As Maldives goes to the polls in two weeks, several developments have occurred that are likely to impact the crucial presidential elections. Some observers believe that these elections will be one of the most critical in the country, and will have ramifications for geopolitics in the region.
In early 2023, cracks formed within the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), with members divided in their support for President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and former president Mohamed Nasheed, primarily over ideological differences. In May this year, Nasheed, who currently serves as the Speaker of the People’s Majlis (Maldives’ legislature) walked out of MDP with his loyalists and formed a new political party called The Democrats.
With this, The Democrats had 12 members in parliament, a number higher than other opposition parties. Some analysts believe that hostilities between Solih and Nasheed go way back, while some others say that it is as recent as 2021, after Nasheed returned to Maldives having survived an assassination attempt earlier that year. Nasheed’s allegiances began changing after he witnessed the Solih government pulling back from pacifying the conservative Adhaalath party, with which the government was aligned.
But perhaps the most significant development occurred two weeks ago, when the Maldives Supreme Court confirmed on August 6 that jailed former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom was going to be barred from contesting the country’s presidential election.
The ruling was a major setback for the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the main opposition party. In December last year, before his conviction for corruption and money laundering over kickbacks from a private company while he was president, the PPM had announced that Yameen would be its candidate for the upcoming elections. Despite several attempts, Yameen’s appeals were rejected.
Maldives Election candidates
For this year’s elections, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is up against seven candidates.
The Democrats has approved Ilyas Labeeb as their presidential candidate, who currently serves as MP from Hulhudhoo. After having given up on trying to secure Yameen’s eligibility to contest this year’s elections, the PPM nominated Mohamed Muizzu, currently the mayor of Male, the country’s capital, as its presidential candidate, and the Jumhooree Party nominated Qasim Ibrahim as their candidate.
The Maldives National Party nominated its founding member and party president Mohamed Nazim, while three are running as Independent candidates. This includes Ahmed Faris Maumoon, president of the Maldives Reform Movement party, a political party formed in 2019 by his father and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Umar Naseer and Hassan Zameel are the other two Independents.
“In the Maldives, we see that they usually go for a second round of elections because no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of votes in the first round,” Dr. Gulbin Sultana, a research analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, whose area of research includes Maldives, told indianexpress.com
Why these elections are important
In the complex neighbourhood of the Maldives in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, geo-political dynamics north of the archipelagic nation tend to dominate discussions on foreign policy. The country’s strategic location makes it an important player in regional affairs.
In the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections, critics as well as international observers and foreign governments were concerned about the fairness of the election process. “Politically, it was very chaotic in 2018, which we aren’t seeing this time,” said Sultana.
The tenure of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who served as the country’s leader from 2013-2018, was marked with allegations of widespread corruption and human rights violations. Another issue was the massive debt as a result of the leader’s strong preference for Chinese investment for the construction of public infrastructure, like roads, bridges, and airports.
“This is the first time in the political history of Maldives that eight candidates are contesting the presidential elections,” said a Maldivian academic with expertise in political science who requested anonymity, citing the contentious elections. “The elections will see stiff competition since all eight candidates would split the voters, making it unlikely that anyone secures 50 per cent of the votes in the first round. If that happens, a second round or run-off is scheduled for September 30.”
But what also makes this year’s elections crucial, the Maldivian academic said, is that this time, the election agenda includes extra-national matters such as the influx of foreign workers in the country and the dissatisfaction of opposition parties over the equidistance delimitation of an overlapping Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between Maldives and Mauritius by the Tribunal on Law of the Sea (ITLOS, the Tribunal). In April 2023, the Maldives effectively lost a long-standing legal battle against Mauritius concerning a 37,000-square-mile expanse of the Indian Ocean. In a diplomatic dispute that could be traced to 2001, the two countries were claiming their own exclusive economic zone where the water was rich in fish by delimiting overlapping maritime boundaries.
“Another extra-national concern was the hotly debated issue of the increasing debt of Maldives. Maldives is expected to reach US $ 1 billion in debt servicing by 2026,” the academic said.
The India question
While India’s relations went through a period of several tests during Yameen’s tenure, New Delhi witnessed a considerable thawing of relations under Solih.
But in 2020, Maldives-India relations had to contend with what was called the ‘India Out’ campaign, that initially started as on-ground protests in the Maldives and later spread widely across social media platforms using the phrase with a related hashtag.
Even during his tenure, Yameen and his supporters attempted to whip up anti-India sentiments in domestic politics, which only became more pronounced once he left office. They focussed specifically on two issues: the presence of two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) that were given by India to Maldives in 2010 and in 2015. Based in Addu Atoll and at Hanimaadhoo, they were used for ocean search-and-rescue operations, maritime weather surveillance and for airlifting patients between islands.
The second was a wider complaint that the Opposition party, PPM had, focusing on what it called the “lack of transparency” between bilateral agreements signed between India and the Maldives during the Solih administration.
Analysts agree that the ‘India Out’ campaign was used as a political movement to mobilise people in the Maldives against India, but ultimately lost much of its original steam because political parties in the country acknowledge that a boycott of India isn’t practical, said Sultana.
But that does not mean that the issue has died down entirely. The Opposition and supporters of the ‘India Out’ campaign have consistently accused the current government of allowing what they claim is the presence of Indian military personnel in the Maldives. “However, in the Presidential Debate held on September 1, Solih denied any presence of Indian military troops for military tasks. He said that Indian expatriates are in Maldives to assist with development projects and construction of defence infrastructure. Significant public sentiment is against any military presence in the country,” said the Maldivian academic.
However, there is a consensus among researchers and academics who focus on Maldives that the Maldivian government, regardless of which political party comes to power, does acknowledge India’s role and importance in the region’s foreign affairs.
“The leading opposition candidate representing PNC and Progressive Party of Maldives, Dr. Mohamed Muiz, has declared that if elected, he would follow the India First policy traditionally practised by governments of Maldives, but will not allow the crossing of limits. In the Presidential debate almost all candidates vowed that a balanced foreign policy would be pursued, promoting friendship and development partnership with all like-minded countries,” the academic said.