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At the Crossroads: Another Maldives Is Possible

An election confronts Maldivians with an important choice about their leadership and with implications for global climate justice.

It seems like we have lived five hundred years in the last five hundred days, all roads leading back to the past, further and further away from the world at present and what it looks set to become in the days to come. … It can all change in the next week. On 7 September 2013 we will decide whether to stay on this road to the past, or return to the present and back to the future. … The choice is ours to make.

– Azra Naseem, “Election 2013 – where to, people?”

The two-stage elections in the Maldives on September 7 and 28, 2013, are globally significant because they represent a chance for global climate justice leader Mohamed Nasheed to return to power after his ouster in a coup on February 7, 2012. On the line is the very existence of democracy in the Maldives, because until Nasheed’s election in 2008, the country had known only eight and a half centuries rule by sultan, life as a British protectorate between 1887 and 1965 and dictatorship from 1978 to 2008 under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Crusading journalist Mohamed Nasheed was imprisoned under the Gayoom dictatorship and helped found the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) while in exile in 2003. Following the 2004 tsunami, which wiped out 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, Gayoom was forced by international pressure to permit free elections in return for assistance. Nasheed returned to stand as the MDP candidate and ran with the slogan “Aneh Dhivehi Raaje,” which translates into “The Other Maldives.” In Dhivehi, the native language of the Maldives, there is no word for democracy. It wasn’t until the 2008 electoral campaign that a Dhivehi equivalent for the term came into use. Today, the English-language term “democracy” often is used by Nasheed’s supporters synonymously with the Maldivian phrase “Aneh Dhivehi Raaje.”

In 2008, after polling just 25 percent of the vote in the first round to Gayoom’s 40 percent, Nasheed united the opposition parties in the second round to take 54 percent of the vote in the first free and fair elections in the history of the Maldives. Although he never commanded a majority in the Majlis (Maldives’ parliament) in the next two and a half years, Nasheed made good on his promise to improve life conditions, delivering free health care, pensions for the elderly, social housing, improved transportation among the islands and civil liberties such as freedom of expression and security of one’s person – all unheard of in the Maldivian context.

With 1,192 coral islands arrayed in a double chain of 26 atolls, the highest point in the Maldives is 2.4 meters above sea level. It is the lowest-lying country in the world, 80 percent of the land surface lying less than a meter above the ocean waves. In October 2009, Nasheed grabbed the world’s attention by holding a Cabinet meeting underwater, with ministers in scuba gear sitting at a table signing documents calling on all countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions: “We must unite in a world war effort to halt further temperature rises. Climate change is happening, and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth. We have to have a better deal. We should be able to come out with an amicable understanding that everyone survives. If Maldives can’t be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world.” At the historic 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Nasheed announced Maldives’ goal to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country: “For us, swearing off fossil fuels is not only the right thing to do, it is in our economic self-interest. … Pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil; they will capitalize on the new green economy of the future, and they will enhance their moral standing giving them greater political influence on the world stage.” One of us (John) well remembers being in the audience at the alternative People’s Klimaforum when we heard that Nasheed was coming direct from his arrival at the airport to address us, rather than making his way to the Bella Center, where the other presidents and prime ministers were gathering. Young climate activists greeted him on that occasion with a banner that read “You Are Our Global President.” At the talks, he and Minister of Environment Mohamed Aslam carried the banner of the many frontline island nations most threatened by climate change, and their principled stand and frank exchanges stand at the center of Jon Shenk’s masterful 2012 film, The Island President.

The world’s climate justice and global justice communities woke in shock on the morning of February 7, 2012, to the news that Nasheed had “resigned” his presidency with the statement “I don’t want to rule the country with an iron fist. … Considering the situation in the country, I believe great damage might be caused to the people and the country if I remain President. I therefore submit my resignation as President of Maldives.” Within hours, scenes of Nasheed and MDP supporters in the streets of Malé, protesting what they called a coup, and being beaten and arrested by the police and military, now firmly in the hands of his vice president, Dr. Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, gave the world notice that the coup leaders had no such compunction. Waheed proceeded to dismiss the entire Cabinet and named a who’s who of Nasheed’s political opponents to his own Cabinet. The coup government turned the page back to the Gayoom dictatorship’s repressive politics of beatings, imprisonment and torture to brutally discourage the repeated street demonstrations in favor of Nasheed’s return after the coup. This is meticulously documented in a September 2012 Amnesty International Report, “The Other Side of Paradise: A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives,” which concludes “The overall objective of these violent acts has been to silence peaceful government critics and stifle public debate about the current political situation.

At the end of August 2012, a government-appointed Commission of National Inquiry (CONI) published its report on the transfer of power, declaring it constitutional and that Nasheed’s resignation was “voluntary and of his own free will. It was not caused by any illegal coercion or intimidation.” The problems with the report are numerous, and we have documented them elsewhere. The day after the report came out, Nasheed held a news conference, observing: “Now we have a very awkward situation and in many ways very comical, where toppling a government by brutal force is taken as a reasonable course of action … accepted as long as it comes with an ‘appropriate’ narrative. I still believe CONI has set a precedent away from the simplicity of using ballots to change a government. … Peaceful political activity will continue, the CONI report is not the end of the line.” The struggle for the return of democracy now turned to the demand for holding presidential elections, as scheduled, in 2013.

The new regime’s next move was to put Nasheed on trial for arresting Judge Abdulla Mohamed, a Gayoom loyalist who was obstructing the prosecution of members of the dictatorship three weeks before the coup. If found guilty, Nasheed would have been banned from ever participating in elections in the Maldives. On July 18, 2013, with mounting pressure from Transparency Maldives, a local NGO monitoring the elections, and the international community, the Elections Commission reluctantly accepted Nasheed’s candidacy. In a statement to the press, Nasheed said, “Today we submitted the election forms and begin the task of restoring democracy to our country. It has been a slippery slope, but we have come a long way. Despite all the barriers and hurdles that were put in our way, we never gave up.”

