen, his presidency is likely to last. However, the odds of the security forces challenging Yameen is very low. Gayoom’s security guards were barred from accompanying him on a trip to India in March 2017, suggesting security forces are in favour of Yameen. There are entrenched institutional barriers to political opposition gaining power through elections in the Maldives.

The Maldives’ political environment tilted towards authoritarian rule on 7 February 2012, when its first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed resigned. The MDP is now in opposition following its defeat in parliamentary elections in March 2014. Since then, the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) government has used the judiciary, policy, and, increasingly, centralised authority to minimise the MDP’s influence.

Political opponents have been targeted with arrests. In March 2015 Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment in charges associated with the arrest of a Supreme Court justice while Nasheed was president; in June 2016, the UK granted him asylum. In April 2017, Jumhooree Party leader Qasim Ibrahim was arrested on suspicion of influencing parliamentarians during the impeachment vote facing the speaker of the parliament, shortly after Yameen expelled former President Yamoon from the PPM.

This is noteworthy considering the Jumhooree Party was once aligned with the PPM. In September 2017, former president Gayoom’s son Faris Maumoon, MP for the Dhiggaru constituency, was arrested on bribery charges after he publicly opposed the PPM Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed. As Maldives approaches elections in 2018, let’s take a look at the major political parties. As regards the ruling PPM which was established in 2011, it is a conservative and largely pro-Islamic, although being pro-business party also.

The PPM’s candidate, Abdulla Yameen, won the 2013 presidential election, with the party subsequently winning 33 seats at the March 2014 parliamentary election, making it the largest party in the Majlis and the largest party in the ruling coalition. However, in October 2016, the PPM split into two parliamentary factions, one led by Yameen and the other by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, amid rising tensions between the two half-brothers.

The PPM has been critical of Western countries for their focus on human rights abuses and support for ousted president Mohamed Nasheed. In the domain of foreign policy, Maldives under PPM has moved increasingly into the orbit of China and Islamic countries. The PPM’s candidate, Abdulla Yameen, won the 2013 presidential election, with the party subsequently winning 33 seats at the March 2014 parliamentary election, making it the largest party in the Majlis and the largest party in the ruling coalition. However, in October 2016, the PPM split into two parliamentary factions, one led by Yameen and the other by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, amid rising tensions between the two half-brothers.

The Maldives United Opposition (MUO) composed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Adhalaath Party (AP), and Jumhooree Party (JP) is the main opposition party. The party finds resonance among young voters. It has received a boost due to its performance in the 2017 local elections. Former president Gayoom put forward his support for the MDP earlier in 2017 and formed a coalition with the party.

Despite the small number of seats it holds in parliament, the Adhalaath Party holds a considerable amount of power based on its stance as a religious party. The Jumhooree Party, initially opposed to siding with either the opposition coalition or the ruling party at the start of the PPM’s split, has grown closer to the opposition Qasim Ibrahim’s alleged plot to overthrow the ruling government solidified the JP’s commitment to the MUO, increasing the strength of the opposition coalition.

While the MDP is a centre-right political party that adopts a broadly pro-business and pro-development approach and enjoys popularity among young voters. At the March 2014 parliamentary election, the MDP won 26 seats in the Majlis, making it the largest opposition party.

However, party leader Nasheed is currently in exile in London, which makes MDP devoid of a key political figure. Jumhoree Party (JP), MDP’s ally is seen close to business because of large number of employees and business connection on account of its links with tourism magnate Qasim Ibrahim.

In addition to these three main parties, there are two other political parties currently with representation within the Majlis: the Maldives Development Alliance (five seats) and the Adhaalath Party (one seat). There are also five independent MPs.

Historical Context of Maldives Politics

Maldives became independent on 26 July 1965 and   became a republic in 1968. From 1978 to 2008, Maldives was ruled by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who continues retains significant influence on Maldivian politics, because he is the half-brother of current president Abdulla Yameen.  Maumoom Gayoom presided over a long period of economic growth, although as his rule continued, calls for democratic practices and concerns regarding nepotism increased. During his long tenure in office, there were notable instances of civil unrest, including coup attempts in 1980, 1983, and 1988.

Constitution

In August 2008, former Maldivian president Maumoon Adbul Gayoom ratified a new constitution following the approval of the constitutional assembly (Special Majlis) in June 2008. The constitution implemented a number of reforms to the political system in the Indian Ocean archipelago. These included:

  • The establishment of a Supreme Court as the highest judicial authority in the Maldives
  • The separation of powers, rather than the concentration of powers with the president
  • A bill of rights and freedoms, guaranteeing freedoms of assembly and association (including the right to form trade unions and engage in strike action) and expression (except if it is “contrary to a tenet of Islam”)
  • The prohibition of arbitrary detention and abuse of prisoners
  • The prohibition of the president and MPs from being “actively involved” in a business
  • The establishment of independent bodies for corruption and human rights investigations, defence, elections, the judiciary, and the police, in addition to an independent judicial and electoral commission to oversee the Maldives’ presidential and parliamentary elections.

Maldives Political Structure

Executive

The president is the head of the executive branch of government and appoints a cabinet to assist him in the running of his administration. The president is directly elected by the people every five years.

Legislature

The People’s Majlis is a unicameral parliament consisting of 85 seats. Members are directly elected for five-year terms under a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Judiciary

The Maldivian legal system is derived mainly from traditional Islamic law, and judges interpret and apply Sharia in the adjudication of civil and criminal cases. The Supreme Court consists of judges chosen by the president with the approval of members of parliament. In December 2014, the number of Supreme Court justices was reduced from seven to five.

A key tenet of the 2008 constitution was the separation of the judiciary from the other branches of government. However, reforms to ensure judicial independence were not forthcoming under the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government (2008-12) either since the traditional elite returned to power under the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM). This failure to reform the judiciary was a major cause of the crisis that led to the toppling of the MDP in February 2012.

Regional and Local Institutions

For administrative purposes the Maldives’ 26 natural atolls are divided into 19 administrative atolls and two cities, the capital Malé and Addu in the south. Each atoll has a regional capital island and is administered by an atoll chief. Each atoll chief, supported by clerks, Islamic judges, and a medical assistant, presides over a varying number of islands. Each inhabited island is headed by a government-appointed island chief, an assistant, and a mosque official who are responsible for law and order, vital statistics, education, and other government functions in the islands.

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