Maldives' Presidential Elections at The Crossroads

As the wheel of Maldivian politics turns towards another critical juncture, the presidential elections slated for 9 September 2023, the national political landscape is abuzz with anticipation and preparations. During a recent press conference, the chairman of the Election Commission (EC), Fuad Thaufeeq, announced that if required, a second round of voting would take place on September 30. The nation stands on the cusp of a significant democratic exercise, one that promises to shape the future course of the island nation. According to the EC's projections, the upcoming election will witness a larger voter turnout compared to the 2018 presidential election, with an estimated eligibility of over 280,000 individuals, surpassing the previous figure by approximately 21,000 voters. The crucial battle for the nation's highest office is anticipated to unfold predominantly between the candidates representing the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).


Situated primarily in the equatorial waters of the Indian Ocean, just south of the vast subcontinent of India, lies the Maldives. This exquisite archipelago, comprised of approximately 1,200 islands, cradles a population of close to half a million individuals.


The incumbent, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is set to run for re-election following his triumph over the Speaker of the People's Majlis, Mohamed Nasheed, in the intense primary of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on Jan 30. Equally noteworthy in the upcoming electoral competition are the candidacies of former President Abdulla Yameen, who represents the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and former Minister of Defence and National Security, Mohamed Nazim, who hails from the Maldives National Party. Along with them, the Jumhooree Party has also signalled its intent to enter the race by announcing plans to put forth its own presidential contenders.


The 2019 parliamentary election in Maldives witnessed an extraordinary achievement by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), as they secured a remarkable victory, winning 65 out of the 87 seats in the parliament. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, this historic win marked the first instance in Maldivian history where a single party gained such a substantial majority in the parliament. Alongside the MDP, Other notable parties in the parliament include the Jumhooree Party with five seats, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) with five seats, the People's National Congress (PNC) with three seats, and the Maldives Development Alliance with two seats. The remaining seven seats are held by independent representatives, further contributing to the diverse political landscape of the Maldivian parliament.

Meanwhile, the PPM-PNC coalition in opposition has officially nominated their leader, former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayyoom, as their candidate for the presidency. However, it is important to note that Yameen was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison by the Criminal Court on December 25 of the previous year on charges of corruption, money laundering and bribery in connection to the sale of V. Aarah – a case linked to the greater MMPRC graft case. As a result, Yameen's participation in the upcoming presidential election is contingent upon the higher court overturning the verdict of the Criminal Court.


Throughout his presidency and subsequent opposition, Yameen staunchly adopted an anti-India position, functioning as a proxy for Chinese interests in the Maldives. This was exemplified by his facilitation of numerous Chinese-backed infrastructure projects and agreements, some of which compromised the sovereignty of the island nation, such as the leasing of Feydhoo Finholu to a Chinese company. The China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement (FTA) serves as a glaring example of the situation. Without conducting proper due diligence on the associated projects, the Maldives joined China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by aligning itself with China's Maritime Silk Road component, leading to a substantial increase in the country's debt burden to China. Consequently, the Maldives essentially placed itself at the mercy of China's salami-slicing strategy, wherein territories of other nations are incrementally acquired to advance China's strategic interests. Furthermore, China's interference in the internal affairs of the Maldives became pervasive during Yameen's administration. Yameen's governance not only undermined democratic practices but also perpetuated authoritarian rule, eroding the democratic foundations of the island nation.


Under the leadership of Abdulla Yameen, the PPM government pushed Maldives into a precarious debt trap with China. Upon his release from house arrest in 2022, Yameen, supported by his political party members, launched a vitriolic "India-Out" campaign, baselessly alleging undue Indian influence over the incumbent government and accusing India of meddling in the affairs of Maldivian governance.

President Solih's administration revitalized the Maldives "India First" policy, emphasizing the reorientation of foreign policy towards India. The policy shift aimed to strengthen diplomatic ties with India and address the concerns over potential Chinese military encroachment in the region. Defence cooperation between the two nations was prioritized to enhance joint defence capabilities and regional stability. The economic relationship between the Maldives and India improved, with India providing significant lines of credit for infrastructure projects in the Maldives. The partnership was further fortified through India's delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to the Maldives, demonstrating solidarity and fostering a deeper bond between the two nations. Overall, the policy shift has resulted in increased defence cooperation, enhanced economic collaboration, and a consolidated partnership between the two nations for mutual benefit and prosperity.


In stark contrast to the PPM, the MDP has consistently prioritized the national interest of Maldives. Under the leadership of President Solih, the MDP has spearheaded indigenous development initiatives, exemplified by transformative infrastructure projects such as the Great Male Connectivity Project and the construction of an international airport in Hanimadhoo, HaaDhaalu atoll, aimed at bolstering the country's vital tourism sector. The MDP envisions a socially progressive and economically thriving Maldives, firmly committed to fostering sustainable development.


