A recent poll conducted via SMS by the television programme Siyaasathu revealed that some three out of four Maldivians think that the upcoming elections – the first multi-party polls ever to take place in the country, slated for 4 October – will not be free and fair. While this kind of polling should not be taken as a conclusive indicator of public opinion, it is interesting to note that the prevailing fear of vote rigging is a reminder of how Maldivians have become particularly cautious and sceptical in recent years, even as democratic change has loomed on the horizon. As the proposal for an interim government failed and with longtime President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom still at large at the helm, Maldivians can perhaps be forgiven for being a little edgy during this historic run-up. Both the current experience and what lies ahead for the atolls – the elections as well as a new constitution – are all brand new. And there are anxiety levels to show it.
It must be noted that, for a tiny country, a lot of political noise is currently being made in the Maldives. With 12 active political formations, the country is now home to more parties per capita than perhaps any other country of Southasia. As such, campaigning has inevitably risen to a fever pitch, and a few sensible parties have now shifted their rhetoric away from furious finger-pointing at President Gayoom, and instead – finally – begun painting their vision of the country’s future. Indeed, dragging the president through the mud seems now to have been used more as an initial tactic to win the confidence of a public weary of his rule. Understandably, this eventually came to an end – a list of 30 years of failures eventually reaches a point where it becomes dreary. And, as the public’s interest has shifted instead towards the future, so too has the parties’ rhetoric.
There are two types of Maldivians today: those who supported President Gayoom in the past and continue to do so, and those who want change. It must be said that those who continue to support the president do so out of a fervent belief in the man. For the rest, if there ever was a broth spoiled by too many cooks, this certainly seems to be it. First there was the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which disintegrated and left the country with offspring of offspring, each with their own manifesto and interests.
The problem is that, as voting day approaches, Maldivians are finding it increasingly difficult to actually decide on a party. Party politics is a very new thing in the atolls, after all, and many Maldivians still find it abhorrent that politicians lie without blinking an eye at public forums; then they are surprised, and dismayed, to find that not a single candidate seems exempt from this kind of slippery showmanship. As amusing as it may be to the jaded outsider, the ability to understand, weigh and filter political rhetoric remains very much in its infancy in the country. Little wonder, then, that ‘party-hopping’ among prospective voters is taking place at a tremendous rate.
|Polished activist: Anni presses flesh|
As for the contenders, first off, there is the Social Liberal Party, whose candidate, Ibrahim Ismail (commonly known as Ibra) began his career with the MDP. He is seen as a very eloquent orator and who, against all odds, chose a woman to be his running mate. While many women thought this was generally a good choice, many men see it as a political stunt to win the female vote. Those in the know shrug as if to say, Well, who’s not pulling stunts? Then there is Gasim Ibrahim, with his Justice Party (Adaalath) alliance, which has proven to be a strange mix indeed. On the one hand, the Justice Party is driven by fundamentalist religious beliefs, despite the fact that Gasim, a business tycoon, built his empire on tourism – selling alcohol, among other things. At least, these are among the accusations that are thrown at Gasim’s party. The reality is that the Maldives’ economy is fuelled by tourist dollars, which therefore begs the question of whether anyone is immune from the haram money made from alcohol.
Then there is Mohamed Nasheed, better known as Anni, the MDP candidate of choice. It is difficult to say how exactly the public views Anni at the moment. While in the collective opposition to the current government there is general agreement that Anni is a true hero, many are continuing to ask whether he is a leader. Is Anni capable of being a politician? Perhaps. Most Maldivians are used to Anni the activist, and he was a fine one at that. The fact is, over the past few months, Anni has made considerable changes to his style – the way he presents himself, his oratory style and, quite interestingly, the fact that he almost never disparages President Gayoom anymore. The image of the sweaty, hyper-energised, angry activist is being replaced by one of a suited, diplomatic and almost cultured persona.]
Some are talking about Hassan Saeed, the only independent candidate, though his name is discussed with an equal mix of enthusiasm and scepticism. Hassan brings to the table something that only President Gayoom can offer: knowledge of religion, and an ability to read and translate verses from the Quran to support his arguments. The latter talent is an especially potent one. Maldivians are in awe of their religion, and people who can flaunt holy verses are seen as especially sincere – if not in reality, then in duty to god. This proclivity is obviously a remnant of the days when the president used this technique to his advantage. Hassan is viewed with scepticism, meanwhile, due to his association with President Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rahyithuge Party (DRP), which once appointed him as attorney-general.
What is undeniable in the run-up to the elections is a palpable sense of excitement and anxiety among voters throughout the atolls. There is not a street corner, a dinner table or a lounge chair where the future of this country and the people promising to lead it are not being fervently discussed. For some, the anticipation is almost too much. For others, whatever happens, they know that this vote must be carefully scrutinised and thought out. After all, it will be the first time that the ballot will have more than one candidate’s name on it.
~ Simon Shareef is a writer based in the Maldives and blogs about society, culture and current affairs at randomreflexions.com.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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