Power in paradise: strongman Abdulla Yameen eyes new term in Maldives after jailing and forcing main rivals into exile

Maldives election expected to cement president’s grip on power

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 1:54pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 9:21pm

Back when he was a mild-mannered civil servant, few in the Maldives predicted Abdulla Yameen would one day run the country, let alone with an iron grip, locking up judges, his rivals and even his 80-year-old half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Now, five years after skilfully manoeuvring his way to the top, the 59-year-old is on the cusp of being elected to a second five-year term running the Indian Ocean archipelago beloved of foreign tourists.

All of his main rivals are either behind bars or in exile, local media are scared to be critical – and even to report on the opposition – and the electoral system has been rigged, his opponents claim.

Adding to the alarm of the United States, the European Union and regional heavyweight India, Yameen has also cosied up to China, using cheap credit from Beijing for a blitz of infrastructure building.

“When I was first sworn into office, our nation was in disarray. The state institutions were in chaos, and the institutions were … on the brink of collapse,” Yameen said in a recent address to the nation.

Now though after five years, he had restored “stability and economic prosperity” to the nation of 340,000 people and more than 1,000 coral islands, he said.

Before polls opened in Sunday’s controversial presidential election police raided the campaign headquarters of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), searched the building for several hours in a bid to stop what they called “illegal activities”. There were no arrests.

Despite the crackdown, hundreds of Maldivians headed to polling booths before voting began in the capital Male.

Election looms in Maldives with President Abdulla Yameen, who is supported by China, determined to cling to power

“I am voting to revert a mistake I made in 2013. I am voting to free President Maumoon (Gayoom),” Nazima Hassan, 44, said ers after voting in Male.

Abdul Rasheed Husain, 46, in Male said he cast his ballot for Yameen to take the Maldives “to the next level”.

Some 262,000 people in the archipelago – famed for its white beaches and blue lagoons – can vote in an election from which independent international monitors have been barred.

Only a handful of foreign media have been allowed in.

The Asian Network for Free Elections, a foreign monitoring group, said the campaign was heavily tilted in favour of the 59-year-old Yameen.

The network said it did not expect a fair contest.

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“In the absence of any scrutiny (of the elections) or pressure (on the government), sombre events surely loom ahead for the people of Maldives,” it said on the eve of Sunday’s vote.

In February, Yameen alarmed the international community by imposing a state of emergency, suspending the constitution and sending troops to stop members of parliament who were trying to impeach him.

The chief justice and a judge of the Supreme Court were jailed along with Gayoom, president for 30 years until 2008 and the man who helped Yameen come to power in 2013.

The UN said the arrest of judges was an “outright assault on democracy”.

Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president from 2008-12 but now in exile, called Friday for the international community to reject the election results.

“Mathematically, it is not possible for Yameen to win because all opposition parties are united against him,” said Nasheed, who is based in Sri Lanka.

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“But the results they will announce will be different to what is actually in the ballot boxes.”

Nasheed was forced to withdraw from the presidential race after the Maldives election commission disqualified him because of a 2015 terrorism conviction.

The United Nations said the conviction and 13-year jail sentence were politically motivated, but Yameen’s government has refused to abide by the UN ruling.

The relatively unknown opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has Nasheed’s backing. There are no other candidates.

Solih has struggled for visibility with the electorate because the media is fearful of falling foul of heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions.

The government has used “vaguely worded laws to silence dissent and to intimidate and imprison critics”, some of whom have been assaulted and even murdered, according to Human Rights Watch.

Eligible voters in neighbouring Sri Lanka and India along with those in Malaysia and Britain are entitled to vote on Sunday. The results are expected by midday Monday.

A candidate must secure 50 per cent of the vote to win outright, failing which there would be a run off three days later.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press