Maldives President Mohamed Waheed has unexpectedly thrown his hat in the ring for the September 2013 elections, upsetting what was supposed to be a two-cornered contest between the country’s best-known democrat and its infamous strongman

Until last week, it appeared that the race for the Maldivian Presidency would be between two candidates — the charismatic former President Mohamed Nasheed and Yameen Abdullah, the brother of former dictator and Nasheed’s tormentor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party is the country’s biggest in terms of membership (45,666, according to the election commission; an additional 1,323 were not included, says MDP). The Progressive Party of the Maldives, which Gayoom founded in 2011, is the second-largest party, with 22,383 members.

The only purpose of the others in the fray seemed to be to ensure that neither of the two main candidates would get the 51 per cent votes in the scheduled September 7 election and that there would be a run-off.

No one seriously thought that President Mohamed Waheed would emerge as a candidate himself. His Gaumee Ithihad Party (GIP) was too small — with a membership of barely 4,000 — and he did not have the commanding stage presence of either Nasheed or Gayoom; and it appeared no other small party wanted to back him for President. (A GIP functionary claimed that after a membership drive, the members have shot up to 12,000).

All that is history. Dr. Waheed is now seriously in the reckoning. Playing a deft hand, Dr. Waheed — Vice-President in the previous Nasheed government — has managed to rope in parties that do not want to be in an alliance with either Gayoom’s PPM or Nasheed’s MDP.

In any case, Nasheed does not want allies. He sees them as an impediment.

That left the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) — Gayoom founded it back in 2005 — in a dilemma. When Gayoom left Maldives after Nasheed’s election as President in 2008, he had handed over the DRP’s reins to a confidant, Ahmed Thasmeen Ali. Gayoom had expected to take back the party’s leadership when he returned, but that did not happen.

The DRP, the largest party in the People’s Majlis after the last Parliamentary elections, was not in favour of taking back the unpopular Gayoom. Infuriated at the rejection, Gayoom founded the PPM, drawing back a large number of members from the DRP.

The DRP leadership has not forgotten this. It was only because there was a greater enemy in Nasheed that it joined hands with others — including Gayoom’s PPM — in February 2012, to form a government after what Nasheed has claimed was a coup against him.

Waheed constantly wooed the DRP to back his candidature and Thasmeen finally agreed. If there is a deal here, the details have not yet emerged. For its part, the DRP has maintained that it has not asked for any posts if Waheed wins the election.

A smaller but influential party, the Dhivehi Qaumee Party had been smarting under the defection of one of its main leaders to Gayoom’s PPM. Dr. Waheed has persuaded it to jump onto his bandwagon. As a result, Dr. Waheed has managed to build a coalition that also includes the religious Adhaalath Party.

There is a good chance that a few other small parties that will not be accommodated by the MDP and do not want to be with the PPM will also join the Waheed-led front.

The President’s Spokesperson, Masood Imad, is on record saying that the new alliance has more members than the MDP. And he is confident that it will add many more. “It will be known as the five-star coalition,” he said. “And we will show our strength.”.

But the outcome of an election in a small archipelago like the Maldives will not be decided merely by the number of parties that support a candidate. Its population is almost 100-per-cent literate, the voters number just over 2.4 lakh, and actively take part in shaping the country’s future.

Nasheed has been hitting the waterways that connect the islands for over a year now, seeking justice and asking people to back him. The former President insists that he was thrown out in a coup on February 7, 2012, and wants people not to forget this ‘fact’ when they reach the polling booths. Nasheed remains the most popular leader in Maldives today.

But such popularity could not translate into votes earlier: In the first round of the 2008 Presidential election, Nasheed came in a far second, garnering a mere 24 per cent of the votes. His opponent, Gayoom, managed over 40 per cent. But since no candidate managed the mandated 50 per cent, a run-off round was held, as laid down by the Maldivian Constitution.

It was then that most of the other political parties threw in their lot with Nasheed. He won just over 53 per cent of votes polled, as against Gayoom’s 45 per cent.

Waheed, a former United Nations bureaucrat, has won a major battle in becoming a credible contender. But the war will be won only if he is able to persuade the average Maldivian that he is the best bet for the country. And that will be much more challenging than convincing political parties to back him.

(radhakrishnan.rk@thehindu.co.in)

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