Flickr/ Ibrahim Asad
Flickr/ Ibrahim Asad

The men who would be king

Abdulla Yameen’s narrow win over Mohamed Nasheed in the 2013 Maldives election was greeted with scant celebration, both on the streets of Male and in the victor’s camp.

 Several hundred supporters quietly milled around outside the Nasandhura Palace Hotel in Male, where Yameen's Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) was holding court right after his 51.39 percent win in the 16 November Maldives presidential polls. Yameen's seemingly contradictory coalition of Islamists and resort tycoons triumphed in the run-off vote against the internationally-popular liberal democrat, former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Inside the hotel the man hogging the microphone was not the victorious presidential candidate but his half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, surrounded by a coterie of his former ministers and aides jostling for a share in the spoils and cabinet. If anything, Yameen looked as surprised and confused as much of the Maldivian public. Just days before the revote, a sizeable section had switched their support from third placed Qasim Ibrahim to Yameen, hugely increasing his share of the vote from the 29.72 percent he received in the first round.

Many were clearly anti-Nasheed voters, persuaded not so much by the PPM's vague manifesto pledges of oil money and doctors in every household, but the intense negative campaigning against Nasheed by media outlets owned by the very candidates competing against him for Presidential office. The most successful of these was a sustained anti-campaign casting Nasheed as ladeenee, or 'irreligious', accusing him of consorting with "Jews, Freemasons and priests" to undermine Islam in the Maldives in favour of unspecified "other religions". Trying to face down the populist charge against him, and showing a side conflicting with his international image, Nasheed defended his religious track record at party rallies and on MDP-leaning channel Raajje TV, asserting, "There will be no room for another religion in this country under an MDP government. This is very clear."

However, the people Nasheed needed to reach out to had already been convinced by the viciously polarised media owned by Qasim and Yameen's political allies, which readily ignored religious hate speech from Yameen's camp while relentlessly pursuing the slightest bureaucratic infraction committed by MDP-aligned outlets.

The success of Yameen's campaigning was measured in the additional five percent who turned out for the second round (taking total participation to a record shattering 91.4 percent), from which he was able to secure the 6022 extra votes he needed to defeat Nasheed.

Simultaneously, the election process, initially scheduled for early September, was dragged out for months by delays, annulments, police obstruction, Supreme Court interference, Yameen and Qasim's vetoing of voter registries, and their warring with the stoically professional (if sleep-deprived) elections commission. 

While politicians and the Supreme Court dithered and schemed, on the streets of Male the pigment of the rival pink and yellow party flags began to run in the rain. No longer the carnival-esque decorations of campaign season, following the arbitrary annulment of the first round the washed-out flags became reminders of a democracy violated and the fervent deck stacking of the electoral process behind the scenes.

So the streets of Male were quiet on the evening of 16 November — perhaps the result of a mood of incredulity tempered by a relief that the saga had at least reached a conclusion. A few supporters on the back of motorcycles circling Male happily yelled "30 more years!", but the 51 percent of the population who should have been ecstatic at the narrow victory were instead conspicuous in their absence.

That so many Maldivians voted in a credible poll to reinstall the former authoritarian dictatorship over the man who introduced universal healthcare, elderly and single-parent pensions, guest-house tourism and modern taxation while turning the country into a world-famous environmental icon, requires some scrutiny and head-scratching.

Family legacy

Gayoom ruled the country for 30 years before being ousted by Nasheed in 2008 in the Maldives' first multi-party election. Although Gayoom stepped down from power, he continued to retain an extraordinary influence in Maldivian politics. His influence within newly 'independent' institutions such as the judiciary and its watchdog, the Judicial Service Commission, as well as his opposition majority in parliament, greatly limited the MDP's ability to roll out the reforms it had promised.

Indeed Yameen's win owes much to the authoritarian dynasty of his older half-sibling, and his continued hold on those inhabiting the 'forgotten' Maldives. Insular, poorly-educated, poverty-stricken and suffering from a lack of infrastructure and opportunity, the Maldives' remote and disparate islands were easy prey for xenophobic politicking and Islamist rhetoric during election campaigning.

During his rule Gayoom drew heavily on the school of autocracy defined by his classmate at Egypt's Al Azhar university, Hosni Mubarak. Resorting to overt authoritarianism only when absolutely necessary, 'Gayoomism' was characterised by Arab-style Islamic nationalism portraying him as a stalwart defender of national Islamic virtue even as he oversaw the boom of Western 'bikini and cocktail' tourism. That industry now attracts a million tourists a year and indirectly accounts for 70 percent of the Maldives' GDP.

Rather than overt oppression (a difficult task in a nation consisting of 350,000 people scattered across 200 inhabited islands) Gayoom would criminalise and imprison political opponents through his absolute control of the judiciary, judges from which would openly boast of their 100 percent conviction rates according to the former Judicial Services Commission member and whistleblower Aishath Velezinee.

