Egocentric leaders could cost Maldives opposition pres polls

Backed into a corner and facing oblivion, four political parties in the Maldives - ravaged by incessant political strife joined forces in March last year. Former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed along with Jumhoory Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim and religiously conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) leader Imran Abdulla inked a once unthinkable pact to form dubbed as the 'reform alliance'.

Their political ideologies were as different as night and day. Once upon a time, no one could have pictured Gayoom and Nasheed in the same room let alone on the same page, clearly and concisely focused on a common goal. But now, their rather public animosity towards one another was overshadowed by a common enemy. The choice was too obvious to ignore. Unite and stand a chance or the incumbent president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom would snuff them out.

The flailing opposition buoyed by the once unspeakable alliance injected a fresh impetus to its efforts against Yameen and his government. They had managed to deliver several body blows and significantly weaken Yameen's vice like grip on the country. But cost of the failure to bring a premature end to Yameen's government has been great as the remaining key political figures including the 80 year old Gayoom are now jailed on terrorism charges.

Pres Polls: Win or prison!

The presidential elections slated for September, has never mattered more and the stakes have never been higher for the major players in the always volatile Maldives politics. A win for president Yameen would be ominous for the convicted leaders and their fate inside a prison cell would be sealed for the not so immediate future. It would be vice versa with an opposition victory, though its highly unlikely that Yameen would stick around for prison with exile the more attractive and plausible choice.

A look at Maldives' political history since the inception of multi-party democracy, shows a coalition always makes or breaks elections. So one could be forgiven to tipping the now united opposition to win the elections by a landslide over Yameen who remains in complete political isolation. But there in lies the rub. None of the leaders of the mighty alliance are eligible to contest as either their criminal convictions or age prevents them from running. Before the landmark Supreme Court ruling early February, there was talk of a single candidate - endorsed by the four leaders to go up against president Yameen. But with the elections on the horizon, the talks have stuttered and stumbled before as expected it now appears to have fallen apart.

According to opposition sources, the leaders have been unable to decide on the right 'formula' to pick a candidate to run in their stead. To believe anyone of the leaders - barring perhaps Sheikh Imran, would voluntarily handover the reins and effectively their futures to a political inferior was quixotic at best. This fact has been rather glaringly laid bare as Nasheed and Gasim especially remain hell-bent on being the presidential candidate of their respective parties. Gayoom who was set to propel his lawmaker son into the political elite has grown quiet with both father and son now in jail. Imran's Adhaalath Party, as expected is nervously looking at others to make up their minds.The unwillingness to see reason especially within top ranks of Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) seems to have damaged the alliance beyond repair.

Time running out!

The biggest conflict within the alliance appears to be time. Nasheed's loyalists are still waiting on their supreme leader to pull a rabbit out of the hat and somehow squeeze his name onto the ballot. But many are now refusing to bank their futures on the increasingly unlikely situation where Nasheed would be allowed to contest. The divisions at one point were well contained inside opposition walls, but now seem to have spilled out to the public which does not bode too well with the elections just around the corner.

Delay by design?

One name that has emerged as the potential candidate in recent weeks is MDP parliamentary group leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The 'storm' top MDP officials have been hinting at recently points towards Solih's sudden emergence as a strong choice for September. The veteran lawmaker has even been publicly backed by several top opposition officials which appears to be a warning to Nasheed. There has also been whispers of a rift between the duo which has further fueled rumours that Solih could take lead despite Nasheed winning the recently concluded MDP presidential primary.

"There's no rift between Nasheed and Ibu [Solih]. Its just a difference in opinion. The opposition wants a strong name. But the people most loyal to Nasheed still believe he can contest. In the past Nasheed has given several dates saying that he would be freed. But we can no longer take the risk that international pressure would allow Nasheed to stand. Because we simply don't have the time," a MDP lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.

However, MDP chairperson Hassan Latheef sees it differently. He believes that the inability to name an opposition candidate up to now gives them an advantage and could pivotal to opposition chances in the polls.

"It would be a major blow to president Yameen that he still doesn't know who he would be contesting against. We remain united and the delay in nominating a candidate is not a failure on our part," Latheef stressed.

But Latheef concedes that opposition must name a candidate soon which he assured would be done as soon as efforts to ensure Nasheed's chances of running in the elections are all but exhausted.

As the archipelago edges closer to election day, many inside the opposition alliance, believe that nominating a strong candidate that the leaders can rally around has been long overdue. In order to sway voters especially the neutral ones to say no to Yameen, the opposition needs to have its own house in order. To truly show the public that they have clear plans for the country beyond simply ending Yameen's rein.