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240,000 Letters

Mohamed Nasheed’s Campaign to Restore Democracy to the Maldives

by JOHN FORAN AND SUMMER GRAY

A visiting foreign journalist asked me two days ago if Nasheed can inspire people. Apparently, [former dictator] Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has expressed the opinion that Nasheed cannot be a proper leader because he cannot do so. To be inspired by Nasheed you have to see him at work, and see the commitment he brings to the cause.
— Azra Naseem, “Ten Minutes with Nasheed

In a time when politics as usual is leading the world deeper into crisis, the Maldivian activist-president Mohamed Nasheed emerges as a welcome alternative to the status quo. He fearlessly champions a better world and leads through actions that, as one supporter writes, “inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more.”

Since the February 2012 coup, Nasheed has made every humanly possible effort to restore democracy to the Maldives. He has visited every inhabited island, walked every street of the labyrinthine capital city of Malé, and knocked on every door. Although a small country, the Maldives is made up of nearly 1,200 islands, its people scattered across 50,000 square miles of sea. It took over 500 days for Nasheed to cover all of this ground and to meet the people face-to-face. In the days leading up to the first round of elections, he sent over 240,000 hand-signed letters to the eligible voters of the Maldives.

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Now Nasheed faces yet another uphill battle as the second round run-off for the election of Maldives’ next president is set to take place on Saturday, September 28, in a swirl of controversy and attempts to derail the Maldives’ fragile experiment in democracy. The Maldives, besieged by a lingering dictatorship, has become a testing ground for democracy. Nasheed stands at the forefront of a democratic revolution, not only for the Maldives, but for the climate justice movement as well. Should Nasheed and the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) prevail, perhaps there is hope for the rest of us.

Not Just Another Paradise

The Maldives emerged from eight centuries of Islamic rule under a Sultan in the mid-1950s into a republic, and in 1965 extracted itself from British tutelage as a Protectorate, only to fall into the clutches of a vicious dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who held power from 1978 to 2008. Gayoom styled himself president, head of the judiciary, and highest religious authority in the country, “winning” six elections in a row for the Maldivian People’s Party without an opposition candidate. As The Economist colorfully put it: “For three decades until 2008 the country was run by Mr Gayoom, an autocratic moderniser who made the Maldives the wealthiest corner of South Asia by promoting high-end bikini-and-booze tourism (usually on atolls some distance away from the solidly Muslim local population). He also crushed dissent, let capricious and poorly educated judges make a mockery of the law, and allowed social problems to fester, notably widespread heroin addiction.”

After a series of imprisonments totaling six years (including eighteen months of solitary confinement and other tortures) for protesting the lack of democracy, journalist Mohamed Nasheed returned from exile to win the 2008 elections, the first fair and free direct elections in the history of the Maldives. His administration delivered free healthcare, a national university (Nasheed’s running mate, Dr. Musthafa Luthfy was appointed as the first Chancellor of the Maldives National University), 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 unheard of in the Maldivian context. But on February 7, 2012, he delivered a sudden and unexpected resignation on live television 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, Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, gave the world notice that the coup leaders had no such concern for human rights. Waheed proceeded to dismiss the entire cabinet, named a who’s who of Nasheed’s political opponents to his own cabinet, and sought to put Nasheed on trial.

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On August 30, 2012, the British Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CONI) investigation further surprised the world by finding the transfer of power from Nasheed to his vice president Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik to have been legal. The Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma accepted the Report’s conclusions on the spot, stating “I urge all concerned to respect the findings of the Commission so that, moving forward, all actions and reactions reflect the sense of responsibility and restraint necessary in the best national interest.” The United States and Britain also welcomed the Report, which received the tacit support of much of the international community, and recommended that Nasheed and the MDP turn the corner on the coup and look ahead to the 2013 elections. Two independent legal evaluations of the CONI Report both unequivocally found the Report deficient, however, an assessment with which we agree, having sifted the evidence in some detail elsewhere.

Nasheed was accused of the unconstitutional arrest of an innocent person under Article 81 of the Penal Code, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail. The charge concerned the detention of Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed in January 2012, just before the coup. His government then faced nineteen straight evenings of street protests whipped up by conservatives and Islamists before he went on TV to “resign” his post because he would not order the police to brutalize them. Both MDP supporters and the international community deemed the criminal allegations politically motivated and an obvious attempt to prevent Nasheed from contesting the presidential elections. On March 28, 2013, Azim Zahir, from Transparency Maldives, a local NGO monitoring the elections, warned: “As was seen following the recent arrest of President Nasheed [on October 8, 2012], if he is prevented from running, violence will likely break out distorting the electoral environment if not making it inhospitable for democratic elections.”