In prison, many faced tribulations limited only by the imagination and cruelty of those holding them in custody. Anti-torture NGO Redress interviewed victims of the regime and submitted its findings to the UN Human Rights Council ahead of the Maldives' 2012 periodic review. The report found:

"Forms of torture and ill-treatment included the use of suspension, lengthy use of stocks, being beaten with fists and bars, kicked, blindfolded, handcuffed, the dislocation of joints and breaking of bones, being forced to roll and squat on sharp coral, being drowned or forced into the sea, being put in a water tank, being burned, having bright lights shone in eyes, being left outside for days while tied or handcuffed to a tree, being covered in sugar water or leaves to attract ants and goats, and in one case being tied to a crocodile's cage. Sexual assault and humiliation was also routinely used."

Actual killings were rare, murder being a liability in such a small and connected community. Instead Gayoom’s detractors would be stripped of their assets and banished to remote islands, only to be invited back to Male years later with promises of forgiveness and a government job with strings attached. This was a key method of control during the Gayoom era, and explains how many who lost everything to the man are now among his strongest supporters. 

The coalitionThe senior ranks of Yameen’s new government include an assortment of former regime figures, resort tycoons, political Islam-for-hire sheikhs, security chiefs, gangsters, members of the Gayoom family, and the odd nervous technocrat. For anyone still in doubt as to who was back in charge, Gayoom’s daughter Dunya Maumoon was swiftly appointed the new Foreign Minister while his son, Farish Maumoon, is now the State Minister for Economic Development.

Presenting themselves as a ‘proven’ force of stability, in reality the new administration is a house of cards of vested and conflicting interests united only by hatred of the man who dethroned them in 2008. Nasheed, confident in the support of the 49 percent, is sensibly and cooperatively sitting back to watch them make good on their promises of bridges, oil and free money while attempting to check the inevitable slide back to authoritarianism. 

Understanding the new government means looking to the old, and the figures within it. 

Yameen himself variously headed both the State Electric Company (STELCO) and the State Trading Organisation (STO) during Gayoom’s administration. He was accused by Nasheed’s government in 2011 of involvement in the sale of up to US$800 million worth of oil to the Burmese military junta via the STO’s branch in Singapore. Despite his chairmanship he rejected allegations of personal involvement and disputed the illegality of the deal. He also has a dubious grasp of geography, famously accusing Nasheed of conspiring to allow “Israeli flights to stop over [in the Maldives] after bombing Arab countries.”

In March this year, Yameen defeated Umar Naseer (a senior figure in Gayoom’s now defunct National Security Service, accused of personal involvement in custodial torture) in the PPM primaries, and promised he was ready to go to “any depth” to secure a PPM victory in the presidential election.

After leaving the police force, Naseer had found himself a niche as a firebrand politician leading crowds of opposition supporters and rented gangs from the streets in often impractical attempts to overthrow Nasheed’s government. When he finally succeeded in February 2012 he was not in the least bit surprised, openly and gleefully admitting to foreign journalists his role in coercing the security services: “[Nasheed] is a drug addict and should be behind bars,” he explained to an Australian current affairs program.

Unwilling to accept a snub to his own presidential ambitions, following his loss to Yameen in the PPM primaries Naseer publicly accused Yameen of rigging the election, and of being backed by a coterie of “gangsters, drug cartels and Gayoom’s children.”

“Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s children were with Yameen, the largest gangsters in the country were with Yameen, all the drug cartels in the country were with Yameen, the most corrupted people were with Yameen, the whole elections committee was with Yameen and a large chunk of PPM’s parliament members gathered around Yameen,” Naseer declared in April 2013. “We came out knowing that the referee, the linesman and even the match commissioner along with his 11 players were playing on his side.”

Yameen rejected the accusations and Naseer was ultimately evicted from the party. In a change of fortune, however, he has recently been appointed Home Minister in Yameen’s new cabinet. 

The kingmakerThe real kingmaker in the 2013 election was Qasim Ibrahim, who placed third in the first round and successfully applied to the Supreme Court to have it annulled (see ‘Democracy Kidnapped’ in Himal, October 25 2013). The sole basis for this verdict — and accompanying ‘guidelines’ on the electoral process granting candidates power of veto — was a dubious secret police report alleging errors in the voter registry. This report was shown neither to the public nor the election commission’s defence lawyers, the head of which was evicted from the courtroom for contempt after daring to question the political allegiance of the seven member bench.