Moreover, the MDP has remained at the forefront of championing democratic ideals, advocating for human rights, social justice, and free and fair elections. In marked divergence to the PPM's fiefdom-like practices under Yameen's rule, which eroded democratic principles, the MDP not only upholds democratic values in governing the nation but also practices inner-party democracy. The MDP has been an unwavering voice against autocracy and corruption, while actively supporting the accountability and transparency of public institutions. It has steadfastly advocated for the rule of law and human rights, courageously combating religious extremism and the abuse of power. The MDP's initiatives have led to tangible economic and social reforms that have directly improved the lives of countless Maldivians.

The party has been particularly industrious in holding the government accountable for its social and economic development goals, ensuring that its representatives are answerable for their policies and actions. Through these efforts, the MDP has contributed significantly to the strengthening of democratic institutions and the establishment of participatory governance in the Maldives. A testament to its commitment to democratic principles is the democratic process witnessed in the presidential primary elections featuring the top leaders of the MDP, Solih and Nasheed. With its people-centric and progressive agenda, the MDP is poised to lead Maldives on a trajectory of continued development and prosperity within a robust democratic framework.


The result of presidential primary election was a blow for Nasheed, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 and was the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader. Nasheed, aged 56, had aspired for a political resurgence following a conviction on charges of "terrorism," widely regarded as politically motivated, which barred him from contesting in the previous presidential election in 2013.

The simmering discord between Solih and Nasheed had been brewing for months, but tensions escalated when Nasheed openly declined to endorse Solih after losing in the primaries, indicating his intention to propose an alternative candidate. Going a step further, Nasheed initiated coalition discussions with Qasim Ibrahim, the leader of the Jumhooree Party. However, no official announcements have been made regarding a potential alliance between Nasheed and the Jumhooree Party.


In a significant development, the upcoming Maldivian presidential election, set for September, is now at risk due to Speaker Mohammed Nasheed's refusal to extend the Parliament session. This decision hampers the process of electing new members for the Election Commission, which currently faces a deadlock with a 3-2 vote against Chairman Fuad Taqfeeq. The responsibility to resolve these twin deadlocks falls upon President Ibrahim Solih, intervention of the Supreme Court, or both.


A precarious situation has arisen following Nasheed's formal departure from the ruling MDP, as he joined 13 loyalist Members of Parliament in the formation of a new party called "The Democrats." The Democrats, comprising dissident members who broke away from the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Now they expressed their unwavering commitment on Monday to employ every possible means in order to secure the release of former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who is presently serving an 11-year prison sentence for corruption, money laundering and other charges.


During a press conference held on Monday afternoon subsequent to discussions between the Democrats and the main opposition party, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), Central Henveiru MP Ali Azim affirmed the Democrats' endorsement of the right to a fair trial. He articulated the party's contention that it is unjust for Yameen to bear the sole burden of imprisonment in a case that implicates multiple wrongdoers. Expressing concern over the conviction and incarceration of a solitary individual, Ali Azim emphasized the opposition leader's entitlement to a fair judicial process. In response to a reporter's query regarding the Democrats' potential collaboration with the PPM in their efforts to secure Yameen's release, Ali Azim hinted the party's future involvement in such endeavours.


Further elucidating the Democrats' stance, Ali Azim clarified that while they were forging compromises to collaborate with the PPM, they did not endorse the PPM's "India Out" movement. He accentuated that the convergence of principles between the two parties would necessitate time and gradual adjustment rather than an instantaneous transformation.


During the press conference, the PPM and the Democrats disclosed their intention to hold a joint rally the following Monday, although the specific time and venue remain undisclosed. Besides, a joint committee comprising members from both parties has been established to engage in bipartisan discussions.


In conclusion, the upcoming presidential elections in the Maldives mark a crucial turning point for the nation's political landscape. With the MDP and the PPM as the primary contenders, the nation anticipates a significant voter turnout and a fierce battle for the highest office. The MDP, under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has demonstrated a commitment to the national interest, indigenous development, and democratic values. In contrast, the PPM faces challenges due to the conviction of its leader, former President Abdulla Yameen, for money laundering and bribery. The emergence of breakaway factions and coalitions adds further complexity to the political landscape. Amidst this dynamic environment, the upcoming elections offer an opportunity for the Maldives to shape its future, reaffirm democratic principles, and pursue sustainable development within a robust democratic framework. Europe should seek to forge closer ties with the incoming Government in the Maldives. As a nation vulnerable to climate change - which is not of its own making - Europe should stand necessary to assist the Maldives with the challenges to come. 


Author: Dr Maheep, a leading Expert of India’s Foreign Affairs. He has been in teaching and research of International Relations and Global Politics over a decade.