On July 18, 2013, under mounting pressure from Transparency Maldives and the international community, the Elections Commission reluctantly accepted Nasheed’s candidacy and the election was on. In a statement to the press, Nasheed said, “we have 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.” Thus began a vigorous campaign aimed at returning to power through the ballot box.

Not Quite in One Round

While the MDP campaigned hard to secure the votes necessary to win in the first round, it was not quite to be. Nasheed won the September 7 vote, receiving 95,224 votes (45.45 percent of the total) in a heavy turnout of 88.4 percent of registered voters. The dictator’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives, edged out billionaire Qasim Ibrahim of Jumhooree, with 53,099 votes (25.35 percent) to 50,422 (24.07 percent), less than 3,000 votes out of 211,890 cast. Sitting president Mohamed Waheed, who had come to power in the coup, suffered a humiliating rebuke with just 10,750 votes (at 5.1 percent, this may have been “the lowest vote received by any sitting president in the world.”). Nasheed won everywhere, but fell short of the outright majority needed to win on the first round, and failing to pull off his campaign slogan “Ehburun” (In One Round), even though in the last week of the campaign MDP supporters were using it to say “Hello” to each other.

The fact that the opposition split three ways was a distinct advantage for the MDP on the first round. But since Nasheed failed to clear the 50 percent hurdle, the likelihood that all his opponents would ask their supporters to vote for the one still in the running on the second round, the most dangerous electoral math for Nasheed’s campaign. The events that followed have been even more dramatic.

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Assaulting Democracy with Hatred and Lies

The opposition’s first tactic was to immediately claim the September 7 vote was fraudulent in some way. There has thus been a delicate dance between the two main opposition candidates and their parties, as the PPM of Gayoom junior, which came in second, has every interest in maintaining their place in the final round, while Qasim’s JP has been screaming bloody murder (almost literally) because they lost to the PPM by just 3,000 votes out of over 200,000 cast. Meanwhile defeated JP candidate Qasim’s supporters in the Islamist Adhaalath Party (which had not run in the election but opportunistically first settled on Waheed, then Qasim, as their vehicle of choice) started nightly rallies on September 9. Adhaalath’s leader, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, claimed that there had been at least 20,000 uncounted votes, and accused the Elections Commission of being afraid to deny Nasheed the victory in one round, while implying that Qasim in fact had come in second:

Did you all see the president of the Elections Commission trembling and crying night before last? Do you know why? … Well, listen…. He had a gun at his head to make sure it ended in one round. There was a gun at his head to make sure it finished in one round. That is why he was trembling and crying… There were thousands of stolen/illegal votes (cast) to make it all end in one round. But … he couldn’t help them end it in one round. There was a gun at his head. He doesn’t know when it will go off, that is why he was crying. The Maldivian public should know about this.… he is crying because in spite of casting thousands of illicit votes, in spite of fraud and cheating he is waiting for a time when the gun will go off.

The metaphorical gun at the head of the Elections Commission in the form of pressure supposedly put on it to deliver a first round victory for Nasheed is dripping with irony in view of the real force exerted on Nasheed to resign from the presidency in February 2012, and transparently cynical as the outcome was not a first round sweep by the MDP.

The week after the election, the JP filed legal papers alleging significant fraud, a case which the Supreme Court, packed with appointees from the days of the dictatorship, has deemed sufficiently serious to investigate. The obvious danger is an annulment of the first round to let Gasim and Waheed participate again, and/or a delay in the scheduling of the second round. Given the provision of observers, trainers, and funding from the United Nations, United Kingdom, European Union, and others, and local efforts by Transparency Maldives, however, these elections were objectively the most transparent ever held in the Maldives. The lawsuit is a blatant attempt to derail the process, and one can only hope that the MDP and the Election Commissioners themselves can make the facts prevail before a court that is tilted against them.

It’s worth taking a quick look at the facts of the case while we wait for a decision. The JP has offered several documents as evidence, most notably a list of 568 people who were dead but still on the roles (144 of these were alleged to have died at last January 1 at midnight), and a list of 172 people whose names appear twice on the electoral roles. Former Attorney General Husnu Al Suood presented the reply of the Electoral Commission, finding that only seven of the 568 “dead voters” were actually on the electoral role, and of these four were very much alive. Of the 172 names alleged to be on the roles twice, it found that each pair of names had different identification numbers or dates of birth, meaning that they were in fact two people with the same name. On such flimsy evidence, the whole country waits, holding its breath to see if the Supreme Court will issue a fair decision.

Should the elections proceed, it is entirely unclear as to whether the two main opposition parties can form a viable coalition, despite their shared determination to prevent a Nasheed win at any cost. Azra Naseem reports: “One individual who left Qasim’s JP shortly after the election to join MDP relayed this story: Former military man Mohamed Fayaz one of the main coup-enablers who put his support behind Qasim, advised him to join Yameen following the election results. What else was there for Qasim to do? Qasim responded with unbridled anger, swore at FA, and told him: ‘I would rather walk into the sea with my wives and children than join Yameen.’”

