April 10, 2017 7:40 pm JST

Political chaos grips Maldives as Yameen fights for survival

Arrest of opposition figure and parliamentary vote highlight growing pressure on autocratic president

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent

Ahmed Naseem, forrmer foreign minister of the Maldives, speaks at an opposition press conference in Colombo in March. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

COLOMBO -- "With the Grace of Allah, I continue to be a member of PPM and its sole elected president and leader," former Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said in a defiant tweet to his followers on March 26.

Gayoom, 79, was referring to the Progressive Party of Maldives, which he founded in 2011 after ruling the Indian Ocean archipelago with an iron grip for the three decades to 2008. But it was not to be. On March 27, Gayoom was deposed from the party leadership for leading a rare parliamentary revolt against President Abdulla Yameen, his half-brother.

Gayoom's tumble is more than a bitter family feud in South Asia's smallest nation, a popular destination for high-end tourists. It exposes a political fault line that pits the increasingly isolated Yameen, a PPM stalwart, against a new opposition alliance. Fueling the increasingly bitter tensions between the ruling party and the opposition, Maldives police on April 6 arrested an opposition leader on accusations of plotting to overthrow the government, just days after the failed effort to impeach the speaker of parliament.

According to Maldivian opposition figures in Sri Lanka, the country's closest neighbor, Yameen will struggle to retain a majority in the 85-member parliament.

Gayoom has played a significant hand in these shifting political tides, adding to uncertainty about Yameen's future and pushing the Maldives toward greater instability. The opposition was emboldened after Gayoom struck a deal with his nemesis, former President Mohamed Nasheed, who replaced Gayoom in 2008 after the country's first democratic election.

The Maldivian Democratic Party, headed by the charismatic Nasheed, closed ranks with Gayoom and two other parties to push for a "no confidence" motion against the parliament's speaker, an ally of Yameen. The opposition parties accused the parliamentary speaker of quashing attempts to achieve greater accountability in the house, such as questions to government officials involved in national development.

The parliament became a flashpoint on the day of the vote, as protesting opposition figures were carted out by soldiers in plain clothes, the usual parliamentary voting procedure was changed, and the new opposition alliance boycotted the "no confidence" vote. Yameen's camp won, with 48 votes, but the result revealed the government's tenuous hold on the house, in which the president formerly commanded a comfortable majority, often winning more than 60 votes. Consequently, the opposition smells blood.

"We will file another motion to challenge Yameen in the house; he is running a complete dictatorship," Ahmed Naseem, a former foreign minister, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "He has even placed the parliament under the defense forces."

Western embassies in Colombo, which monitor the Maldives from the Sri Lankan capital, have expressed concern about the parliamentary showdown and Yameen's subsequent strikes against opposition political leaders. The ensuing harassment of opposition politicians is "contrary to democratic standards," the German embassy said.

Among the government's high profile targets is Qasim Ibrahim, the parliamentarian who heads the Jumhooree Party and was arrested on April 6 after being initially summoned by the police for a grilling. Colonel Mohamed Nazim, a former defense minister and critic of Yameen who had been released from house arrest in late March, was re-confined after the vote.

The government has dismissed international criticism, saying in an April 2 statement by the president's office that it "denies accusations of intimidation recently levelled by the opposition." In a further show of defiance, the statement said the government "reiterates that the judiciary and police in the Maldives are independent of government or party interference."

Despite the show of bravado, the Yameen administration has been taking no chances. In late February, the defense ministry revoked the voting rights of the Maldivian National Defense Force, the country's army of 3,000 troops, having earlier banned soldiers from engaging with politicians, bureaucrats and foreigners.

These measures "appear likely to be motivated by a split in the PPM between a faction that supports incumbent president Abdulla Yameen and that which supports his half-brother and long-time dictator Maumoon Gayoom," IHS Jane's, a global defense and security consultancy, said in a March report on the Maldives.

Money laundering

Yameen has been reacting to increasingly forceful criticism since mid-2016. In August, he signed a toughened criminal defamation law intended to silence critics. In September, he denied claims by Al Jazeera, a Qatari-based broadcaster, that a $ 1.5 billion money laundering network was operating in the Maldives with the blessings of the government.

In the same month, he also dismissed criticism from the Commonwealth, a group of 52 countries with links to Britain, which accused him of interfering with the judiciary and weakening the country's fragile democratic institutions. The Maldives quit the London-based organization in October.

Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog, said that oppression has since worsened, including attacks on journalists, raids on media premises, and growing threats against political activists. Nasheed told an Indian newspaper in March that 1,700 anti-government activists are either "under threat, on trial or in jail for peaceful activism."

The political uncertainty in the Maldives contrasts sharply with hopes that the majority Muslim country would prosper after the 2008 election. However, Nasheed's term was destabilized by Gayoom, who used his allies in the military, judiciary and bureaucracy to undermine the elected president, according to Nasheed's allies. Nasheed quit before the end of his term, and later lost a 2013 presidential election to Yameen in a controversial run-off.

The political uncertainty caused by Yameen's autocratic rule has been complicated by a growing adherence within the Sunni Muslim population to the conservative Salafi and Wahabi forms of Islam, supported by cash transfers from Saudi Arabia. "The Salafi influence is rampant because of the petrodollar funding," said Imtiaz Ahmed, executive director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank based in Colombo.

This radicalization has alarmed the United Nations and other international institutions. Security analysts have warned that the country has become a recruiting ground for so-called Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. Estimates of the number of Maldivians fighting with ISIS in the Middle East range from 100 to 200 -- a relatively high proportion of the population of just 400,000 people, who live on 200 of the country's 1,192 islands. The Maldives is the second largest contributor of fighters, relative to population, said Ahmed, who was part of an U.N.-supported team that studied Islamic radicalization in the Maldives.

Yameen has also faced criticism of alleged government plans to endorse a $10 billion Saudi Arabian investment on an atoll called Faafu. In late March a Maldivian television channel broadcast a leaked audio clip in which a PPM parliamentarian, and Yameen loyalist, said that the Maldivian constitution had been amended in 2015 to permit Saudi Arabian investors to buy land. The Yameen administration and the Saudi Arabian government have denied the reported deal.

Maldivians will have an opportunity to register their views in local council elections scheduled for May -- although the poll has been postponed three times already as Yameen struggles to find sufficient political loyalists to field as candidates of his party.

The parliamentary revolt led by Gayoom has made that task harder as more governing party lawmakers switch their loyalties. With a further impeachment motion to be presented in parliament against the speaker, Yameen could yet face a costly political price for his actions against his half-brother.

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