MALE: Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen is playing the Islamic and nationalistic cards against the Joint Opposition in the run up to the September 23 Presidential election.

Islam and nationalism make a potent combination. The opposition is portrayed as being un-Islamic and foreign-driven, backed as it is by the West and regional power, India.

The “Islamic-nationalistic” platform matches the profile of Maldives. It is a 100% Muslim country, which, while not being Wahabi, has been zealously guarding its Islamic identity.

Maldives also has a history of fighting foreign influences and interests, including those from India.

The West’s determined political bid, with India in tow, to bring about a regime change by highlighting the democracy deficit in Yameen’s rule, and Yameen’s stubborn resistance to this bid by getting China on board, have cleared the ground for the use of Islamic nationalism in electoral politics.

Islamist As Running Mate

That there will be an Islamic thrust to Yameen’s campaign became clear on Saturday, when the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) nominated the Maldives Islamic University's Chancellor, Dr. Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, as Yameen’s running mate (the Vice Presidential candidate) in the September 23 Presidential election.

Better known as Dr. Shaheem, the running mate had earlier been Islamic Minister in the cabinets of Presidents Mohamed Waheed Hassan and Abdulla Yameen. He was a senior member of the Islamist Adaalath Party (AP) which was then in alliance with PPM.

Even after AP left the ruling coalition, Shaheem stuck to Yameen, though not formally. Despite the fact that Shaneem was still in the Adaalath Party, Yameen appointed him Vice Chancellor of the newly formed Maldives Islamic University. He is presently Chancellor.

Last year, Dr.Shaheem parted ways with the Adaalath Party preferring to do social work and serve Islam. The religious scholar is known for his close connection with Saudi royals and dignitaries. President Yameen is also keen on further cementing bilateral ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia now being guided by the progressive Prince Salman.

Earlier, preparing the ground for the Islamization of the electoral campaign, Yameen had been telling audiences in the atolls that the Joint Opposition (JO) led by Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is in cahoots with anti-Islamic forces in the West which want the Maldives to allow places of worship of other religions and allow same-sex marriage etc. Yameen would ask his audience: “Would you want to see a temple near the mosque in your village?”

Given the fact that millions of non-Western tourists flock to the archipelago to stay at the atoll-resorts, the small population of 410,000 indigenous Maldivians feels a pressing necessity to preserve its religion against foreign influences. Adherence to Islamic principles is expected to such an extent that even a liberal politician like MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed castigated President Yameen for skipping Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Dr.Shaheem ,who was then Islamic Minister, defended Yameen saying that he done the pilgrimage even cancelling a visit to the UN.

Foreign Hand

In his election speeches, Yameen would also dub the Joint Opposition or the MDP as stooges of foreign powers without naming the latter. And, in his actions, he would show that he would not give in to the demands of the West and India.

The West and India have been asking him to restore the independence of the Supreme Court and implement the latter’s order of February 1, 2018 releasing top political leaders like Mohamed Nasheed, Jumhoory Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Supreme Court justices Abdullah Saeed and Ali Hameed.

External powers ,namely, US, EU and India, have also been demanding that parliament be allowed to function as previously and the 12 MPs who had been unseated be reinstated as per the Supreme Court order of February 1.

But Yameen has not given in to any of these demands till date and is unlikely to do so till the elections.

Indian Aircraft

Yameen has not given in to the Indian demand that the Maldives renew the expired agreement to have Indian naval helicopters stationed in the archipelago to conduct maritime domain surveillance and protect the Exclusive Economic Zone in collaboration with the Maldivian Defense Force.

The Maldivians have sent back one of the two Druv naval choppers and want the other to be taken back too. India had promised to do so by June 30, but did not keep the promise.

Yameen has reportedly not responded to the Indian proposal to station a Dornier surveillance aircraft which has been pending since 2016. The reason is that Yameen feels that an Indian naval presence is being used for gathering intelligence about China’s activities in the area as he is getting increasingly dependent on China for his ambitious economic and infrastructural development programs.

Try as they might, the foreign powers have not been able to bend Yameen. This is partly because of the backing China is giving to Yameen and partly because of the “diplomatic or strategic restraint” which India has been showing vis-à-vis its neighbors in South Asia and also China (as in Doklam).

It is unofficially said in Maldives that when opposition leader Nasheed asked for Indian military help to dislodge Yameen and there were calls in India for a 1988 style Indian military intervention, China sent a naval vessel or a flotilla to be stationed near Maldives. China had also warned against any foreign intervention. But both the Maldivians and the Indians were officially in denial of any Chinese naval movement.

Be that as it may, India did not respond to Nasheed’s call for an Indian “military-backed diplomatic initiative” to bring Yameen to his knees.

Given the “strategic restraint” shown by the Western powers and India, Yameen is also playing down the foreign intervention threat in his election campaign speeches. He puts more emphasis on his developmental achievements and programs and his commitment to preserving the Islamic character of the Maldives.

The issue of foreign countries meddling in Maldives is expected to be used forcefully only when the opposition harps on its being backed by the Western bloc and India. But it is unlikely that the opposition would harp on it because it would also like to show itself to be nationalistic.