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Maldives: Battle-lines getting redrawn?
N Sathiya Moorthy
23 November 2012

With the Jumhooree Party (JP) voting in Parliament unlike the rest of the partners in the Government, and President Mohammed Waheed Hassan sacking one more of its Ministers, battle-lines seem to be getting redrawn in Maldives all over again. The Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) lost the vote for secret-ballot on no-confidence motions - one is now pending against President Waheed - by 34-39 with two absentees in the 77-member House, including the Speaker, but the JP decision has exposed the chinks in the Government's armour that had remained underneath until now.

In a way, the early JP decision to vote for secret-ballot may have triggered the current political crisis, independent also of the anti-GMR protests that are centred on the Indian developer-concessionaire for the Male international airport. The sacking of JP Transport Minister Ahamed Shamheed the previous week has been followed by that of State Minister for Gender, Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed. Minister Saeed had appeared with her husband and JP parliamentarian Abdulla Jabir at a weekend news conference, condemning his arrest on charges of alcohol-consumption, and alleged roughing-up, consequent hurt and humiliation at the hands of the police. Jabir was not alone in all this.

Simultaneously, President Waheed seems to have put on hold the JP's new nominee for Transport Minister. Ameen Ibrahim is a vice-president of the party and chairman of the VTV of the Villa Group, owned in turn by JP founder, Gasim Ibrahim. He was named to succeed Shamheed after President Waheed stood his ground on not restoring the latter. Simultaneously, however, President's Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza, one of the recent entrants, quit the JP, protesting against the party's vote-on secret-ballot.

What make the current developments interesting is the presidential aspirations of JP's Gasim Ibrahim. He was among the first serious contender for the presidency to announce his candidature in the elections that are due in 2013. Having bagged over 15 per cent of the popular-vote in the first-ever multi-party, direct elections to the presidency in 2008, Ibrahim is believed to command a 'committed vote-bank', which he transferred to MDP's Nasheed in the second run-off round, thus contributing to the latter's victory. With the nation purportedly poised for an equally keen contest the next time too, the current political developments has the potential to advance the presidential poll date, as desired and demanded by the MDP, ever since President Nasheed quit office on February 7.

Avoidable embarrassment

Despite winning the vote against secret-ballot on anticipated lines, the Government faced avoidable embarrassment in Parliament when a member charged President Waheed and his aides with influencing him to 'vote in a particular way' on the issue of secret-ballot. Ali Azim is one of the two MPs against whom the civil court had cancelled summons earlier in the day on Monday, for non-payment of dues to the State-run Bank of Maldives (BoM). Under the Maldivian law, proclaimed debtors cannot continue as MPs until they had cleared their dues - and at times have to get re-elected after their seats are declared vacant.

The Government has promptly and expectedly denied Azim's charge. It is unclear if the MP intends moving a breach of privilege motion against all those whom he had named inside the House as influencing him to vote in a 'particular way' on the secret-ballot. Media reports on his parliamentary expose, if one, did not mention any substantial evidence to prove his point. For now, the charge lends credence to the Opposition MDP's charge that the Government was using all means to influence and/or intimidate MPs. If there are more on the Treasury Benches, as claimed, they are yet to speak up - or, act otherwise on issues of concern to the Government.

'Anti-GMR, not anti-India'

On a parallel track, which may have been side-lined to an extent by the more immediate political developments inside and outside Parliament, a junior Minister claimed that the on-going anti-GMR protests should not be construed as anti-India protests. In a pointed reference to the Indian concerns expressed by the Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi recently, State Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Ahmed Shameem, claimed that the issue related to a company owned by 'some Indians' but was registered in another country and did not pay taxes to India.

The issue thus did not relate to India or the Indian Government, the Minister said. "No demonstrations have been held in Maldives against India. No anti-India sentiments were expressed in any of the demonstrations held… India should not, therefore, be worried over a non-existent matter." Elaborating, Minister Shameem said, "We have no issues with India. We have no issues with any Indian citizens in Maldives, and likewise we have no issues with any of the employees of GMR. The issue is with the agreement made by the former Government (of President Nasheed) with GMR. All we want is to annul that agreement."

Miadhu quoted Minister Shameem as also saying that they had clarified the position even in the Friday night's rally of the National Alliance. He recalled that religion-centric Adhalathth Party leader "Sheikh Imran and others stated this very clearly. They clarified that there is no threat to any Indian citizen in Maldives". As may be recalled, the protestors have resorted to a combination of religion and patriotism to target GMR, continuing from where they had left the 'December 23 Movement' after the February 7 resignation of President Nasheed.

