An Uncertain Political Wave
As the Maldives faces severe environmental and terrorism concerns, its political parties race to put their act together.
On September 5, 2008, former President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, quit the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), thereby resigning from his post as Honorary Leader. This event occurred less than two years after Gayoom announced that he was stepping down as leader of the DRP and would not be contesting the 2013 presidential elections. Since March, the former president has publicly voiced his differences with the DRP on various occasions. The controversial dismissal of the DRP’S Deputy Leader, Umar Naseer, in April led to the formation of a faction named ZDRP. The news that Gayoom is forming a new political party and may run for office in the 2013 presidential elections is surprising. Given that many of Z-DRP’S officers resigned with Gayoom, it seems that this new party is essentially Z-DRP without any ties to Thasmeen Ali’s DRP.
Gayoom’s tenure as president, which spanned thirty years (the longest for any Asian head of state), was largely considered autocratic and oppressive by the international community. It was only after intense pressure and domestic rioting that the Maldives saw increasing political liberalization. In 2005, the ban on political parties was lifted while in 2007 a constitutional referendum reformed the election process from parliamentary nomination to direct voting by the public; a change that eventually led to Gayoom’s narrow defeat in the October ‘08 presidential elections by the incumbent president Mohamed Nasheed. Some saw this as the overthrowing of a dictator. Others saw it as the end of a golden age that established the Maldives as a tourist economy.
In a press conference on September 4, Gayoom declared that he was forming the party to achieve “very important” national purposes such as strengthening Islam in the country. It is interesting that he played the “Islam Card” at a time when the Maldives is experiencing militant Islamic behavior in retaliation to the alleged imposition of Western ideals on Maldivian society. Gayoom is aligning himself with the more hardline, Islam-centric political parties of the Maldives. If Gayoom and such parties form a coalition and succeed to win the elections, the Maldives may face a transformation similar to Pakistan during and after the Zia era.
It also remains unclear as to how popular Gayoom still remains and whether the public will receive him well if he chooses to run for office. “Maumoon won’t be able to gather as many members as he expects and I feel that he won’t get the support he expects either,” President Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair predicted. As it is, if the DRP and Gayoom’s newly formed party begin to clash and bicker, voters may turn to the safer option of voting for the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) and re-electing President Nasheed for a second term.
Assuming Gayoom does regain power, it is difficult to say that he would be equipped to handle the country in such trying times. Although it is true that under him, the Maldives transformed from an unknown archipelago to a world-renowned tourist destination but the crises that afflict the Maldives today may be outside his experience as they are vastly different or more pronounced than in years gone by. It is only recently that people have become attuned to the potential consequences of rapid climate change. Consisting of some of the Earth’s lowest lying lands - its highest point is just 2.4 meters above the ocean’s surface - the Maldives is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and may be completely submerged within the next hundred years. Terrorism is also a recent concern for this tiny island nation. As with most of South Asia, militant fundamentalism is clashing head-on with the established liberal ideals of the former British protectorate.
Gayoom’s return to active politics has only just begun and it is still unclear how serious the 83-year old is about re-entering the political arena. It remains to be seen whether his new party, which has not even been named yet, will prove to be a serious contestant in 2013. The writer is currently studying at Columbia University where he is majoring in political science with a focus on international relations.
Can Gayoom rally support in time?