Shaky start

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It has been a tough first fortnight for the new Maldivian government and its institutions and the script is straight out of a third world democracy, which centres around undoing a lot of what the predecessor did. It was marked by seemingly endless deliberations with allies, who helped the ruling combine come to power, to agree on the essentials of negating or reversing many of the decisions of the former government. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih finished work on Day 1 around 2 a.m. The task included working towards overturning politically motivated criminal charges slapped on opposition leaders, setting up committees to probe corruption charges against the outgoing regime’s top leaders, and setting up mechanisms to fulfil the promises made to the people.

The Maldivian courts have had their hands full soon after Solih was sworn in on November 17. With almost all leaders of the opposition facing one terror charge or the other, the courts acted swiftly and dismissed the largely baseless cases. Among the priorities was getting the terror convictions of former President Mohamed Nasheed and the new Home Minister, Sheikh Imran, overturned. This was accomplished. Many others who were held under terrorism charges were also discharged, among them Saud Hussain, a Member of Parliament, and former prosecutor-general Muhthaz Muhsin. Muhsin was rather bizarrely charged with trying to kidnap former President Abdulla Yameen.

“It’s pleasing to see my conviction quashed,” Nasheed said after the judgment was pronounced. “The trial, conviction and sentencing were a farce, and blatantly politically motivated. Everybody in the Maldives is happy to see the back of President Yameen’s rotten regime, and the Kafkaesque show trials the President was so partial to,” he added.

Focus on development

Even as the perceived wrongs are set right, Ministers and senior leaders said they were focussed on implementing the development agenda in the manner that the coalition has promised. Support from India is key to fulfilling these promises, in the light of budgetary constraints that the Maldives faces.

“Despite the bleak financial situation that our country has been plunged into, my resolution to maintain the continuity of services for my people remains firm,” Solih announced in his address at the National Stadium in Dhivehi soon after the inauguration, which was watched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and representatives of over 40 countries. “To achieve this challenging goal, we need the support and assistance of foreign countries and international organisations,” he added.

The shift in geopolitical alignment was evident even before the Maldives President was sworn in. Solih ignored China in his speech and firmly announced the intention that his country had changed course. India was the only country he mentioned in his speech.

“We will endeavour to fortify the existing ties the Maldives has had with India and other regional countries. The Maldives will hereupon bolster its shared role to retain enduring peace and harmony of the Indian Ocean. Let me take this opportunity to emphasise that the Maldives is open and willing to establish diplomatic relations, and strengthen existing ties, with all countries that wish to form mutually beneficial development partnerships,” he said.

Although India has close historical and civilisational ties with the people of the Maldives, China has forged deep economic ties with the nation of 1,200 islands. “India promises, but the delivery takes forever,” said a senior Maldivian politician who did not want to be named. “You can’t take 10 years to build a police training school… see how quickly the Chinese projects have come up,” he added.

In his view, shared by many Maldivian politicians, India’s decision-making process is slow, and execution of projects slower. In the Maldives, the government had been asking for an upgradation of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGH) for over a decade. A decision on this was extremely slow in coming, and after Yameen came to power, he simply called in China to do the job. China has completed the shell of the 25-storey building that now towers over the IGH. The problem is one of inflated costs. According to the Maldivian Democratic Party, this is the biggest problem in all Chinese projects in the Maldives.

Handling China

Even as geostrategists and analysts speculated on how the new government will work with China, a representative of the new government met a Chinese government official of the rank of Vice Minister in Beijing and expressed the misgivings that the Maldives had on Chinese projects. “The Chinese President does not tolerate corruption in his country. We request him to ensure that the corrupt here are also brought to justice,” said a source who was aware of the meeting.

Regardless of whether the corrupt are brought to book, for now the Maldivians in the capital Male, who constitute about 40 per cent of the population of the country, are enjoying the Chinese-built road that links Male with Hulhumale island.

It was past midnight on November 19, but the multitude of two-wheelers that whizzed on the Maldives-China Friendship Bridge that connects Male with the airport island of Hulhule and the residential island of Hulhumale showed no signs of reducing. The same scene repeated each day that this correspondent spent in Male.

“It’s awesome,” said a rider as he halted at the traffic lights leading to the airport. “We had nothing like this,” he added. Many two-wheeler riders shared his enthusiasm and articulated as much at different places. Until now, a bike ride from Male to Hulhumale meant getting on to a boat at the Male ferry with the bike in tow, alighting at Hulhumale, and then riding around.

Although most of the ruling coalition leaders are not using the bridge yet, Modi travelled on it when he arrived to attend the swearing-in of the Maldivian President. A few expatriates in the Maldives consider this approach of the ruling combine too rigid. Expatriates from India and Sri Lanka who spoke to this correspondent agreed that the bridge was comfortable and useful. In their view, if there was corruption, it should be probed and the guilty punished.

But such pragmatic decisions cannot be made when the issue at hand is managing an unwieldy coalition. The Maldivian government, run by an uneasy coalition, leans too much on the superhuman patience and related qualities of President Solih, who is also hemmed in from all four sides by the heads of political parties.

Coalition problems

Trouble began for the government a few hours after the swearing-in of the new President. Among the Ministers is a housewife with no experience of public office, a convict whose sentence had been suspended (and subsequently overturned) and another with “conflict of interest” written all over him.

The Minister for Transport and Civil Aviation is Aishath Nahula, whose main qualification is that she is the wife of Gasim Ibrahim, the business tycoon who heads the Jumhooree Party (JP) and is also the Parliament Speaker. According to a local media outlet called Raajje.mv, she was elected to the national executive council of the party in June 2018.

The Adaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison, is the Home Minister. His sentence was suspended after the change of guard and he was made a Minister. A prominent Maldivian jurist had raised questions about the propriety of appointing such a person to a high office. His reasoning was that Abdulla could have been inducted after his formal acquittal. (He was later acquitted.)

The third is the appointment of Ali Waheed as Tourism Minister. A former chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party, Waheed recently moved to the JP.

Gasim Ibrahim has extensive tourism interests in the country and this was another glaring conflict of interest.

“How can there be clean government when conflict of interest is not factored in? Ali Waheed as Tourism Minister and Gasim’s wife Nahula as Transport Minister. Totally unacceptable. Could have done better,” said Karusathu Mohamed Ahmed, who comments on public policy issues on the Maldives, on Twitter on November 17.

The new government will have to work at the same pace it set for itself on Day 1 in office because handling the coalition, delivering development as promised and managing relations with India and China are full-time jobs in themselves. As Solih embarks on his first overseas visit to India on December 17, he will expect more than promises from New Delhi on the host of issues he faces. A successful trip is key to the Maldives firmly remaining in India’s corner.

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