Maldives at the Crossroads

Maldives now stands at a crossroads where its people are being asked to choose between Nasheed and Gayoom’s younger brother, Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which emerged out of Gayoom’s old party. The September 7 vote was won by Nasheed, who took 45.5 percent of the vote in a heavy turnout of 88.4 percent of registered voters, judged free and fair by all observers. However, Nasheeed fell short of the outright majority needed to win on the first round (thereby failing to pull off his bold campaign slogan “Ehburun” (In One Round). Abdulla Yameen edged out Qasim Ibrahim of Jumhooree, the wealthiest man in the country, 25.35 percent to 24.07 percent, less than 3,000 votes out of 211,890 cast. Incumbent president Mohamed Waheed suffered a humiliating defeat with just 5.1 percent, “the lowest vote received by any sitting president in the world.” The candidates and their parties are engagingly profiled by one of the most astute political analysts in the Maldives, Dr. Azra Naseem, at her excellent website – Dhivehi Sitee [Maldivian Letter] – Life in the time of coup d’état.

As the maneuvering begins for the second round September 28, 2013, Maldivians – and the climate justice world – must hold their breath.

The elections are, in effect, a popular referendum on the legality of the coup and the candidates’ competing visions for the future of the country. Moreover, the whole process is unfolding in a “political context of crisis of legitimation, uncertainty of democratic transition, existing polarisations and other challenges that have been aggravated by the controversial transfer of power on 7 February 2012.”

Nasheed’s campaign has been a model of grass-roots organizing, literally a “Door to Door” campaign with a thousand volunteers committed to visiting every family in the country. Nasheed himself has touched all the main island groups in well-prepared meetings with the people, generating a massive amount of genuine passion and enthusiasm on the ground. At one campaign stop, a reporter asked a group of women why they like Nasheed: “‘He’s like one of us. He treats us like equals,’ [one woman, Mariyam Nazima] says. Other women … beside us agree. ‘He visits all the houses, rich and poor alike.’ “

The opposition has been attacking the MDP manifesto promise that the state will collect MVR 72 billion [US$4.6 billion] in tax revenues over the next five years. More than 40 percent of these revenues are earmarked for some 137 development projects, to generate 51,000 jobs, build 20,000 housing units, provide aid to single parents and persons with disabilities, and make loans available to students. Nasheed notes:

I am not contesting in the upcoming elections with a handful of empty vows. Our competitors’ pledges are made in a manner where, if coming on to an island the first person they meet asks for a fishing vessel, they promise to deliver fishing vessels for them all. And then say they meet a teacher who asks for an iPad, whereupon they’ll pledge to give iPads to all teachers. The next person in line might say he is not feeling well, whereupon the candidate may vow to deliver a nurse and doctor to each house. This is not how a political party should form its pledges.

The MDP’s campaign is organized around publicizing four main development initiatives: “the beginning of an agri-business; guesthouses in inhabited islands putting tourism industry wealth within reach of all locals for the first time; mariculture business; and the empowered worker initiative.”

The median age in the Maldives is 26, and the MDP’s campaign has been by far the most media-savvy, another plus for the campaign. MDP officials claim that the party has received pledges of votes from 125,000 of the 240,000 eligible voters in its door-to-door canvas, while registering thousands of new voters. Many observers believe that the coup and its repressive aftermath have driven previously uncommitted voters into Nasheed’s camp. “Statistics and the smiles of the people” portend victory, Nasheed says. As MDP spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor put it: “This is a clash between the past and the future, and we are the future.”

All of this bodes well.

For its part, the PPM has criticized Nasheed in the past for taking out international loans, and competing political parties rally around the claim that Nasheed ran the Maldivian economy into the ground. There also remain the self-serving appeals to voters regarding Nasheed’s alleged lack of respect for Islam, compared with the faith of his opponents.

Before the first round, there was a perceived danger that “irregularities” could crop up in the election process. Leaving aside the PPM’s unsuccessful effort to delay the election by claiming, without a hint of irony, that it is not a free and fair process, there remain the unreformed institutions staffed by loyalists of the old regime or in the current administration who will do the policing, conduct and count the vote, and investigate allegations of impropriety such as vote buying. Because of what appears to be sufficient attention from the United Nations, United Kingdom, European Union and other observers, in addition to local efforts by Transparency Maldives, these elections have so far been the most transparent ever held in the Maldives. Two hundred Transparency Maldives election observers were trained in part with funds provided by the United States for the purpose of monitoring these elections and next year’s equally crucial parliamentary ones.

Is an “Other Maldives” Possible?

The stakes are high. This may be Maldivians’ last chance to set out on the path of democracy again. In Chile, the Pinochet dictatorship traumatized a whole generation after the coup that brought him to power. In Egypt, the July coup against democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi has led to a blood-stained military regime. This must not happen in the Maldives. Not only is the future of its people at stake, but the possibilities for a future of global climate justice will be affected by the outcome of this election and the parliamentary elections of 2014.

If Nasheed wins, and he and his former environmental minister Aslam represent the Maldives once again at COP19 UN climate summit in Warsaw in November 2013, the balance of forces now tilted so heavily toward the fossil-fuel corporations and countries, and thus to the climate catastrophe dictated by their business-as-usual attitude, will shift – at least to some degree – back in the direction dictated by science and championed by us, the 99.99 percent. All eyes should be on the Maldives on September 28. Let no one be caught unaware of what’s happening at this epicenter of the struggle for a better world.

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