One of the seven, Ali Hameed, had become the subject of much public opprobrium after spy camera videos of the rotund judge’s escapades with prostitutes in Sri Lanka’s Cinnamon Grand were leaked on Maldivian social media. Initially intended for blackmail, the public release of the videos saw the judiciary — a feared institution tasked with incarcerating Gayoom’s political adversaries and sentencing women to flogging for extramarital sex — become the subject of scorn and laughter as protesters paraded through Male, hoisting enormous white underpants on poles.

One of the videos, time-stamped 24 January 2013, shows the judge fraternising with a topless woman with an eastern European accent. At one point the judge leans right into the camera, and his face is clearly visible. After the session the woman repeatedly encourages the judge to drink wine from a minibar. “If I drink that I will be caught. I don’t want to be caught,” the judge insists.

In spite of Hameed’s lofty position in the same judiciary which punishes those committing misdemeanours such as adultery, he himself was neither disbarred nor even investigated. Instead the judicial watchdog — on which Qasim sat as an active member — rejected its own recommendation to suspend the judge pending an inquiry. The videos purporting to show Hameed were fakes, insisted Qasim, and the judge was able to cast his crucial vote in the four to three Supreme Court decision to annul the 7 September poll, despite its endorsement by international observers.

The revote was delayed three times by police obstruction and Yameen’s repeated refusal to sign the voter registry, but the results ultimately mirrored the first attempt and thoroughly vindicated the conduct of the elections commission. The police report used as evidence to throw out the poll — by this time leaked — was torn apart and discredited as bogus by an expert UN review team.

Qasim’s legacyQasim portrays himself as an inspirational and philanthropic self-made Maldivian businessman, with business interests including resorts, gas, a college and an airline. 

Taken in by the Gayoom household at an early age and elevated to the family’s good graces, Qasim made use of his privileged position to loan his Villa business empire staggering amounts of money from the state bank. At the same time he remained resentful of the powers that had lifted him up, conflicting as they did with the ‘islander-made-good’ image he sought to portray.

Under President Gayoom, Qasim held the post of Finance Minister from 2005-08 and oversaw a tripling of expenditure on civil servant salaries and allowances. This was, noted a 2010 internal World Bank report titled ‘Placing the Macro Challenge Facing the Maldives in Context’, “by far the highest increase in compensation over a three year period to government employees of any country in the world”.

Meanwhile a recent audit report of the majority state-owned Bank of Maldives revealed that as of October 31 2008, Qasim’s Villa Group had been loaned MVR481,299,571 (US$37,601,520) — 32.4 percent of the bank’s entire capital. At this time Qasim was a non-executive board member of the Bank of Maldives, as well as head of the Finance Ministry, which had a 51 percent veto over any board decision as well the authority to appoint the bank’s managing director.

He ran for presidency in 2008, missing out on the second round, but turned on Gayoom ahead of the run-off, siding with Nasheed’s MDP. The marriage lasted only days into the new government after whatever was promised to Qasim failed to materialise, and the tycoon settled into opposition.

Perhaps oddly for a resort tycoon catering to the high-end needs of the world’s wealthy, he found a niche as a religious agitator, calling for a “jihad” to protect Maldivian society from “Nasheed’s antics”, and extended his patronage network to include the local rent-a-sheikhs in the Islamist Adhaalath party. 

With his backing, the Adhaalath Party managed to derail legislation proposed by the Nasheed government that would have phased out the Dubai-like liquor licensing system for expatriates but allowed the sale of alcohol at hotels on inhabited islands. Following a wave of public uproar orchestrated by the party, alcohol was effectively banned across the country. All but resorts on uninhabited islands complied as the Nasheed government quailed in fear of religious censure.

Meanwhile the black market price for a 1.25 litre bottle of vodka in Male rocketed up from MVR 700 (US$45) to MVR 2000 (US$130). The same bottle that cost resorts US$6 to import could effectively be sold at a 2100 percent mark-up — a margin greater than most hard drugs, and legal inside resort compounds.

Customs records for 2011 showed Qasim’s Villa Hotels chain – including the RoyalParadiseSun, and Holiday Island resorts — imported approximately 121,234.51 litres of beer, 2048 litres of whisky, 3684 litres of vodka and 219.96 kilograms of pork sausages, among other commodities restricted to islands classified as ‘uninhabited’. These quantities are substantially larger than those at resorts with comparable bed counts, and showcase Qasim as one of the country’s single largest importers of ‘haram’ commodities. Not that this bothered the sheikhs in his employ.

Qasim’s presidential ambitions, though, ended with November’s revote, which saw him place third, in spite of spending a reported US$40 million (almost US$200 per eligible voter) on his campaign.

In the aftermath of the 9 November poll Yameen refused to sign the voter registry, blocking the run-off from proceeding until Qasim’s endorsement was secured. The vote took place on 16 November, just two days after Gayoom visited Qasim and allegedly promised him a share of the government should Yameen win. Urged to vote PPM for the “safety of the Ummah”, Qasim’s supporters compliantly voted for Yameen, ensuring the PPM candidate’s victory.

