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An abridged look at President Yameen's defeat

Mariyam Malsa
30 September 2018, MVT 17:28
Incumbent President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, set to step out of office on November 17
Mariyam Malsa
30 September 2018, MVT 17:28

Analysing the series of events leading up to a surprising, but perhaps not entirely unexpected, failure of the outgoing president's bid for re-election.

The truth of the matter is that Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom will be remembered in history as a leader who brought about momentous change to the country. Even his political opponents cannot, in all honesty, deny the considerable progress that was achieved during his tenure in power. Concrete proof of this development is quite literally visible in the form of bridges, airports and harbours across the entire nation.

Despite the headway achieved, it was Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the opposition's presidential candidate that won the 2018 election.

In what came as a surprise to many, the incumbent president failed to achieve a majority even in locations such as Kulhudhufushi, Haa Dhaal Atoll and the islands of Laamu Atoll, where multi-million Rufiyaa projects had been initiated and completed.

Solih won the presidential election with 58.4 percent of the ballots cast, which represents a staggering lead of over 38,000 votes.

Such a dramatic difference was not seen even in the 2008 election when Mohamed Nasheed won over Asia’s longest serving autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Indeed the first democratically elected president prevailed over a 30-year regime with just 15,000 votes.

The presidential election of 2018 is, therefore, the most decisive electoral victory in the brief democratic history of the Maldives.

Only one glaring question remains.

Why did President Yameen suffer such a shocking defeat when he had instigated such progress?

The reason why President Yameen's grand vision of a self-sufficient and highly developed nation was rejected, lies with the average Maldivian.

Development was the cornerstone of the incumbent presidents’ re-election campaign. The Dhivehi term for development, ‘tharahgee’, was used in virtually every speech and repeated during every rally held by the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Despite this, development failed to remain the most prominent aspect of the five year regime for most Maldivians.

What lies behind ‘thatched’ doors

The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company (MMPRC) scandal of 2015 is, by far, the most colossal case of corruption on record in the Maldives. However, this appalling case, in which the then Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb was accused of personal involvement in the embezzlement of MVR 1.2 billion, did not directly impact the lives of ordinary people.

What it did do was deliver a fatal blow to the already deteriorating faith of the people in the governmental integrity. Despite the lack of official investigations conducted regarding the issue, corruption had become an everyday fact of life.

For instance, many claimed that connections were more important than credentials when being considered for a public sector job. According to them, friends and family members of top officials were often favoured for employment and this was only a minor example of an extensive problem.

The demography of Maldives must be taken into consideration in order to understand the role corruption played in President Yameen's unpopularity.

The population consists of close-knit island societies on one hand and the concentration of a massive number of people on the other. The capital city Male’, an island of only three square kilometres, hosts one-third of the entire population. This fostered an environment where compelling and personal stories of corruption were rampant, in a city where secrets are nearly impossible to keep.

By the end of President Yameen’s five-year term, faith in both government institutions and the justice system had been destroyed. Appealing to the justice system to right these wrongs was believed to be futile.

The return to oppression

Political repression predated the current administration by several decades. Maldivians have been denied the right to free speech, assembly and several other fundamental freedoms for a very long time.

The first ever democratic, multi-party election in 2008, ushered in an era of considerable freedom. To many it seemed that the tight fist of the government had finally loosened and in comparison, the presidency of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom seemed akin to a return to political repression.

President Yameen has been heavily criticized for the severe clampdown on media freedom and activities of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the single largest opposition party during the past five years.

In addition to claiming credit for the removal of 12 lawmakers from the parliament, President Yameen publicly stated that he had ensured that former president Mohamed Nasheed and founder of Jumhooree Party could not contest in the 2018 presidential election.

"Why should Ibu (Solih) thank me? Because I did not allow Nasheed to contest. I did not allow Qasim to contest. These two candidates (Solih and his running mate Faisal Naseem) received the ticket because of these circumstances"

Suffice to say some people did not react well to having hard-earned freedoms stripped away, especially the section of the population that had grown up in a democratic Maldives, the youth.

"These are all accusations and none of them have been proven"

The government stance regarding several high profile issues it had come under heavy criticism, can be summed up in a statement delivered by Ali Arif, the parliamentarian for the constituency of Kelaa.

"These are all accusations and none of them have been proven."

President Yameen continued to deny any involvement in any crimes, maintaining that he had ruled within the boundaries of the constitution, even noting so in the public address he delivered the day following the election.

In the presidential debate hosted by Maldives National University, the president expressed reluctance to confirm that violent gangs operated in the Maldives.

Yet gang violence has been a steadily worsening social issue for years with several stabbings and assaults occurring in the capital this year alone.

In fact, the debate took place in the wake of the murder of an 18-year-old man, stabbed less than 100 feet away from the national police headquarters. One may contemplate on the irony of the fact that the last thing the youth saw before he bled out was the country's flag.

A fleeting idea of development

The lack of access to basic facilities, such as healthcare, employment and education, is an enormous problem that has been plaguing many atolls for decades.

Did President Yameen's model of development solve this problem?

To a certain extent, yes.

However, many have expressed discontent that major development projects such as numerous airports and the iconic Sinamale bridge were a waste of funds that could have been utilised to ensure fresh water supplies, improve medical facilities or other vital services to atolls that had been in need for several years, particularly post the 2004 tsunami.

At the end of a five-year term, there are still numerous complaints of medical malpractice at state-funded hospitals, staggeringly high rates of rent in Malé and stricter criteria for government scholarships.

All evidence pointing towards the fact that for the average Maldivian, the standard of living has clearly not improved by much.

An emancipation of the people

President Yameen's refusal to meet demands for justice and fundamental human rights served as a critical factor contributing to his electoral defeat.

On 23rd September Maldivians used their electoral rights to voice opinions that had been repressed for five years. The rise in the voter turnout also seems to suggest that those who were previously apathetic, had found it necessary to cast their vote and hope to be heard.

This was perhaps the reason why such some voters, specifically those registered in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, demonstrated such fervour and willingly waited in queues for multiple hours. To exercise their right to say 'no'.

A precedent for future presidents

The five-year presidency of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has left critical lessons in the pages of our short democratic history.

In all likelihood, attaining macroeconomic prosperity will remain a high priority for future leaders. Despite this the importance of due process and civil liberties must not be underestimated.

Future presidents must understand that the Maldivian people have had their taste of freedom and will no longer tolerate injustice in silence.