Tirade against envoy, still

Minister Shameem went on to claim that the Indian Government had been misinformed of the reality of the situation by people in Maldives. He urged the Indian Government to seek authentic information about the situation Maldives directly without contacting any third party. Minister Shameem belongs to President Waheed's Gaumee Itthihaad Party (QIP), and it is unclear why the response to the Indian MEA's statement should come from someone not attached to the Maldivian Foreign Ministry.

Almost simultaneously, Minvian News confirmed that President's Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza stood by his controversial statement that Indian High Commissioner Dyaneshwar Mulay was a "traitor to Maldives, and corrupt". The Opposition MDP had earlier taken up the issue to Parliament, with members claiming that the comments were against diplomatic protocol and could affect bilateral relations with India. MDP parliamentarian Eva Abdulla alleged that the remarks made by Riza were not those of his own but were rather made under "direct orders" of President Waheed, as Minivan News reported.

Riza got not-so-unexpected support from Abdul Azeez Jamaal Aboobakr, MP belonging to the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Abdul the the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The PPM is the single largest political group supporting the Waheed Government in Parliament, and Aboobakr said that a person's freedom cannot be limited because of his employment. He told Parliament that Riza too had his freedom of speech - and recalled that the latter had prefaced his public utterances on High Commissioner Mulay as his personal views.

According to Minivan News, the majority of PPM members in Parliament attempted to defend Riza, and tried to switch the focus onto the Indian envoy. However, in an apparent contradiction to its comments in Parliament, the PPM on November 12 issued a statement dissociating the party from the 'slanderous' allegations made against High Commissioner Mulay, Minivan News said further. Earlier, the President's Office too had distanced himself from Riza's statement.

In the past, PPM leaders had spoken about the need for re-negotiating the GMR agreement, not ousting them from the airport construction-cum-concession contract. The party's position on the issue is unclear. So is the current position of the Dhivehi Raayathunge Party (DRP), another of the Government parties originally founded by President Gayoom, and from which he is estranged now. Over the previous weeks, DRP leader Thasmeen Ali and other leaders had spoken against the moves to oust GMR, but have not been heard of, since. On the crucial secret-ballot issue, the DRP, like the PPM, voted with the Government and against the MDP amendment.

'India need not be concerned…'

At the same time, in what read like a loaded statement, Minivan News quoted President Waheed's interview to the news agency, Press Trust of India (PTI), that New Delhi 'need not be concerned with affairs in the Maldives'. He claimed further that "this is not a problem that we have with GMR, but with a bad agreement…We have to pay GMR $ 1.5 million per month under the current arrangement of the agreement in operation, and that is beyond our capacity".

The reference was to the erstwhile MDP-led Government of President Nasheed offering to compensate GMR for the loss of revenue, after a local court struck off the original provision for levying $ 25 entry fee for Maldivians using the Male airport. Ironically, most Government parties today, barring President Waheed's QIP, were in the Opposition at the time the GMR contract was signed - and had opposed it, through political, legislative and legal means.

Otherwise too, President Waheed may have a point, when he says the Government is strapped for cash to pay GMR every month. Tourism had sustained economic development up to a point, but for growing with the growth, the nation needs large investments in the infrastructure sector in particular. The skewed governmental revenue-model from the resort-centric tourism industry is incapable of sustaining the economy. This is also the crux of the fiscal problem that the Nasheed Government inherited and left behind - after attempting to address wide-ranging economic reforms, which came with the IMF-driven austerity measures, affecting the common man as much as the large pool of public servants.

In this background, the Waheed Government may not have any answers to the question of much larger repayments that may become necessary if the GMR agreement were to be annulled, as being sought by street-protestors in Maldives, and the international arbitrators in Singapore, whom GMR has approached under the agreement, for redress, rule in its favour. Of equal concern should be the unwillingness of other overseas investors to put their money in Maldives, a nation until now known for easy repatriation procedures that had attracted funding for the resort industry in the first place.

The alternative could be that Maldives has already identified an external underwriter, now lurking in the side-lines, to either pay-off or buy-out GMR, or have other weapons in its arsenal to avoid/minimise those payments. The Adhaalath Party, which had set a November 15 deadline for the Government to take-over the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) from GMR has extended the same till the month-end.

For its part, GMR has reiterated its willingness to re-negotiate the position under the existing agreement. Yet, it is unclear if the Maldivian Government is willing to re-negotiate the deal as ruling combine leaders used to say from time to time, -- or, would have the time, energy and inclination to do so, and that domestic political developments of the kind flagged by the JP vote on the secret-ballot and allied issues would not overtake the same. To the extent, the GMR issue and the political crisis could overlap in more ways than one, and more often than anticipated, with consequences for the nation and its near-exclusive import-driven economy.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)