Maldivians went to the polls on September 9 to cast their votes in the country’s fourth democratic presidential election since adopting a multiparty democratic system in 2008. The results yielded a major upset, with the opposition coming out ahead of the current government.
Incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) emerged as the runner-up, securing 39.05 percent of the vote. His main competitor, the Mayor of Malé Mohamed Muizzu of the People’s National Congress (PNC), garnered 46.06 percent, becoming the current frontrunner in the elections.
The percentage of votes secured by other candidates was as follows: Ilyas Labeeb of the Democrats 7.18 percent, independent candidate Umar Naseer 2.87 percent, Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party (JP) 2.47 percent, independent Ahmed Faris Maumoon 1.35 percent, Mohamed Nazim of the Maldives National Party (MNP) 0.86 percent, and independent Hassan Zameel 0.15 percent.
As no candidate secured the necessary 50 percent plus one vote for an outright victory, a runoff between the top two contenders, Muizzu and Solih, is scheduled for September 30.
The results highlight the damage wrought by the split in the MDP, which was exacerbated by tensions between Solih and former President and current Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed. The 7 percent of votes garnered by the Democrats, a faction that broke away from the MDP and aligned with Nasheed after he lost the MDP primary to Solih, matches the vote discrepancy between Solih and Muizzu.
A key point of contention between Solih and Nasheed is the latter’s ongoing advocacy for a referendum to transition the Maldives from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Nasheed, who aspires to become prime minister, has used the Democrats’ leverage to demand that the MDP hold this referendum on September 28 — right before the scheduled runoff election.
Solih has labeled this proposed date as impractical but has expressed willingness to conduct such a referendum within his current presidential term, set to expire on November 17. The specifics of how this would be implemented remain unclear at this time.
In the upcoming runoff election, Muizzu appears to have the advantage. He stepped in as a last-minute replacement for former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who was initially the nominee of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). However, Yameen was later declared ineligible to run by the country’s Supreme Court due to his ongoing 11-year prison sentence for money laundering.
Muizzu, a member of the PNC — an ally of Yameen’s PPM — received a lukewarm endorsement from Yameen. This came after the former president initially called for an election boycott rather than backing Muizzu. Should Muizzu emerge victorious, two key uncertainties remain: first, whether Muizzu will act on his promises to expedite Yameen’s release from prison; and second, how Yameen would adjust to a Muizzu-led administration.
In addition to grappling with internal divisions, the ruling MDP faces hurdles as it attempts to regain political momentum. The opposition has effectively leveraged an “India Out” campaign that accuses the MDP-led government of being overly dependent on India and being amenable to an Indian military presence on Maldivian soil. Although the government tried to quash this movement through an executive order — an action that has been criticized as an abuse of presidential power — it has failed to effectively neutralize this movement.
Furthermore, the government is encountering difficulties in advancing its infrastructure projects, most prominently the Greater Malé Connectivity Project, which aims to link all the islands in the capital region. While some of these delays can arguably be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing sentiment that the government has not lived up to the promises it made during its inauguration. A significant point of criticism centers on the government’s initial pledge to maintain a zero-tolerance approach to corruption. Such promises have been undermined by multiple corruption scandals that have taken place under its watch.
Despite a lackluster performance in the first round of elections, Solih’s government is actively seeking to recover. They attribute the disappointing results to a historically low voter turnout — only 75 percent of eligible voters showed up, compared to 89 percent in the 2018 elections. The government aims to mobilize the non-voting segment of the eligible population for the second round, on the assumption that most of these potential voters will favor the MDP.
Key government figures, such as the president’s campaign spokesperson and Defense Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi, are campaigning against Muizzu by emphasizing his alleged ties to ultra-conservative religious organizations. They particularly highlight Muizzu’s connections to the conservative religious group Jamiyyathul Salaf, to which some of his in-laws belong.
Muizzu, however, denies both holding extremist views and being formally associated with any such groups. In response, the Muizzu campaign has highlighted that the current MDP government itself is in a formal coalition with the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party.
Additionally, the government is drawing a contrast between Solih’s relatively stable tenure and the chaotic, authoritarian reign of former President Yameen. They caution that a Muizzu presidency could signal a return to repressive measures, such as the imprisonment of political rivals, which were common during Yameen’s tumultuous rule.
However, the persuasiveness of this argument is in question, given that critics, as well as organizations like Transparency Maldives and international observers, have raised concerns about the current government’s commitment to democratic norms. These concerns encompass the misuse of state resources for campaigning purposes and the fact that Yameen is the only significant figure from his scandal-rife administration who remains behind bars — a situation seen as politically advantageous for the current government.
As the second round of elections approaches, both the MDP and the PPM-PNC coalition are in talks with other parties to garner the support needed to exceed the 50 percent plus one vote threshold. The Democrats, who came in third, are engaging in discussions with both major parties, thereby establishing themselves as potential kingmakers.
Solih also spent a full day negotiating with Qasim, leader of the JP and his former coalition partner, in what appears to be a strategic effort to secure additional backing. Although Qasim’s political clout has diminished — earning less than 3 percent of the votes this time compared to over 20 percent in past elections — every vote will be crucial for Solih as he seeks re-election. Ultimately, Qasim has chosen not to endorse either candidate.
With less than two weeks left until the runoff, both the Muizzu and Solih campaigns are ramping up their efforts. The future leadership of Maldives now lies firmly in the hands of its voters.