"All eligible candidates as per the constitution would be allowed to contest," Maldives government's unwavering response to international censure has thus far been absolute.
Its no secret that Maldives' international partners especially in the West favours the rights activist turned politician Mohamed Nasheed. The growing calls for "inclusive" elections ever since Nasheed's jailing on terrorism charges after his disappointing elections loss to incumbent president Abdulla Yameen Abdula Gayoom in 2013 underlines a single purpose. To ensure Nasheed's candidacy in the next elections now slated for September this year.
Nasheed now lives in self imposed exile most recently in Sri Lanka after he was allowed to leave to the UK on medical leave in an internationally brokered deal following his jailing on terrorism charges. The former president was prematurely ousted from office in 2012 over the arbitrary arrest and detention of a sitting judge after a police mutiny which he to this day claims to be a coup.
Despite his ineligibility, international pressure to overturn Nasheed's contentious conviction and subsequent jailing has been mounting on Yameen's government. As recently as April, United Nations Human Rights Committee had insisted that the government must allow Nasheed to stand for elections.
Nasheed himself has been banking on his friends in the West to force the government into submission with threats of targeted sanctions and military intervention from south Asian giants India who also appears to favour Nasheed over Yameen with the latter inclined towards the east.
Nasheed's refusal to back-down has left the opposition alliance he had formed with former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the remaining two opposition leaders - Gasim Ibarhim and Sheikh Imran Adbulla in tatters.
With the candidacy of all four leaders all but ruled out due to criminal convictions, the once unthinkable alliance had been trying to nominate a single candidate to stand against Yameen but Nasheed contesting and ultimately winning the presidential ticket of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had fractured the alliance and left it on the brink of collapse.
Though the government would celebrate a divided opposition, it would be unable to shake international censure as long as Nasheed harboured interest to stand for the elections. The government had made not too veiled attempts to weigh in on the debate, strangely suggesting a potential candidate to replace Nasheed after insisting that "convicted criminals" would not be allowed to contest.
Nasheed's 'voluntary' withdrawal relieves international pressure
Attempts to convince the international community of its stand and waving the constitution in their faces to justify the decision to deny Nasheed had fallen on deaf ears. With questions already being raised over the possibility of a free and fair elections with almost all political leaders in jail or in exile, the government would know that even if president Yameen won the election, a dark cloud would remain over his second term.
However, on Friday, Nasheed's shock decision to withdraw from the upcoming presidential race would be nothing less than music to the ears of president Yameen and his top aides.
Nasheed 'voluntarily' withdrawing from the race now paves the way for the government to truly justify an 'inclusive' elections minus the international pressure. Though the government in no uncertain terms have stressed on Nasheed's ineligibility, it would have been one thing for the government to 'officially' reject Nasheed's candidacy based on his criminal conviction with months remaining for the elections. Now that the decision has been taken out of its hands, the government has been spared the wrath of the international community leading up to the elections.
It also bodes well that veteran opposition lawmaker Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been tipped to take Nasheed's place. As several government officials had repeatedly backed the Hinnavaru lawmaker as the ideal opposition candidate for the crunch elections.
Nasheed's decision has certainly caused a seismic shift in the already volatile Maldives politics. But the government has definitely got its wish. As insisted repeatedly, Nasheed's name would no longer be on the ballot come September.
And now it remains to be seen if president Yameen could win a 'Nasheed-less' election in September.