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Maldives’ Presidential Election Is a Multi-Horse Race

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Maldives’ Presidential Election Is a Multi-Horse Race

The electoral line-up lays bare political fragmentation in the young and tumultuous democracy.

Maldives’ Presidential Election Is a Multi-Horse Race

President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party shakes hands with a voter on the campaign trail during his bid for the presidency in 2018, Maldives, August 30, 2018.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Asimoosa

Maldivians will vote in presidential elections on September 9. The number of candidates in the fray is unprecedented in the nation’s history. After the Elections Commission’s deadline for candidate registration passed on August 7, eight names have been approved to appear on the ballot.

They include:

  • President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), running for re-election;
  • Mayor of Malé Mohamed Muizzu, representing the People’s National Congress (PNC), backed by the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM);
  • Member of Parliament Ilyas Labeeb of the newly formed party The Democrats;
  • Member of Parliament Qasim Ibrahim, a business tycoon and leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP); and
  • Former Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim, leader of the Maldives National Party (MNP).

Besides, there are three independent candidates including Faris Maumoon, son of former President Maumoon Abdul Qayoom and nephew of former President Yameen Abdul Gayoom; Umar Naseer, former home minister; and Hassan Zameel, a previous minister of defense.

While the number of candidates in this seemingly competitive election marks a significant milestone for the country’s young and tumultuous democracy, it also exposes a fragmented political landscape. For instance, Qasim and Faris (connected to his father’s recently dissolved political group, the Maldives Reform Movement), were once partners in the Solih government. They had rallied behind him in 2018 to prevent the re-election of the increasingly authoritarian former President Yameen. Although Solih tried to preserve this partnership for the upcoming elections by promising them more sway in his next administration, they have opted to run independently.

In addition, the Democrats were born from a division within the ruling MDP between Solih and former President Mohamed Nasheed. Followers of the latter formed the Democrats after Nasheed lost the MDP primary earlier this year. A core disagreement is Nasheed’s continuing wish to transform the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system, a change that would ease his path to becoming prime minister. His aspiration to become prime minister from within the legislature likely influenced Nasheed’s decision to abstain from the presidential race as the Democrats’ candidate. Instead, he has chosen to endorse Ilyas, a key supporter of his.

One notable omission from the list of candidates is Yameen, who was president from 2013 to 2018 and is still the leader of the PPM. Despite securing the PPM nomination in August of last year, Yameen has since been convicted on a money-laundering charge, resulting in an 11-year sentence. His ongoing conviction led the Elections Commission to decline his candidacy, a decision that the Supreme Court subsequently upheld despite appeals from his lawyers.

During the legal proceedings, Yameen requested the PNC faction of the PPM-PNC coalition to nominate an alternate candidate as a fallback option. This led to the selection of Mayor Muizzu, who had previously served as the minister of housing and infrastructure under Yameen’s administration.

However, Yameen’s readiness to endorse an alternate candidate appears uncertain. Following the Supreme Court’s confirmation of his ineligibility, he initially advocated for an election boycott rather than endorsing Muizzu. The PPM-PNC senate’s refusal to follow Yameen’s guidance might indicate his diminishing control over the party. Yameen has subsequently offered only a lukewarm endorsement of Muizzu.

Despite this tepid endorsement, Muizzu emphasized his “unconditional loyalty” to Yameen and vowed to release Yameen from prison on his first day in office if elected. Whether his actual intentions align with these stated promises is a matter of speculation.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, Nasheed, who himself faced imprisonment on terrorism charges under Yameen’s presidency, is now exploiting the PPM’s internal divisions by advocating for Yameen’s immediate release. Nasheed’s ostensible goal is to attract disgruntled Yameen supporters unhappy with Muizzu’s selection, encouraging them to vote for the Democrats instead.

Solih’s principal argument for re-election hinges on the need for a second term to complete initiatives begun during his first term. These primarily focus on nationwide infrastructure projects aimed at resolving housing shortages in the Maldives, especially in the capital, Malé. Over-centralization has resulted in residents from other islands migrating there to access jobs and essential services, resulting in mounting pressure on land and soaring rent prices.

The Democrats are positioning themselves as upholders of the original values of the MDP. They are crafting a manifesto that emphasizes enhanced decentralization and support for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). They also contend that the Solih administration has failed to meet its initial commitments, particularly regarding bolstering anti-corruption measures following graft scandals that arose during Yameen’s presidency. Instances of corruption occurring within government ministries under Solih’s watch have contributed to a decline in the country’s score in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in recent years.

The PPM-PNC’s campaigns are chiefly aimed at stirring nationalist sentiments, arguing that the current MDP government has surrendered the country’s autonomy to India by allegedly permitting New Delhi to maintain a military presence in the Maldives. They pledge to eradicate this Indian military presence through an “India Out” campaign, initiated by Yameen.

Qasim, who leads the country’s third-largest party, the JP, is notably offering financial incentives to voters, such as forgiving student debts owed to his company, the Villa Company, which financed their education. The impact of Nazim of the MNP, whose manifesto appears unstructured and vague, along with other independent candidates, on the final outcome remains unclear.

Given the substantial number of contenders, a second round of the election on September 30 seems plausible. Predicting the winner is a complex task, and the successful candidate will confront various challenges. These challenges include: navigating the strategic interests of India and China; managing recovery from COVID-19; and averting a potential debt crisis (according to the World Bank, the country’s debt servicing is forecasted to reach $1 billion per year by 2026, a concerning amount for a country whose GDP is approximately $6 billion). Additional challenges include addressing the escalating housing crisis and handling a fragmented political landscape, particularly with parliamentary elections looming early next year.

How the winner will engage with these challenges, and the implications of the election’s results for the future of Maldives’ democracy, remain to be seen.