A LOW-SLUNG archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives faces long-term danger from the global rise in sea level. In the shorter term, it risks sinking in a different sense. Ten years after being launched, its experiment with democracy is listing badly, unable to keep afloat.
The 19-month jail sentence handed down on June 13th against an ex-president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is just the latest of many distress signals. Mr Gayoom, who is 80, ran the Maldives for three decades with an iron fist before being voted out of office in 2008. He was convicted of aiding an alleged coup plot against his own half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, the country’s president since 2013. His imprisonment marks the end of a long feud between the two siblings and also the culmination of a campaign by Mr Yameen to clear the way, ahead of national polls set for September 23rd, for his own re-election.
The campaign got going in February, when Mr Yameen imposed a state of emergency after the country’s top court, showing surprising wilfulness, ordered that all political prisoners be freed. Had that ruling been followed, the president would have lost his majority in parliament and might have been impeached. Moreover, numerous convicted or jailed opposition leaders could have stood for election. Among them was Mohamed Nasheed, the winner of the Maldives’ first free election in 2008, whom Messrs Gayoom and Yameen later forced from office. Mr Nasheed has lived in exile since being granted asylum in Britain two years ago, after fleeing a conviction on scarcely credible charges of terrorism.
With less than a month for candidates to register for the country’s third-ever multi-party election, however, it looks increasingly likely that Mr Yameen will end up running virtually unopposed. His takeover of the Progressive Party of the Maldives, long a vehicle for his half-brother’s rule, appears complete. An attempt by Mr Yameen’s opponents to agree on a joint candidate appears to have failed. The second-largest opposition group, the Jumhooree Party, is rumored to be seeking a deal with Mr Yameen.
The larger Maldivian Democratic Party has gone ahead and put the exiled Mr Nasheed on its posters, even though police recently issued him with a summons to return and complete his prison sentence. In May police had confiscated ballot boxes at a party primary in an unsubtle attempt to thwart Mr Nasheed. With ballots collected instead in empty jerrycans and even a cement mixer, the former president still won 99.8% of votes. But although he has proved that his party remains loyal, and secured backing for his own right to contest elections from the UN, which regards his conviction as illegal, Mr Nasheed has been unable to stop the steady accumulation of power in Mr Yameen’s hands.
New defamation laws have been accompanied by attacks on journalists and the suppression of opposition protests. Media outlets have received stern warnings not to promote candidates the government deems ineligible. Mr Yameen, meanwhile, campaigns on a mix of warnings about threats to the country’s Islamic faith and boasts of his record in luring investment. On this score he gets a big helping hand from non-democratic patrons, chief among them China and Saudi Arabia. Chinese labourers toil around the clock on the “Friendship Bridge”, which will link the capital, Malé, to the main airport; it is supposed to be ready in time for the election. A giant, Saudi-sponsored mosque is rising in the city centre.
Such concrete signs of change may, in the end, prove weightier than protests about the slide towards dictatorship. So far Mr Yameen has been able to brush aside Western criticism of his darkening record on human rights. India, a giant neighbour that has in the past waded in to uphold constitutional norms, and which is anxious about growing Chinese influence, has shown no appetite for confrontation. Its diplomats do not have much faith in the Maldivian opposition, and have found it hard to counter charges that India’s own government does not always respect democratic niceties. In short, even as the tide of dictatorship rises, there are few hands working to bail out the Maldives’ foundering democracy.