On February 7, 2012, a group of rogue Maldivian police and army personnel cornered their president, Mohamed Nasheed, at the army headquarters. He was guilty of corruption and had compromised the constitution and their religion, they alleged, and demanded that he step down immediately. Seeing little scope for a peaceful resolution, army generals advised Nasheed to throw open the armoury. “But the president was resolute that there be no bloodshed under his watch,” recalled Ahmed Naseem, who was foreign minister at the time.

Instead, Nasheed resigned.

Nasheed’s elected successor, Abdulla Yameen, has grappled with similar allegations of compromising the constitution, of becoming increasingly authoritarian, of fostering religious extremism and being involved in a $80-million corruption scandal. On February 4, it emerged that the country’s Supreme Court was planning to rule favourably on a petition to impeach Yameen. The president’s loyalists immediately swung into action. The attorney general and the police and army chiefs declared they would not comply with such a verdict. The speaker of the parliament indefinitely cancelled the session that was scheduled to start the next day. Riot police dispersed an anti-government rally with pepper sprays and tear gas.

Finally, in a televised address on Monday evening, the law minister declared a state of emergency for the next 15 days, the country’s second in three years. The armed forces now have sweeping powers to detain and arrest suspects and crucial constitutional provisions, including those that provide for impeaching the president, stand suspended.

Thus began the latest chapter in the story of Maldives oscillating between democracy and dictatorship. Which side the pendulum swings is generally determined by how far the elected leaders are willing to cling on to power. Yameen, his party’s leader in the parliament Ahmed Nihan has declared, will not back down “even if he is shot at with live rounds”.

Genesis of the crisis

In the past three years, the opposition led by Nasheed has made at least eight failed attempts at regime change, overtly and covertly. In retaliation, most of its leaders have been imprisoned or, like Nasheed, forced to go into exile. Yameen has also populated the police, military, judiciary and even independent institutions such as the Elections Commission with his loyalists, although this has only served to consolidate the opposition. In June 2016, the disparate opposition groups formed the Maldives United Opposition with the explicit purpose of restoring democracy by removing Yameen.

The united opposition tasted its first major success last February when it joined forces with Yameen’s half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The 78-year-old former president, who remains an influential figure in Maldivian politics, facilitated an alliance with some ruling party members for the opposition to get a parliamentary majority – essential for launching impeachment proceedings. However, two such attempts in 2017 failed. In the meantime, the Elections Commission, through an inaccurate interpretation of a Supreme Court order on defection, stripped 12 MPs of the ruling party of their seats.

“The government took advantage of the SC order,” said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, the spokesperson for the Maldives United Opposition. “This compromised the authority of the Supreme Court. I’m sure they didn’t appreciate that.”

On January 27, the president ordered the arrest of Faris Maumoon, son of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for plotting to overthrow the government, just days after being released from six months in police custody. The next day, the united opposition petitioned the Supreme Court to temporarily remove Yameen from the presidency for corruption and theft. On January 31, they filed another petition for reinstating the 12 MPs.

Few expected the petitions would amount to much. The opposition, said Transparency International’s Mariyam Shiuna, was “clutching at straws”. After all, the Maldives has been repeatedly criticised for its politicised and ineffectual judiciary. Under Yameen’s rule, the Supreme Court had granted itself several extra-constitutional powers, including the powers to choose head of the judicial regulatory body; transfer, appoint, certify and dismiss judges and lawyers; authorise no-confidence motions passed in the parliament. In a Commonwealth review last year, Henry Mutunga, former chief justice of Kenya, recommended a “root and branch judicial reform” in the Maldives.

An unexpected ruling

On February 1, however, the Supreme Court, after uncharacteristically criticising the government, ordered that the 12 MPs be reinstated. It also acknowledged the opposition’s allegations of politically-motivated sentencing, violation of human rights and lack of due processes in the trials of politicians. More bafflingly, the same bench of five judges which had dismissed a petition filed by Nasheed in 2015 alleging procedural irregularities by a criminal court that had sentenced him to 13 years in prison, ordered his release and that of eight other politicians on those very grounds.

As the international community – including India, the United States, United Kingdom and United Nations – chimed in to support of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the government shifted into damage control mode. Yameen fired two police chiefs within 48 hours without specifying the reasons. The attorney general, in a press conference on February 2, said the administration was “concerned with the SC ruling”. Two days later, he called another press conference, where, flanked by the army and police chiefs, he declared the Supreme Court’s rumoured plan to greenlight Yameen’s impeachment “illegal and unconstitutional”. By now, the election commissioner, coordinator of the Islamic affairs ministry, parliamentary secretary and a junior health minister had resigned, some for “personal reasons”, others in protest.

It is unclear what prompted the change of heart at the Supreme Court. While some speculate it may have been the result of negotiations with the opposition’s leadership, Ghafoor said it was a means of self-preservation in the year of the presidential election.

“I think the judges have fallen out with [Yameen],” he said. “President Yameen isn’t smart, only arrogant. I think the judges want to come out of this. They want to live in the Maldives. They might not have a job after but they want a decent life.”

Ibrahim Riffath, former solicitor general who was one of the petitioners, was guarded in his response. “I believe the SC has finally realised that there was political influence,” he said. “That’s clearly mentioned in the court order. It took them a while to realise it but they did.”

There’s finally hope’

By February 5, the government and the Supreme Court were locked in a slugfest. The previous day, the police had attempted to arrest the chief judicial administrator – an officer under the Supreme Court who oversees all administrative matters of the judiciary – only to find the apex court had quashed its warrant. The court also dismissed the attorney general’s “concerns” and said the government was free to try the politicians afresh. Some ruling party MPs then claimed Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed’s signature on the order was forged, but the British ambassador to the Maldives declared that Saeed had confirmed the authenticity of his signature to him.

Meanwhile, the opposition has intensified its call for “international intervention”, especially by India. It would be in India’s interest, the opposition has argued, given that Yameen has been cosying up to China, signing a Free Trade Agreement and joining the Maritime Silk Road last December despite maintaining an overt India-first policy. On February 5, The Times of India reported that an unnamed judge of the Supreme Court of Maldives too had beseeched India for help.

“The simple explanation for the current crisis in the Maldives is that the president has lost control,” said Shahinda Ismail, executive director of the Maldives Democracy Network. “He’s a runaway dictator now. For five years, we had the same routine: people protested, police dispersed them and that was the end of the day. Since 2013, the government and the judiciary have worked hand in hand. The only way to change it was a change of power. Now there’s finally hope.”