Maldives Analysis: Political instability increases after Supreme Court orders immediate release of nine opposition leaders on February 1; anti-government protests likely in near-term
• On February 1, the Supreme Court ordered the release of nine opposition leaders and reinstatement of 12 into Parliament after ruling that their trials were politically motivated.
• The government has yet to enforce the ruling as of February 3, threatening major political instability and raising the risk of additional violent protests in Male over the near-term.
• It remains unclear where the loyalty of security forces lie, although pressure from the international community will likely ultimately sway them toward supporting the verdict.
• The President is likely stalling to plan his next move, while the opposition has been invigorated as a result of the developments.
• Tourist-frequented islands and resorts are likely to remain insulated from any political unrest.
• Travel to the Maldives and the capital Male can continue, while maintaining heightened vigilance because of existing tensions relating to the country’s political situation.
• On February 1, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of nine opposition leaders including the former President Mohamed Nasheed and reinstated 12 members of the Parliament who had been stripped of their posts. In its verdict, it stated that the prosecutors and judges were influenced “to conduct politically motivated investigations” against them. The Supreme Court’s ruling stated that all those named “should be freed immediately in order to facilitate the retrial and investigation of the cases according to law”.
• The ruling drew wide international support from the US, EU, and UN. India, which rarely issues statements regarding Maldivian domestic political developments, stated that it was “imperative for all organs of the government of the Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court.” Nasheed, who took political asylum in the UK following charges of terrorism leveled against him in 2015, welcomed the court order and stated that President Yameen must resign, mentioning that he would soon return to the country to contest elections.
• In the minutes following the verdict, the nation’s police force indicated that it would obey the Supreme Court ruling. Shortly after, President Abdulla Yameen fired the chief of police.
• On February 3, Attorney General Mohamed Anil reiterated his intention to comply with the order, stating that they were “working at top speed” to move the process forward. However, he did add that the government had several “legal concerns” and that the offenses in some of the cases were very serious, including charges of terrorism, embezzlement, and fraud. During the press conference, both the Defense Minister and army chief were present. At the time of writing, over two days after the court ruling was issued, the Abdulla Yameen government has yet to begin implementing the order.
• In response to the recent developments, hundreds of people rallied in the capital Male on February 1 and February 2, calling on the President to comply with the order. At the protest in front of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) headquarters, police used violent riot dispersal measures to break up the gatherings. Two people were arrested. Other protests were reported at the Male Prison and along Majeedhee Magu Road, the latter of which was also forcefully dispersed.
Assessments & Forecast
Specter of political instability significantly increases as government’s next move, loyalty of security apparatus remain unclear
- The government’s ambiguous position regarding the enforcement of the court ruling has significantly elevated the specter of instability in the country. The statements from the attorney general suggest that the government will adhere to the decision. However, the removal of the police chief and apparent slowness in complying with the order suggests that President Yameen may be using this time in the immediate aftermath of the ruling to consolidate power ahead of a possible reversal of this compliance.
- The security apparatus appears split on its support for the current administration. While the former police chief indicated that the police would comply, following his removal from office, opposition protesters were violently dispersed. Additionally, the Defense Minister and army chief’s conspicuous presence at the attorney general’s press conference may have been an indication that the defense establishment has still not completely abandoned the Yasmeen administration.
- Ultimately, both the military and police may comply with the ruling due largely to international pressure. The West has become increasingly concerned with Yameen’s close relationship with China, and Nasheed has consistently been highly critical of Beijing’s influence on the country. India, arguably the most threatened by increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives, appears especially resolute, and its rare, relatively strong statement of support for the court ruling suggests that it is considering the possibility of intervention to ensure that the verdict is enforced and as a pretext to reassert its influence.
President Yameen likely stalling enforcement of verdict in attempt to consolidate power, plan next moves
- Aware of his limited recourse, President Yameen is likely attempting to stall the process over the coming days as a means of exploring his potential options. The language of the ruling is unclear but suggests that the court has only found fault with the procedures but not the charges. As such, the government may attempt to seek to immediately reopen trials against them in more legally acceptable methods and will release them only after consultation with the Supreme Court and negotiations regarding the logistics of their release. In order to buy more time, President Yameen may cancel the opening session of parliament, currently slated February 5.
- FORECAST: For President Yameen, staying in the country after allowing the lawmakers to return could be a potential risk, as the opposition, which will then have a simple majority, could petition for a probe into a number of allegedly corrupt activities he has carried out, including the recent trials themselves. It would likely still be difficult for the opposition to successfully muster enough political support for impeachment proceedings, which would require two-thirds majority. However, should the lawmakers be released, and Nasheed return to the country from his exile, the opposition would likely be favored to win the elections that are slated to take place later this year if they successfully capitalize on the anti-Yameen sentiment over ongoing events.
- FORECAST: In fear of these seeming inevitabilities and the potential that the military and police apparatus may succumb to external pressures, it remains entirely possible that President Yameen will oblige opposition requests to step down and take refuge overseas, which would most likely happen in China, Saudi Arabia, or Singapore.
Violent protests likely to continue in Male as opposition attempt to pressure government, major tourist areas likely to remain insulated from unrest
- Until the positions of the Supreme Court, security apparatus, ruling government become more clear, the situation on the ground will remain highly tense. In order to continue exerting pressure on the ruling party, opposition leaders will only increase their calls for protest until the government takes more concrete steps in carrying out the court’s ruling. This will put the police in a difficult position and may compel its leadership to clarify their position on the developments by their reaction to future demonstrations. As long as the police, in its actions, remains on the side of the government, the dispersal of any gatherings in the immediate future are likely to be similarly violent to what was witnessed on February 2.
- Regardless of major instability among the local population in Male, international tourism remains the cornerstone of the Maldivian economy. Like similar instances of widespread unrest in the past, the military will like take concerted efforts to prevent any sort of unrest from reaching heavily touristed areas, which are mostly insulated from the rest of the country and far outside of the capital.
- Travel to the Maldives and the capital Male can continue while maintaining heightened vigilance because of existing tensions relating to the country’s political situation.
- Those operating in Male should avoid the immediate vicinity of any political gatherings given the high likelihood that they may devolve into unrest. MDP offices and Artificial Beach should be considered flash points for such activity and avoided when possible.
- If confronted by security forces, it is advised to cooperate fully and not engage in any behavior that could raise tensions and lead to violence.
- Those planning on traveling to the Maldives are advised to contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary-based consultation and contingency planning.