THE United States joined the likes of the European Union on Thursday in expressing concern over the “continued democratic backsliding” in the Maldives and threatened to take “appropriate measures” if the island nation did not find its way back on to a “democratic path.”
A statement from the State Department said sanctions would be implemented against “those individuals who undermine democracy, the rule of law, and a free and fair electoral process.”
But the threats are unlikely to have any sway over an entrenched leader who has cleared a path for him to stay in power after the Sept 23 election.
While the US highlighting the plight of Maldives’ crumbling democracy is appreciated by the people, it is not enough to bring real change, activist and media coordinator for the opposition Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), Abdulla Nishthar, told Asian Correspondent.
“We do believe that international community is working hard but for the people, they want the change instantly which we believe is not possible,” Abdulla, who goes by Nittey, said.
“People see statements as just a piece of paper cause the situation of the country has deteriorated in the four years.”
The United States is concerned about continued democratic backsliding in #Maldives. The restoration of democratic institutions and practices, to include a free, fair, and inclusive election held on its scheduled date of September 23, is of critical importance to Maldives’ future. pic.twitter.com/usqn4Hi1ps
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) September 6, 2018
The island nation, most commonly associated with holidaying honeymooners, has experienced simmering political unrest since the resignation of Mohamed Nasheed – Maldives’ first democratically elected president – in 2012.
The popular leader was convicted of terrorism charges in 2015 and sentenced to 13 years in prison after a trial that Amnesty International described as “flawed from start to finish.”
Nasheed was allowed medical leave to seek treatment in the UK where he was granted political asylum. He now lives in Sri Lanka unable to return home, but many Maldivians still see him as the rightful president and would like to see his return to politics.
Since Nasheed’s ousting, Yameen has grown increasingly authoritarian in his attempts to suppress dissent, jailing journalists and imprisoning opposition members in a bid to cling to power.
Yameen’s administration has jailed his former vice president, two defense ministers, the chief justice and a Supreme Court judge, as well as many other politicians and officials. The opposition and rights groups have claimed they are political prisoners.
In February, the incumbent president implemented a state of emergency to quash a Supreme Court ruling annulling the charges against these opponents. The move also put an end to sometimes-violent protests in the capital Male and suspended several constitutional rights, giving Yameen sweeping powers to arrest and detain.
Yameen’s only credible opposition is opposition alliance candidate Ibrahim “Ibu” Mohamed Solih who has been backed by the president’s main political rivals, including the now jailed former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – who is also Yameen’s half-brother – and Nasheed.
But Yameen has been accused of using underhand tactics to rig the election. Nittey believes the election can never be considered “fair” given the president’s efforts to steer the outcome.
“There is no way this election could be fair when the ballot box is received by the activists of Yameen and all the officials are scanned by presidents wife’s office,” he said.
Local paper Mihaaru reported on Friday that officials on several islands were hired despite not applying for the positions. Most of the temporary staff were activists of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, the newspaper found.
The Elections Commission have denied these allegations, however, saying the some 3,895 officials were hired from more than 8,000 people who submitted applications, all of whom were interviewed.
Nittey also explained there has been little opportunity for campaigning for the opposition and civil servants are in fear of losing their jobs if they don’t toe the party line.
Despite this, the opposition MDP remains optimistic about September’s election and trust the more than 400,000 people of the Maldives to come out in force and vote.
“We are also very aware that President Yameen is going to rig it as much as he can,” Nasheed told reporters during a campaign rally last month in Sri Lanka, which is home to more 30,000 Maldivians making it one of the largest blocs of overseas voters.
“But when people come overwhelmingly, there is very little he can do. We are going to win this election.”
While the threat of sanctions from the United States is unlikely to make Yameen change course, Nittey believes the international attention could do some good.
“The president himself might not want to bow his head to this,” he said. “But for sure people who are with Yameen and supporting him in all his deeds will be thinking about it.”