On Friday, September 1, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) held its biggest rally to date in Malé to bolster support for President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, ahead of the presidential election slated for September 9.
During the event, MDP Chairperson and Minister of Economic Development Fayyaz Ismail asserted that based on his projections, Solih would garner a minimum of 56 percent of the vote share on election day. Solih himself claimed that if an election were to be immediately held, he would emerge victorious “ehburunn” (in one round).
Yet the probability of a runoff election is considerable, given the sheer number of candidates. The electorate’s attention is divided among Solih; Mayor of Malé Mohamed Muizzu, who is representing the People’s National Congress (PNC) in coalition with the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM); Ilyas Labeeb and Qasim Ibrahim, Members of Parliament from the Democrats and the Jumhooree Party (JP), respectively; Mohamed Nazim of the Maldives National Party (MNP); and three independent candidates — Faris Maumoon, Hassan Zameel, and Umar Naseer. Should no candidate secure a “50 percent + 1” majority in the first round, a runoff between the top two candidates is scheduled for September 30.
Of the three democratic presidential elections since 2008, two advanced to a second round. In the event of the election proceeding to a second round, the president would be politically vulnerable, even if he were to secure a plurality in the first round. Observing past precedent, frontrunners in the first round usually face a united opposition in the subsequent round. For instance, in the 2008 elections, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom performed impressively in the first round, but was ultimately defeated by Mohamed Nasheed, who rallied Gayoom’s initial opponents behind him. In 2013, Nasheed led in the first round but lost to Abdulla Yameen in a close runoff, as the latter benefited from a coalition of Nasheed’s initial competitors.
Solih’s first-round victory with a commanding majority in 2018 was the exception. During that campaign, all of the opposition united behind him against Yameen’s increasingly autocratic and erratic regime. Yet the coalition that propelled Solih to victory in 2018 — originally comprised of the MDP, the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party (AP), the JP, and the now dissolved Maldives Reform Movement (MRM), to which Faris belonged — has mostly disintegrated, with the Adhaalath remaining the government’s main coalition partner.
This political fragmentation is evident in the independent candidacies of Qasim and Faris. Moreover, the Democrats represent a faction that broke off from the ruling MDP. This breakaway group maintains allegiances to former President Nasheed, currently speaker of Parliament, who lost the MDP primary to Solih, yet remains focused on undermining Solih’s re-election efforts. Despite being lifelong friends and in-laws, Nasheed and Solih have experienced a rift over disagreements in government policy and Nasheed’s proposal to transition the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system.
Despite optimistic campaign rhetoric, the MDP’s strategy subtly acknowledges the possibility of a runoff. A substantial portion of their campaign energy is directed at Muizzu, whom they consider to be Solih’s most likely adversary in a second-round contest.
Muizzu represents the PNC, which is in coalition with the PPM, the second-largest party in the country after the MDP. Although former President Yameen was initially granted the PPM ticket last August, the Election Commission invalidated his candidacy due to his ongoing prison sentence for money laundering — a decision that was later upheld by the country’s Supreme Court. As a result, Muizzu, initially a backup candidate within the PNC ranks, has become the de facto candidate, receiving Yameen’s lukewarm endorsement.
The MDP campaign asserts that a potential Muizzu victory threatens a return to Yameen’s controversial tenure, which was rife with corruption scandals, the imprisonment of multiple political opponents, and the deaths and disappearances of journalists. Further, they assert that Muizzu has connections to religious extremists.
Muizzu, for his part, echoes Yameen’s criticisms of Solih, most notably the claim that under Solih’s administration, Maldives has become overly reliant on India. The PPM-PNC coalition contends that the current administration has allowed India to maintain a military presence in Maldives. This claim serves as the main thrust behind their “India Out” campaign.
Amid a tense and fragmented political climate, it is crucial to not overlook that the forthcoming elections represent a significant milestone for the country. For the first time since its inaugural shift to democracy in 2008, the nation is poised for a relatively peaceful and controversy-free democratic election.
This contrasts sharply with the history of political instability that has marred previous Maldivian elections. Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected leader, was compelled to resign in 2012 amid unrest. The ensuing 2013 election faced judicial interference and delays, while the lead-up to the 2018 election was characterized by then-President Yameen’s systematic attempts to imprison and intimidate all of his political rivals.
The current administration’s commitment to democratic norms is not without its shortcomings. International observers have highlighted instances of undue state influence over the media, and questions have also been raised about the independence of crucial institutions, such as the Elections Commission (EC).
For instance, EC President Fuwad Thaufeeq faced a vote of no confidence from his colleagues, who are perceived to be more loyal to the incumbent government. This vote came after Thaufeeq’s attempts to expedite the formal registration of The Democrats as a political party. Additionally, Yameen remains the only major figure from his scandal-ridden term to be imprisoned, leading to allegations by the opposition of selective and politically expedient justice.
Despite these concerns, the country’s political landscape is notably peaceful. Candidates opposing Solih encounter little risk of legal or physical repercussions.
As Maldives gears up for its fourth presidential election since its democratic transition, preparations are unfolding without major controversy or disruptions. Voters can enter the voting booth with a preliminary sense of confidence that the election’s outcome will genuinely reflect the collective will of the electorate in a genuinely competitive setting.
Considering the turbulent history of the country’s young democracy, such stability is an achievement worthy of recognition.