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Former Adversaries Unite to Challenge President Solih in Maldives Presidential Elections

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Former Adversaries Unite to Challenge President Solih in Maldives Presidential Elections

But there are serious differences between the constituents of the new anti-Solih partnership on domestic and foreign policy issues.

Former Adversaries Unite to Challenge President Solih in Maldives Presidential Elections

Members of The Democrats and the Progressive Party of Maldives meet in Male, Maldives, to strategize ahead of the September 9 Maldivian presidential election, July 7, 2023.

Credit: Twitter/The Democrats

An unexpected partnership between two former adversaries has emerged ahead of the Maldivian presidential election in September to challenge the re-election bid of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

This unlikely partnership consists of The Democrats, a breakaway faction of the MDP that is led by former President and current Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed, a long-term friend-turned-opponent of Solih, and the Progressive Alliance, comprising the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which is led by ex-President Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

Yameen and Nasheed had contested against one another during the 2013 presidential elections, during which Nasheed sought to restore his political fortunes after having been forced to resign from the presidency in February of the previous year. Nonetheless, Yameen emerged victorious in that closely contested and controversial election. He subsequently had Nasheed imprisoned on a terrorism charge, part of a broader effort to suppress his opposition. Consequently, Nasheed was barred from the 2018 elections, but he significantly contributed to Yameen’s defeat by supporting his then-ally, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Since then, Maldivian politics has undergone dramatic changes precipitated by growing differences between Nasheed and Solih. Nasheed publicly severed ties with the Solih administration in late 2021, infuriated by the government reneging on legislation targeting religion-based hate speech. The legislation had been introduced after Nasheed barely survived an assassination attempt by religious extremists in May that year.

The divide widened when Solih dismissed Nasheed’s proposal for a referendum on converting the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system, to facilitate the latter’s aspiration to become prime minister.

After failing in his bid against Solih in this year’s MDP presidential primary, Nasheed formed a separate faction within the MDP. In June, members of this new faction decided to break away from the MDP, resulting in the creation of a new political party — the Democrats.

Subsequently, Nasheed himself severed ties with the MDP, a party he had nominally remained the leader of up until his resignation. He has explicitly signaled his readiness to collaborate with any political figure in opposition to Solih’s re-election.

It is in this context that the Democrats started making overtures towards the PPM-PNC coalition. Ironically, Nasheed is now working with his former adversary Yameen to unseat his former ally Solih.

Yet this partnership remains tenuous, fraught with the remnants of their past rivalry and fundamentally differing policy perspectives.

One notable disagreement is over the Progressive Alliance’s “India Out” campaign, which has been protesting against an alleged Indian military presence in Maldives and New Delhi’s supposedly excessive sway over the current administration. Nasheed, a firm proponent of strong relations with New Delhi, strongly objects to this campaign. Yet attempts by the Democrats to moderate PPM’s “India Out” rhetoric have largely been unsuccessful.

The two also hold different views on China. During his presidency, Yameen was a fervent supporter of enlisting Maldives in the Belt and Road Initiative and actively pursued a free trade agreement with Beijing. In contrast, Nasheed is strident in his views that Beijing is an economically predatory power.

Their divergences are not limited to international policy but extend to domestic matters as well. For instance, Nasheed is an enthusiastic supporter of decentralization and strengthening local governments, and embraces a long-term vision of federalizing the country. Conversely, Yameen staunchly favors centralization and exerted significant efforts to curb the power and autonomy of local governments during his presidency.

Despite these differences, there have been instances of cooperation. For example, Yameen and Nasheed’s supporters were united in their criticism of the Solih administration’s recognition of Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos Islands. They argued that this move disadvantaged the country in negotiating Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundaries within the overlapping area between Maldives and Chagos. Notably, some have even endorsed a dubious claim of Maldivian sovereignty over Chagos.

Ultimately, however, this alliance is primarily a strategic move for the upcoming elections, aimed at offsetting Solih’s incumbency advantage.

Ever since Maldives transitioned to democracy in 2008, presidential elections have typically progressed to runoffs, with the first-round votes often scattered among several candidates. A candidate usually emerges victorious in the second round by successfully consolidating opposition support, as exemplified by Nasheed in 2008 and Yameen in 2013. The 2018 election, however, saw a deviation from this trend with Solih securing a first-round win, thanks to the unified support of the opposition. This included endorsements from diverse groups such as the Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) led by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (Yameen’s now estranged half-brother), the conservative Adhaalath Party (AP), and the Jumhooree Party (JP), under the leadership of businessman Qasim Ibrahim.

In the forthcoming election, Solih hopes to replicate his 2018 success by offering key government roles to his allies and their supporters. Nevertheless, his political position has become increasingly shaky. The JP announced its intention to independently field Qasim as its candidate. Additionally, the departure of Nasheed and his followers to join the Democrats has weakened Solih’s party. Now, with Nasheed making serious overtures to ally with Yameen, the likelihood of Solih’s reelection is far from assured.

However, maintaining their proposed alliance will be a substantial challenge for Nasheed and Yameen, considering their historical animosity and the challenge of agreeing upon a shared candidate. Nasheed’s suggestion that both he and Yameen endorse a mutually agreed third candidate has met with strong resistance from many in the PPM, who firmly back Yameen as their preferred candidate. This resistance may be problematic, especially since Yameen is currently serving a sentence for money laundering, with his appeals still pending.

Meanwhile, despite Nasheed expressing his apparent readiness to step aside from the presidential race, it is unclear whether his followers would be willing to support an alternative candidate. It is worth noting that in the 2018 elections, it was Nasheed who had proposed Solih as an alternative to himself — a move that, in Nasheed’s view, seems to have backfired.

Given these complexities, the constantly evolving political scene in Maldives might produce more surprises as the presidential elections approach — an event that is gearing up to be as intensely contested as it is unpredictable.