The first round of the presidential election in Maldives brought disappointment for President Ibrahim Solih. He is seeking a second term and was the favorite to win the elections but failed to even top the results of the first round, much less secure the majority needed to prevent a run-off. Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, the candidate for the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-People’s National Congress (PNC) coalition, took a surprise lead with 46 percent of votes, followed by Solih with 39 percent.
The elections took place in a fragmented political landscape, with a record eight candidates participating. The rest of the candidates performed poorly, with the third-ranked party winning just 7 percent of the votes.
However, since no candidate managed to secure the required 50 percent majority, a run-off election between Muizzu and Solih will take place on September 30. The outcome of the election will have implications for both domestic policy and foreign relations, especially amid the heightened debate about the presence of Indian military personnel in Maldives.
First Round Results: Disappointments and Surprises
With splits in the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and Mohammed Nasheed quitting the party, it was expected that it would be difficult for Solih to cross the 50 percent threshold in the first round. However, given the party’s good performance in the last five years and the main opposition candidate, former President Abdulla Yameen, disqualified from contesting elections, Solih was still favorite to lead the first round. The fact that he failed to do so could be interpreted as the referendum against the Solih government and the rising popularity of the PPM-PNC coalition.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Solih to close the 7-point gap in the second round without the support of Nasheed.
The PPM-PNC coalition, the major opposition party, was expected to give tough competition to Solih. However, Muizzu’s victory in the first round was a surprise for the party. The opposition was already at a disadvantage because their main candidate, Yameen, was barred from contesting the election due to money laundering and corruption charges. Anticipating his acquittal, the opposition party did not name an alternative candidate until the last moment.
Even after the PNC nominated Muizzu’s name for the election, PPM workers were unhappy with it. However, Muizzu’s experience as the mayor of Malé, the groundwork laid by PPM-PNC in anticipation of Yameen’s candidature, and anti-Solih sentiments all helped Muizzu accumulate the largest vote share.
The performance of the Democrats, which was formed just before the elections after Nasheed’s faction split from the ruling party, was equally disappointing. The Democrats came in third but could garner only 7 percent of votes. Given Nasheed’s widespread popularity and influence, the new party was expected to be a serious challenger to both the MDP and the PPM. Nasheed’s campaign focused on “not Solih” and “anyone but Solih,” in an attempt to split MDP votes and garner anti-Solih votes. However, their election return was a disappointment and did not pose a real threat to the ruling party.
Poaching the Kingmaker
Since no candidate could reach the required 50 percent mark, both the PPM-PNC coalition and the MDP will require the support of other parties to secure victory in the second round. Previous elections in Maldives have shown that the second round result is generally decided by the alliance partners.
In the 2008 and 2013 elections, Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party (JP) played the kingmaker in the second round after finishing third in the first round with 15 percent and 23 percent of votes, respectively. In 2008, he supported Nasheed and in 2013 he backed Yameen, both of whom won their respective elections. In 2018, Qasim supported the joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih, who secured a majority in the first round. However, Qasim’s influence appeared to be waning, as he came in fifth with a mere 2 percent of votes in the present elections.
Nasheed’s Democrats, after finishing third in the first round, are poised to play a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the second round. If they support Muizzu, his victory will be nearly certain. However, if they ally with Solih, the race for the presidency will become much closer.
The cordial relationship between Nasheed and Solih has turned sour in recent times, after disagreements on issues of governance and the country’s political structure. Following his loss to Solih in the MDP presidential primaries, Nasheed and his allies left the party. Before the elections, Nasheed had proposed the idea of a joint candidate to run against Solih. However, his project could not succeed, with major opposition parties going it alone in the elections.
Although Nasheed has hinted at not supporting Solih in the run-off, South Asian politics is known for its surprises and last-minute U-turns. Considering Nasheed’s pivotal position, the MDP is now trying to mend bridges with Nasheed’s breakaway faction. MDP parliamentarians have withdrawn the no-confidence motion lodged against Nasheed for his position as the speaker of the Parliament.
Supporting the PPM-PNC is a difficult choice for Nasheed, given their different views on domestic policy and foreign relations. Nasheed prefers liberal, decentralized governance and would like to convert the presidential system into a parliamentary one. Meanwhile, the tenure of the PPM-PNC coalition under Yameen’s presidency was characterized by authoritarianism and a lack of political autonomy. Nasheed is critical of China’s engagement and supports an “India first” policy, while Yameen’s party has a history of playing the anti-India card in domestic politics and maintaining positive relations with China.
How Are Maldivians Voting?
The issues of affordable housing, enhancing the tourism industry, and improving the health sector were central to the election campaign. MV Plus, a news website that holds opinion polls in Maldives, noted that housing remains the most important concern for voters, followed by national security, the economy, and civil rights.
For the opposition, Solih’s “India first” policy was a prominent issue. The PPM-PNC coalition has organized an “India Out” movement, protesting against the presence of the Indian military in Maldives. Muizzu, the opposition candidate, criticized the government’s “India first” policy as undermining Maldives’ independent position in foreign affairs, and promised to correct this if elected. Additionally, his announcement that his government would introduce air ambulances was also interpreted as a shift away from reliance on India for emergency medical airlifts.
The voting patterns in this election were interesting because there seemed to be cross-voting against certain smaller parties, pointing to anti-incumbency sentiments. For instance, JP and the Maldivian National Party (MNP) garnered 5,000 and 1,000 votes, respectively, despite having a registered membership of 22,000 and 9,000. While there was a low turnout, another likely reason for this gap could be that those voting against Solih may have opted for the candidate most likely to win the election. Such cross-voting seemed to have likely benefited the PPM-PNC coalition, which saw an increase of more than 4 points from the 2018 election, despite the larger number of overall candidates.
Implications on Regional Geopolitics
Most international media outlets have portrayed the elections as a choice between pro-India Solih and pro-China Muizzu. It has also been noted that the outcome of the election will determine which regional power – India or China – will influence the island nation. However, the situation is a little more complex.
The discourse around India and anti-India campaigns have more to do with domestic debates on national identity, meanings of sovereignty, and the nature of the foreign policy that Maldives should adopt. The MDP and the PPM have differing opinions on these issues.
The previous PPM government, led by Abdulla Yameen, also maintained an “India First” policy and signed security agreements with New Delhi. However, Yameen was reluctant to allow Indian military personnel on the islands. This position arose from the government’s narrow definition of sovereignty and Yameen’s insecurity about New Delhi interfering in domestic politics due to its preference for Nasheed and the MDP.
In contrast, the MDP government’s India First policy is more expansive with a broader understanding of sovereignty that allows the presence of military personnel on the islands.
It would be preposterous to think that a PPM-PNC government will downgrade Maldives’ relations with India. On the flip side, both the MDP and PPM governments have continued to deal with China. That said, a PPM government would be more willing to accept Chinese investments regardless of their effects on the country’s debt and environment.
Therefore, with the PPM-PNC coalition in power, we might see the Maldives engage more closely with China and therefore witness a regional competition between India and China over development projects. However, even then PPM-PNC government will continue with the limited “India First” policy that recognizes India as the external security guarantor for the island nation.
New Delhi will be keenly watching the elections in Maldives as the result will have implications for India-Maldives relations and regional geopolitics. It has had good ties with both Nasheed and Solih and will be hoping for them to reconcile for the second round. There is also the possibility that New Delhi could play a role in reducing the differences between the two politicians.