Maldives Ruling Party Heading for a Split
By P. K. Balachandran
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which won the Maldivian Presidential Election in September 2018 and swept the parliamentary Elections in February 2019 winning 65 out of the 87 seats, is now on the verge of a split.
After an amiable start, President Ibrahim Solih and parliamentary Speaker and MDP chief, Mohamed Nasheed, developed political and ideological differences. They now stand divided on the issue of radical political Islam. Their political ambitions clash. One-upmanship is the order of the day.
Though both Solih and Nasheed try to give the impression that they are aiming at a concord rather than a split, the flow of events clearly indicates that the two are too far apart and cannot coexist unless one side capitulates and sues for peace. But that is unlikely given their entrenched interests and political ambitions.
As the President of the MDP, and as the man who had nominated Solih as the MDP’s Presidential candidate, Nasheed expected Solih to act as per his wishes. But the seemingly self-effacing Solih turned out to be his own man soon enough. On the other hand, Nasheed, who became parliament Speaker, considered himself a part of the Executive, and was making policy pronouncements.
To Solih’s embarrassment, Nasheed floated the idea that the Maldives should abandon the Presidential system and take to the parliamentary system, and that after the change-over, Solih could continue as a ceremonial President while Nasheed would be Prime Minister with all powers. Solih said that the change could take place only after a referendum and did little else about that.
As Speaker, and leader of the majority party, Nasheed has been asking Solih to clamp down on Islamic radicals who, he alleged, are taking the Maldives on the path of the Wahabism and Salafism. Some of the radicals are known to be identifying themselves with the ISIS. Many in the MDP feared that the police, the military, the judiciary and the Deep State had been infiltrated by Wahabists. Nasheed has been keen to ban the Wahabists from branding people as ‘anti-Islamic’ or ‘La Deeni’ and ordering their elimination.
Nasheed got an anti-Hate Crimes Bill presented in parliament aiming at radicals who threatened the so called ‘La Deenis’ with execution. But President Solih felt that the bill was draconian and wanted changes. He feared that the bill would stir up a hornet’s nest, given the fact Islam is a super-sensitive subject in the Maldives, a 100% Muslim country. In the Maldivian polity secularism is a bad word. It is confused with denial of Islam. But Nasheed keeps advocating secularism because, to him, secularism is only separation of the State from religion and not abandoning Islam. He has said that he is a Muslim who had even learnt to conduct Islamic rites. In his view, anyone dubbing another as ‘La Deeni’ or a non-believer, who should be dealt with severely.
This has created problems with opposition parties too. Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom leader of Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) has said that penalizing those who condemn violators of Islam does not make sense in an Islamic country. Al-Sheikh Hassan Moosa Fikry of the Jamiyyath Salaf said: “If the Maldives becomes secular, casinos will come, nightclubs will come. The Hate Crime Bill will penalize people who stand firm in the path of Islam and speak out against those who challenge and desecrate the Islamic faith.” Maldivians are very worried that Western secularism will bring in freedom to covert to another religion, practice homosexuality and change one’s gender.
In his Independence Day speech recently, President Solih criticized both sides without naming any. Extremist ideologies that propagandize bloodshed in the name of Islam must not be allowed in the Maldives, he said, but added that religious slurs and hateful conduct against Islam are also harmful acts conducive to societal discord and unrest. He preferred education to legal action.
Nasheed, however, does not think that Solih’s approach will be effective. He believes that Solih has muddled the issue and has failed to bite the bullet and save the Maldives from ruination. He blamed the avowedly Islamic Adhaalath Party (whose leader Sheikh Imran is the Home Minister) for influencing Solih. He got a sharp rebuke from the Adhaalath Party.
What brought the political crisis into the open was the 6 May attempt on the life of Nasheed as he was about to get into his car near his residence. An IED strapped to a motorbike parked nearby exploded, critically injuring Nasheed. He was rushed to Germany for surgery. Having recovered, he went to England to recuperate. Police arrested four Islamic radicals who confessed to the crime.
But there was little progress in the case despite assistance from the Australian police and other foreign experts. None in the government took the rap for the intelligence failure. This touched off speculation about the complicity of some elements in the government and Islamic radicals in the Deep State. Though the MDP did not believe that elements in the government were involved, it did feel that the government had been negligent, and very slow in pursuing the case out of fear of alienating the Islamic radicals.
However, because of a legal compulsion to finish the investigations within 90 days, the police recently announced the arrest of a total of 10 suspects. All 10 are hardened Islamic extremists, some with links with earlier terrorist activities including attempts on Nasheed’s life. They considered Nasheed to be an apostate who mocked Islam. They supported the ISIS, though they were not its members. Nasheed is waiting to see how Solih will take the case forward in the context of a suspicion that he is under the influence of some anti-Nasheed Ministers in his cabinet. However, since this is a case of an attempted assassination of the parliament Speaker, it is believed that justice will be done especially when it comes to the Supreme Court.
But what is worrying some members of the MDP is that Solih has not talked to Nasheed yet. He has not visited Nasheed in Germany or in the UK, where he is recuperating currently.
Looking for allies abroad
MDP sources say that Nasheed will definitely come back to the Maldives to re-start his political career. He has an agenda to fulfil. He feels compelled to quell the Islamic extremists, replace the Presidential system by the British parliament system and bring about social and economic change in the interest of the common man. MDP insiders as well as outsiders say that while Nasheed may not be able to count on all the MDP MPs, the grassroots supporters of the party are with him.
Therefore, Solih will have to be politically proactive if he is to keep the MDP with him. He has the Adhaalath party and the former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom with him. He is said to be looking for allies abroad too. In a tweet on July 16, Solih said that he had spoken to the Chinese President Xi Jinping and told him that he is keen on ‘reinvigorating’ relations with China for the sake of Maldives’ economic development.
Nasheed, of course, has always had the sympathy and support of the US, UK and the rest of the West as he has been campaigning for democracy and taking on the Islamic radicals, the West’s bugbear. He also been highly critical of China’s ‘debt driven’ BRI projects. Political activity will pick up in the Maldives when Nasheed returns and as the country heads towards the next Presidential Election in September 2023.