Pyrrhic victoryPerhaps one reason for Yameen’s apparent despondency on assuming the presidency was the realisation that he had inherited a dire economic situation, one largely the making of the Broad Coalition which came to power following the ousting of President Nasheed in 2012. For a time the PPM had been a part of the coalition, and upon assuming power Yameen took a pay cut and promised to slash the salaries of political appointees. Such measures are, however, a band-aid solution for the fundamental structural problems in the Maldivian economy.

Chief among these is Qasim’s legacy of boosting civil service expenditure by 400 percent under Gayoom to buy support ahead of the 2008 election. Yameen and Qasim while in opposition also thwarted Nasheed’s efforts to comply with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s instructions to reduce the huge recurrent expenditure of the civil service, instead turning much needed austerity measures into a toxic political football no government wanted to handle.

President Mohamed Waheed — who succeeded Nasheed following the 2012 coup — went as far as issuing accumulated back pay to all civil servants who had had their pay cut under Nasheed. Successive governments have continued to take out loans to pay the exorbitant wage bill, placing state debt at MVR 30 billion (US$1.9 billion), approximately 78 percent of GDP. Re-appointed Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad has complained that the foreign banks still giving credit to the Maldives now refuse to do so at less than 11 percent interest, while the domestic appetite for treasury bills has all but evaporated.

Despite rising arrival figures, the all-important tourism revenue flatlined, declining by 0.1 percent in 2012 despite 9.2 percent growth in 2011 and 15.8 percent growth in 2010. “The main reason for this was the political turmoil the country faced in February 2012 and the decline in the number of days tourists spent in the country,” explained the Finance Ministry.

Yameen himself meanwhile revealed to the public that the State Trading Organisation (STO), the country’s primary wholesaler, was bankrupt and unable to pay suppliers without a government bailout. The STO imports the vast majority of the Maldives’ oil, needed by fishing and transport vessels, diesel generators, air-conditioners and water desalination plants. In early November, its then managing director Shahid Ali warned that the country was coming dangerously close to running out of oil, as the STO still owed US$20 million to its suppliers and could not pay. This was in spite of being owed almost US$40 million by government-owned companies and an appeal made to the central bank for foreign currency reserves to bail out the organisation. The state itself was on the verge of having to print money, according to central bank governor Fazeel Najeeb.

The tourism industry operates a dollar economy, which though is technically illegal under Maldivian financial regulations, has protected resort businesses from the country’s financial woes through reducing exposure to the local rufiyaa. Despite this, the tourism industry — indirectly responsible for up to 70 percent of the country’s GDP and up to 90 percent of its foreign exchange — cannot import oil and other vital commodities independently and therefore is vulnerable to disruptions in the supply of oil and gas.

In June 2013, restaurants in Male temporarily closed or served limited menus after disruptions to the supply of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). The general manager of one property said at the time that the LPG shortage had created a “food and beverage nightmare”.

Another impending burden is the US$1.4 billion compensation claim filed in a Singapore arbitration court by Indian infrastructure developer GMR — a sum eclipsing the annual state budget.

GMR had won a 25-year US$511 million World Bank-monitored bid under Nasheed’s government to upgrade and manage Male’s international airport, a project which by the state’s own estimate would have doubled revenue from the airport while improving the quality of service.

However, Yameen and other opposition parties declared the agreement an affront to Maldivian sovereignty, and successfully sabotaged financial aspects of the deal in the Civil Court. Inheriting the debacle following the 2012 coup, the former opposition parties now in government refused political compromise and declared GMR’s contract ‘void ab initio’, or ‘invalid from the outset’. This tenuous argument, supported by vested Maldivian interests in areas such as fuel and duty free that had been displaced by the developer, was followed by a notice of eviction ordering GMR out of the country within seven days.

The government has variously sought to shift the asset to a new government-owned company, and disperse it in a hasty public offering about which little has been published. Should the case be concluded in GMR’s favour, as appears likely sometime in mid 2014 — the Maldivian state will be hit with a compensation claim more than four times the size of its current US$300-odd million foreign currency reserve. 

Whatever the cause — compensation claim or corruption — manifold sovereign default in an island nation 100 percent dependent on oil imports for its very survival, at a time when international empathy for the government is at an all-time low and foreign investors are nervously eyeing their assets, would be a fatal blow for any government.

A country such as the Maldives is ultimately ruled by its economy, not by the pageantry of small island politics. Given the state of the former, no wonder the only person celebrating on 16 November was an old man with a microphone and a dynasty. 

~ JJ Robinson is the Editor of Minivan News, the Maldives’ primary independent English-language outlet. He is currently writing a book about his four years behind the scenes in ‘paradise’.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian