September 2023

Candidates galore create political uncertainly

In the run-up to the island nation’s presidential poll, Sudha Ramachandran analyses the extent to which political infighting will be a key feature of the election

Maldivians are getting ready to vote in presidential elections on September 9.

In the fray are eight candidates. Challenging President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), who is looking for a second term at the helm, are Mohamed Muizzu of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and backed by the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM); Ilyas Labeeb of the recently formed The Democrats; Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party (JP); Mohamed Nazim of the Maldives National Party (MNP); and three independent candidates – Faris Maumoon, who is the son of former President Maumoon Gayoom, former Home Minister Umar Naseer, and former Defence Minister Hassan Zameel.

Given the large number of candidates and no visible wavering in support for any candidate so far, it does seem that none of the candidates will garner over 50 percent of the votes that is necessary to avoid a run-off.Thus, the September 9 vote will likely be followed by a final round, which is scheduled for September 30.

The Maldives is a young democracy.After several decades of authoritarian rule under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, mass protests, which erupted in 2003, culminated in political reforms. A new constitution was adopted and multi-party presidential and parliamentary elections followed in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Belt and Road initiative in the Maldives
The strategically located archipelago has joined the Belt and Road Initiative

The Maldives has voted in several elections since. However, democracy is yet to take firm root. Governments have sought to control state institutions, including the police, the judiciary and the Elections Commission. So rapid was the country’s slide to authoritarian rule under President Abdulla Yameen that it evoked concern worldwide.

While the health of Maldives’ democracy has improved in recent years – its score in the Freedom House Index for instance rose from 35 out of 100 in 2018 to 41 in 2023, the threats to democracy remain strong– the Solih administration enacted legislation that makes it mandatory for journalists to disclose their sources.

The upcoming presidential election is the fourth since Maldives became a multi-party democracy.

Incumbent Solih appears to be the front runner and can be expected to emerge among the top two from the first round of voting.

But for the ‘India Out’ protests spearheaded by former President Yameen and the PPM, the Maldives during Solih’s presidency enjoyed a semblance of stability. The economy rebounded significantly after the Covid-19 pandemic, and infrastructural development, especially in the housing sector, grew. However, there have been allegations of corruption.

Solih’s quest for a second term as Maldivian president has been weakened from within his MDP.

The threats to democracy remain strong

The MDP, the party Solih co-founded with former friend-turned-foe Mohammed Nasheed, who was Maldives’ president between 2008 and 2012, has been embroiled in infighting over the last few years. Differences between Solih and Nasheed over transforming the country’s presidential form of government to a parliamentary one, as well as Nasheed’s ambitions and his failure to win the MDP’s presidential primaries, culminated in him breaking away from the party to form The Democrats.

Nasheed is not contesting the upcoming election. In the run-up to the filing of nominations, he sought to reach an understanding with his former nemesis, Yameen, on fielding a joint candidate, despite the yawning gap in their positions and ideologies. That ambition fell through.The Democrats have now fielded Labeeb, who will take away some of the votes that would have otherwise gone to the MDP.

Former President and PPM chief Yameen is not contesting the election either. Convicted of corruption, he is serving an 11-year jail term. His nomination papers were rejected by the Election Commission and the Supreme Court subsequently rejected his appeal against the EC decision and barred his candidacy on account of his conviction by a criminal court.

Once a political heavyweight, Yameen appears to be a much-weakened political actor now. This is evident from the fact that his party, the PPM, not only defied his order to boycott the elections but is backing Muizzu and not a candidate of Yameen’s choice.

Both countries have invested heavily in the archipelago’s economy

If as expected the first round of voting on September 9 fails to throw up a clear winner, one can expect to see intense bargaining and trading among various politicians and parties.

In previous presidential elections, Qasim Ibrahim proved to be a kingmaker, given his capacity to swing elections in favour of the candidate he backed in the final round.

A candidate in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2013, he could not contest the 2018 vote due to a conviction on bribery charges. Qasim lost in the first round both times but when on to back the winner—Nasheed and Yameen, respectively, in the final rounds in 2008 and 2013. In 2018, he backed Solih against incumbent Yameen. Solih won the election.If Qasim does not emerge in the final two, he will be assiduously courted by both candidates.

The Maldivian presidential election will be closely watched in India and China. Both countries have invested heavily in the archipelago’s economy, especially in its infrastructure sector.

During Yameen’s presidency, Maldivian foreign policy took a distinctly pro-China turn. With his authoritarian rule drawing international censure, Yameen turned to Beijing for support at global forums. The strategically located archipelago—it sits near key sea lanes—joined the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese investment and loans grew as did the Maldives’ debt. Relations with India frayed under Yameen.

mass protests in the Maldives in 2003
Democracy is in its infancy

The Maldives under Solih adopted an ‘India First’ policy and while India-Maldives relations deepened significantly, ties with Beijing did not weaken.

India has watched the MDP split with great concern as both Solih and Nasheed have prioritised relations with India. While India has avoided taking sides in the Solih-Nasheed spat, of the two, New Delhi views ‘Solih’s governance style as more stable and less activist,’ an official in the Indian government told Asian Affairs.As journalist Nirupama Subramanian observed in an article in Indian Express in January this year, ‘For India, Solih is a sober, steady pair of hands at the helm in Maldives, crucial to its interests in the Indian Ocean.’

The impact of the Solih-Nasheed split is likely to be felt more sharplyin the final round, should the September 9 vote result in a run-off. If this were to be the case, Nasheed is expected to play a major role in building alliances.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in