In the Maldivian presidential election held on September 23, the Joint Opposition’s impassioned plea for the restoration of democracy secured an overwhelming response from voters.

The electorate decisively rejected incumbent President Abdulla Yameen’s call to vote for rapid economic development and its attendant benefits, suppressing the “foreign-inspired” craving for political, constitutional and individual rights.

Joint Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had secured 58.4% (134,143) of the votes polled against the 41.6% (95,626) secured by President Yameen.

Polling was a high 88.8% in an election billed as a referendum on democracy.

Opposition supremo and leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Mohamed Nasheed, who is in exile in Colombo, told The Hindu: “This is a clear victory… and a vote for the country to return to the path of democracy. Destiny has a habit of always choosing the right and the good. When history is on the march, you can’t stop it.”

Yameen isolated himself

If a united opposition has defeated Yameen, the blame will have to be placed solely and squarely at his door as he had persecuted each and every notable opposition leader and dissident in his own party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).

Yameen made all his arch rivals come together to form a grand alliance sinking their individual ambitions. In other words he transformed what might have been an ordinary presidential election, with the incumbent facing a divided opposition, into a grand duel between himself and a united opposition candidate.

Yameen made the election a referendum on democracy at a time when Maldivians, emerging from Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s extended dictatorship, were yearning to live under a modern democratic system ushered in by the epoch-making 2008 constitution.

True, Maldivian democracy was rather unstable if not chaotic from 2008 to 2013 when Yameen was voted to the Presidency, but the people had not lost faith in the system. The seeds of democracy were planted in the minds of the masses and had created a deep yearning for it. The yearning did not abate even when the dictatorial Yameen’s developmental agenda was enhancing the common man’s lifestyle.

Yameen’s developmental efforts

To give the devil his due, Yameen’s achievements cannot be underestimated. They are the reason he got 42% of the votes despite a uniformly hostile press and constant international denigration. If the opposition had been divided, he could well have won.

According to official statistics Yameen’s government completed 2,757 projects costing USD 5.7 billion since coming into being in 2013.

There were 565 sports infrastructure projects in 160 islands costing a total of USD 240 million. The government spent USD 1.04 billion on 212 projects in the health sector in 137 islands.

The Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) had expanded its capacity to 500 beds. There are now facilities in the Maldives to treat kidney, cancer and heart patients. A cardiac center had come up in the IGMH. A 100-bed tertiary hospital was to come up soon in Addu Atoll. Regional hospitals were being upgraded and refurbished. Health centers had come up in the smallest islands.

The government gave a lot of importance to education, with 174 educational projects in 114 islands receiving a total allocation of USD 1.69 billion. Books were replaced with tablets. Virtual classrooms and libraries were established. The government created 22 new schools with a total of 792 classrooms.

The government’s 34 social housing projects spread over 20 islands were being executed with a budgetary allocation of USD 1.3 billion. The ongoing “HIYAA” social housing project would solve the housing problem for 160,000 people. This massive project was expected to be completed in 2019.

Land was reclaimed from the sea to meet emerging requirements. 240 hectares of land were reclaimed under the Hulhumale’s Phase 2 scheme and 493 hectares were reclaimed in another four islands.

The government put up 82 sewerage systems in 57 islands. There are 193 waste management projects, 83 harbour development projects. and 61 clean water projects.

Road development was completed in 22 islands, and is ongoing in 13 other islands. Domestic airport construction, and expansion of the Velana International Airport was on. The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge was completed.

Hopes Dashed

Yameen was hoping these achievements would impress the mature sections of the electorate, though he was aware that younger Maldivians looked upon Mohamed Nasheed, the ebullient and indefatigable campaigner for democracy, as their hero.

Yameen did not notice that the youth are a significant section in the Maldives, and failed to realise that their inner needs should be addressed. The median age in the archipelago is 28, and 68% of the population is between 15 and 54.

One would imagine that the young would be enamoured of rapid economic development and the jobs this would create, but it turned out that they did not want jobs at the cost of hard-won democratic rights under the leadership of people like Nasheed who have a long history of challenging authoritarianism.

Cost of ignoring democracy

The mistake that Yameen made was that he did nothing to co-opt democracy into his development agenda. He brooked no criticism and was intolerant of opposition.

He also packed all constitutional institutions, including the judiciary and parliament, with yes men. Those who dissented were sacked. Among them were his own party MPs who refused to vote against a no-confidence motion moved by the opposition against the Speaker.

After losing the majority in parliament through his own actions, Yameen used special provisions to get his orders passed by the House. The extension of the state of emergency was passed in this questionable way.

The incarceration of Nasheed and other top leaders on various charges, including terrorism and corruption, was deemed to be controversial by international rights organisations. But when the Supreme Court itself declared the sentencing as improper, ordered a re-trial and sought the reinstatement of unseated MPs, Yameen acted even more controversially. He declared a state of emergency, curbed political rights and prolonged it controversially.

The Supreme Court chief justice and a judge were sacked and imprisoned after being accused of taking bribes from a jailed politico to give the order to release jailed leaders. Yameen said that the judges had given the ruling without seeking the views of the top government law officer.

Since opposition stalwart Mohamed Nasheed was disqualified from contesting (he is a fugitive from the law, having left jail on leave and not returned to complete his 13-year term) Ibrahim Solih was nominated as the Joint Opposition candidate for the presidential election. Soli is an experienced politician, and a non-controversial one at that, unlike Nasheed.

The opposition parties together promised to restore all democratic rights, liberate constitutional structures like the Supreme Court held captive by Yameen, release all falsely implicated political prisoners, and hold fresh elections to the presidency after 18 months, in which those unfairly barred from contesting the September 23 election would be able to contest.

Attempt to vitiate election

With the opposition uniting behind an acceptable face like Solih, Yameen felt even more threatened. He devised methods to rig the election and prevented international journalists and independent monitors from observing it.

He changed the rules governing the vote counting process to prevent opposition polling agents from monitoring it vote by vote. And as per the new rules, complaints could not be made there and then but only much later, after the announcement of results.

But all this was to no avail, as the popular tide had turned against Yameen, and there was no way he could stem it. As Nasheed told The Hindu: “Destiny has a habit of choosing the right and the good. When history is on the march, you can’t stop it.”