Elections Aren’t Due till 2018 but the Maldives Presidential Race Just Got a Lot More Interesting

Umar Naseer, who resigned as home minister over differences with President Abdulla Yameen, has announced he will run for president.

Umar Naseer. Credit: YouTube

Umar Naseer. Credit: YouTube

New Delhi: On June 21, Umar Naseer resigned as Maldives’ home minister. Ten days later, he announced he would challenge President Abdulla Yameen in the 2018 elections. Naseer’s decision comes at a time when the country is witnessing a intense public power struggle between two siblings – Yameen and his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

A former policeman, Naseer had contested again Yameen in the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) presidential primaries in 2013. Having lost, he accused Yameen of having links to gangs and being involved in other illegal acts. Expelled from the PPM, Naseer joined the rival Jumhooree Party (JP) – whose last-minute backing was key to Yameen winning the presidency in 2014.

Although Naseer was appointed home minister as a JP member, in September last year he rejoined the PPM.

Naseer’s political profile sharpened as rumours of intense differences between Yameen and Gayoom, PPM president and former dictator of the country, grew.

His announcement to stand as a presidential candidate came as those rumours became reality.

On July 1, Gayoom made a public statement criticising Yameen for the first time since 2014, lambasting him for initiating legislation to allow the leasing of islands without bidding and allowing foreigners to own land.

Speaking to The Wire in a telephone interview, Naseer said he resigned as home minister as he “had some differences” with Yameen but did not elaborate. Nevertheless, there has been plenty of speculation in the local media over the reasons for his resignation. A few days before his resignation, Naseer had also been stripped of powers to permit the electronic tagging of gang members, which was passed to a committee.

His resignation came on the same day that it was revealed that DNA tests of a pistol seized from the home of former defence minister Mohamed Nazim established a link to ex-vice president Ahmed Adeeb. Naseer had previously alleged that Adeeb had threatened both him and Nazim.

Over the past year, Nazim and Adeeb were both arrested, sentenced and imprisoned for different ‘crimes’. While Nazim was imprisoned for 11 years for weapons smuggling, Adeeb was sentenced to 15 years for attempting to assassinate Yameen and 10 years for possessing firearms. Nazim and Adeeb are now part of the London-based Maldives United Opposition, which aims to replace the Yameen administration.

“Best candidate to lead the country”

It is when he resigned as home minister that he began to “weigh his options” and considered running for president on 2018.

“I finally decided [to contest the presidential polls] because there is no candidate who can deliver a clean government,” he said, in a clear jibe at Yameen. “Given the changing situation of the party and the country, I feel I can be the best candidate to lead this country beyond 2018,” he added.

Asked about who was backing him within the PPM, Naseer said, “I am sure I will be supported by all the senior members of the party including grass roots”.

Days before he resigned, Naseer had retweeted an article that compared him to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who became the opposition’s presidential candidate after his surprise resignation as the health minister for former president Maithripala Sirisena.

Naseer also retweeted an article that speculated whether Gayoom’s son, Faris Maumoon, would be his running mate. However, Maldivian newspaper Mihaaru published a denial from a “top ruling party official” on Sunday. “These rumours are intended to shift focus away from the PPM reform program,” Mihaaru quoted the official as saying.

Naseer refused to comment when asked whether Gayoom had agreed to support his presidential bid.

He was however categorical about the significance of Gayoom’s public statement criticising Yameen. “President Yameen has certainly lost the support of former President Maumoon,” he said.

Foreign ties

During his tenure as minister, Maldives moved closer to China, a move that came alongside rising criticism from western governments over the crackdown on opposition leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to the island nation in 2014, with Maldives endorsing Beijing’s ‘one belt, one road’ project.

Yameen has always stressed an ‘India first’ foreign policy, which he reiterated during his visit to New Delhi earlier this year ahead of the meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.

“India will be our number one partner, while keeping China as an economic partner,” Naseer said in reply to a query about his view on Maldives’ ties with India and China.

New Delhi has repeatedly articulated it’s ambition to become the net security provider in the Indian Ocean, just as China, with a steadily expanding blue water navy, has been looking toward the region, which has crucial sea routes.

“India has to be the key player (in the Indian Ocean), but not the only player” he said.

There has also been reports of a rising number of Maldivians travelling to Syria to join the civil war. But Naseer said there is “no serious threat” to the country from ISIS. “Its within our control. We cooperate very closely with our partners”.

Moving forward

As Maldives awaits the next power play, Yameen faces challenges from the opposition and within his own party. Gayoom has also issued orders delineating his plans for internal party reforms, in order to bring in line PPM MPs who are mostly in Yameen’s camp, and has ordered to the PPM parliamentary group leader to give an account of his activities. “I welcome the time line announced by RM today & look forward to the primary in Feb2018. Let us return PPM to its founding values,” Naseer tweeted on July 3.