The PPM, meanwhile, went ahead on its own. At its first rally after September 7, they positioned three large video screens behind the speakers, the word “No!” in huge letters on the middle one, with pictures of Nasheed on either side, his eyes covered by a black band. Songs praising the coup came over the loudspeakers. Indeed, rather ominously, at the end of the rally, the PPM’s vice-presidential candidate Mohamed Jameel Ahmed said “We will not allow Mohamed Nasheed to return to power even if he wins the election.”

The deceitful and hateful nature of the attacks on Nasheed allege his lack of respect for Islam compared with the faith of his opponents. The overall political perspective of Adhaalath and its deep hatred for Nasheed comes across well in Sheikh Abdulla’s remarks:

We began our work three years ago to reform this Nation. With good intentions for this Nation. To save this Nation from Nasheed’s LaaDheenee [secular/atheist / anti-religious) activities and from his actions to eliminate our nationalism. Our work has brought this country thus far…

We, we, came forward to save this Nation from Nasheed’s clutches. On 23 December we came forward to save this Nation from the idols he erected. To save this Nation from the slavery of the Israel flights landing here, to stop selling of alcohol in our inhabited islands, we came forward to stop prostitution in our inhabited islands. That was our stand then and it is our stand today…

Don’t take the wrong meaning of what I say. We are here to save this Nation from Nasheed’s torture, his atheism/anti-religious beliefs, his fraud. If tomorrow, we have to join PPM, we are ready to join PPM. At least, our Party is ready to join…

We know it is our vote that was changed…. I am telling you what I believe. Maldivians, have courage. I am ready to make any sacrifice with my body and my money to bring you Maldivians a happy and prosperous life. We will not give in to anyone.

The Sheikh himself admitted his party’s “Anyone but Nasheed” position, appearances of opportunism be damned: “We joined first with Dr Hassan and Dr Waheed. Second, we came to Honourable Gasim Ibrahim. Third, if we have to join with Yameen, we will join him. But the time will come when we have to do so. We will do it when the time comes, when the time comes.” Behind it all lies the threat of street violence, as preceded the coup: “If the Elections Commission will not give us the opportunity through a peaceful and honest vote, then how will people decide? We don’t want things to go that far…. This is our country. This is the country of our future generations. We are standing firm for the sake of this country. We are standing up with guts. Not one step will we take back, God willing.”

Learning from the People

The tone and character of Nasheed’s campaign, from the beginning till now, accentuate the contrast he presents to his opponents. The nature of the MDP campaign and what makes Nasheed and this movement so special, so beautiful, comes across in its words and deeds. Starting in July, Nasheed’s campaign has been a model of grassroots 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, a detailed campaign platform, openness to the media, and by generating a massive amount of genuine passion and enthusiasm on the ground. “The most valuable lesson he learned from visiting all those houses, he said, is that ‘nothing is small.’ What someone tells him when he visits them may be a story about their gutter, their roof, or their sewerage pipe. They may seem trivial, but it is these stories that help reveal the big picture.” 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 campaign has spoken with people everywhere. Nasheed’s approach to the problem of the flaws of the justice system is to make sure that the law is carried out and he will resume the reform of the judiciary that obstructed the application of the rule of law and led him into the hands of the coup-makers eighteen months ago.

The MDP’s manifesto has pledged to raise and $4.6 billion in tax revenues over the next five years. Over forty 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.

Before the first round, the campaign reported that it had 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. In the end 95,000 of them turned up at the polls. Many observers feel that the coup and its repressive aftermath have driven previously uncommitted voters into Nasheed’s camp.

September 28

As September 28 — election day (hopefully) – approaches, the main outlines of politics in the Maldives are clear: It is a clash of people power versus money, religion, and violence. The median age in the Maldives is 26 and the MDP’s campaign is by far the most media-savvy, another plus in Nasheed’s column. “Statistics and the smiles of the people” portend victory, Nasheed said before the first round. As MDP spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor put it: “This is a clash between the past and the future and we are the future.”

Without question, September 28 is crucial to the future of the Maldives, yet despite the outcome, one thing looks certain: it will not be the end of the road for the MDP and its extraordinary community built on resiliency and hope, nor will it be the end of attempts to undermine democracy and social reform in the Maldives. This is an epic and consequential struggle, and on election day, the people will choose, if given the opportunity.

It might just be the break that they, and the global fight for climate justice, need.

John Foran is a Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-director of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory (www.iicat.org). You can see more of his work at http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/john-foran

Summer Gray is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Research Associate at the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory (http://www.iicat.org).