It was just in August that Abdulla Yameen confirmed he would run for President in the 2023 Maldives elections, five years after he was unseated from office. He may not have anticipated that within months, a criminal court would convict him of corruption and money laundering, sentencing him to prison for 11 years. The judgment, delivered on Christmas Day, appears to rule out his presidential candidacy for now.
It was his second conviction, after a criminal court in 2019 found him guilty of embezzling state funds. He was acquitted in December 2021 in that case. However, corruption is only one of the many allegations that have tainted the leader. His administration, from November 2013 to 2018, was dreaded by Maldivians for its authoritarian slant, while his government’s obvious China tilt put the west and India on guard.
During his term, the Maldives withdrew from the Commonwealth, protesting what President Yameen thought were unfair international concerns over the human rights situation in the country that is home to about 5,00,000 Sunni Muslims. The disappearance of critical journalist Ahmed Rilwan, missing since August 2014, and the killing of dissident blogger Yameen Rasheed in 2017 drew the attention of global human rights watchdogs, and were seen as emblematic of the crackdown on human rights and democratic freedoms during Mr. Yameen’s term. Not long into his tenure, he was perceived as a leader who “jailed critics, reined in the media, and purged dissenting voices from institutions such as the Supreme Court”, as a Reuters news report put it. His campaign in the 2013 presidential race sought to give religion a central place, while accusing his rival and former President Mohamed Nasheed, a vocal critic of religious extremism, of being swayed by western secular values. In his most recent political avatar as a major Opposition figure after his 2021 acquittal, Mr. Yameen has positioned himself as the chief anti-India voice, spearheading the ‘India Out’ campaign that has dominated social media in the Maldives and taken expression in several protests. He sought to peg his political comeback to this campaign, as he prepared for his next presidential bid. It was not insignificant, given the growing rift between President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and his party colleague Mr. Nasheed in the ruling camp.
Cause of concern
For New Delhi, with whom the Solih government has very close ties — his administration openly pursues an ‘India first’ foreign policy — this was an obvious cause of concern, especially with some of Mr. Yameen’s allies and supporters inciting violence against the Indian mission in the island nation. Justifying his India resistance in an interview to a local television channel earlier this year, Mr. Yameen said India’s neighbours did not like its “hegemonic influence”. “They have been interfering with our domestic policy, our foreign policy and they have basically been usurping all our resources,” he contended.
Following the recent court ruling, Mr. Yameen’s lawyer told media that he would appeal “as soon as possible against his conviction”. The 63-year-old former President still leads the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by his half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago for 30 years until 2008, with a firm grip on power.
Mr. Yameen’s beginnings in public service coincided with that of Mr. Gayoom’s presidency in 1978. His own presidential bid in 2013 was backed by Mr. Gayoom, who continued to wield considerable influence among voters. However, within years, the half-brothers fell out, as Mr. Gayoom grew critical of Mr. Yameen. When an increasingly insecure Mr. Yameen reciprocated with a crackdown against Mr. Gayoom’s family, it was clear that he had few friends left.
Following his school years in Male, Mr. Yameen read business administration in Lebanon and later obtained a degree in public policy in the U.S. As a young official, Mr. Yameen held important positions before rising to the helm. He was Secretary to the Department of Finance and then worked as a research officer at the Research and International Organisations Division of the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA). After completing his postgraduate studies, Mr. Yameen returned to the Maldives for a long stint in the Trade and Industries Ministry, where he became Minister in 1993. The same year, he entered the People’s Majlis (or MaldivianParliament) and held a seat for 20 years before he rose to the country’s helm. Irrespective of his own prospects of returning to any major political contest soon, Mr. Yameen has now come to represent a hardline politics that evidently appeals to many Maldivians. For democracy advocates in the country, that will remain a serious challenge.