Having jailed all his political adversaries and populated key pillars of democracy such as the judiciary and the election commission with his own men, President Yameen has left no stone unturned for his re-election bid. But in doing so, he has crossed a line which will be hard to uncross. He has undermined democracy and the rule of law to such an extent that if he loses the election he is bound to be held accountable for all his illegitimate acts. Even if he were to somehow avoid prosecution on the grounds that he cannot be charged for acts committed in his official capacity as President, he is unlikely to escape the ire of former Presidents and Vice Presidents and others who were at the receiving end of Yameen’s high-handedness. Yameen’s stake in the election, therefore, is higher than what most people imagine.
With the awareness that the public mood is not in his favour, Yameen has embarked upon a comprehensive strategy to ensure that he is not embarrassed come September. He has made sure that the most popular leaders are unable to contest by forcing the rag-tag opposition to unite behind a common candidate who is yet to make his mark on Maldivian politics. Personal ambitions and intra-coalition differences could weaken Ibu Solih’s prospects against an incumbent President who believes all is fair in politics. Yameen is probably banking on the impossibility of bringing the grandmasters of Maldivian politics – , Nasheed and Ibrahim Qasim – on the same page to put their full weight behind Ibu. If rumours are to be believed, he has lines of communication open with all three. With immense leverage upon them, Yameen is in a strong position to bend, if not break, them to keep them from going all out to rally the public against him.
Sops to the public and government officials ahead of elections is a fairly common practice worldwide and Yameen is clever enough to use the carrot and stick effectively. If the opposition believes that it will overwhelm Yameen in the election, it may be in for a surprise. A few thousand votes can make a big difference in a small nation like Maldives. Low cost housing schemes for people and government officials, hospitals, recreational facilities, roads, bridges, airports – these are all manifestations of effective governance and won’t go unnoticed by people. Failure to uphold the constitution, violation of rule of law and undermining of democracy – these are less visible to the common man and not planks on which an election can be won. Coupled with a grip over the judiciary and election commission, it is difficult to imagine how Yameen can lose the election. The only thing going for the opposition is the incarceration of popular leaders and it won’t come as a surprise if and his son are released before the election to neutralize the sympathy for them.
The challenge for the opposition, therefore, is immense. It has decided to take on Yameen with full knowledge that he will do everything – legitimate and illegitimate – to win the Presidency for he has gone way beyond the point of no return to allow for a level playing field. Can the opposition pull itself together in a truly united manner setting aside parochial ambitions to mount a Tsunami like campaign, for that is what it will take to overwhelm Yameen. Can heavyweights like Nasheed and Qasim Ibrahim risk prison to return to Maldives to turn the tide against Yameen? Do they have the conviction that Yameen can be beaten on his turf? Can they do a Gandhi or a Mandela to stand up for what they believe is right? Ironically, they are also standing at the point of no return – one way or another.