After months of uncertainty and speculation, Maldives seems set to witness a historic attempt at overthrowing the government led by President Abdulla Yameen in the coming days.
The Maldives United Opposition, a coalition of major opposition parties in the country that leads the attempt, said that the incumbent president has isolated himself with his authoritarian style of leadership. “By our calculations, this is the time,” said its spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, referring to an imminent transition of government.
The revelation came soon after former President Mohamed Nasheed flew to Sri Lanka on Friday, ostensibly to take part in “an important sit-down over the present crisis in the Maldives”. He was accompanied by former vice President and leader of the Maldives United Opposition, Dr Mohamed Jameel, and his party chief Ali Waheed. The three had secured asylum in the United Kingdom in May after being politically persecuted by the Yameen-led government.
Nasheed, who had been living in exile in the United Kingdom since January, formed the MUO in June this year with the explicit aim of “restoring democracy in the archipelago”.
Ghafoor said that the coalition is keen to capitalise on the rifts within the government. Yameen has reportedly fallen out with his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who led the country for 30 years till 2008 and continues to be an influential figure in the Maldives. Gayoom is believed to be in Singapore, purportedly on a “personal visit”, and engaged in a dialogue with the MUO.
“There is now a breakaway faction that has formed within the ruling party,” said Ghafoor. “For the MUO, it is obviously a good news,”. Reports emerged on Sunday that Gayoom’s entire family had flown abroad and will be later joining him in Singapore. The move is being read as a means to escape persecution if the MUO fails in its attempt to change the government.
A legitimate threat?
After being elected in 2013, the political climate in the Maldives has been increasingly hostile. The ruling party has seen three vice presidents, resignation or sacking of over 20 ministers and a series of politically motivated trials to eliminate the opposition, including the jailing of Nasheed.
In the meantime, there has been a crackdown on those who viewed the government unfavourably. The past year has seen media groups being forced to shut down, people arrested for tweeting, street protests banned in the capital and a law to make defamation a criminal offence.
“The news of the whole leadership converging next door in Colombo is ruffling feathers,” Ghafoor said. “The government is now falsely accusing us of planning a coup,” he said, adding that the opposition sought to ensure that the transition was through legal means.
According to the Maldivian constitution, a President can be replaced if he resigns or is arrested or an impeachment motion is passed by the Parliament. MPs loyal to the president have repeatedly stated that resignation was not under consideration by their leader.
The opposition has been attempting to file a criminal charge over the government misappropriating over $80 million received over tourist island leases. In an article published in The New York Times on Sunday, Nasheed was quoted to have made fresh allegations against the president, accusing him of selling oil to Myanmar’s military government through a state-owned company more than a decade ago.
Meanwhile, the MUO is said to be simultaneously engaging with the ruling party MPs to consider impeachment proceedings. “With the Parliament in recess, there’s a lot of horse-trading going on with the MPs,” said Ghafoor.
Government is unfazed
The government, however, dismissed the idea that the opposition posed any legitimate threat to its position.
“We are aware of the opposition’s claims of the so-called ‘legal removal’ of the President,” said Ibrahim Shihab, international spokesperson at the President’s office. "The recent reports about a plot to change the government is only in line with their approach. But we are not facing any imminent threat to its stability."
Maldives has traditionally been a close ally of India and has repeatedly stated an “India-first” approach in its foreign policy. In 1988, India had sent military assistance at the request of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom after a group of mercenaries from Sri Lanka conspired to overthrow the government.
In a recent visit to India, the MUO leaders claim to have had closed-door meetings with representatives from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Earlier this month, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj met with her Maldivian counterpart and reportedly had discussions about the peace and security in the Indian Ocean region. In spite of its involvement, India hasn’t explicitly stated its position on the prospect of a regime change. When contacted, Akhilesh Mishra, the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, said that he didn’t want to comment on the matter.
“We have seen the democracy turning sharply into a dictatorship. We then have watched the government tripping on its own and falling,” said Ghafoor. “At this point, we are upbeat.”