New Delhi: With just three days left until the Maldives presidential polls, the dominant theme in the campaign strategies of most major opposition challengers has been to criticise the government’s relationship with India. Meanwhile, all indications continue to suggest that a second round of voting is probable, as no candidate appears to be on track to secure more than 50% of the vote.
On September 9, Maldivians will have the chance to choose their next president from the largest pool of candidates in the country’s history. Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih, who is standing for re-election on behalf of ruling Maldivian Democratic Party-led coalition, is being challenged by seven candidates.
The principal opposition coalition of Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the Progressive National Congress (PNC) had set the tenor on foreign policy when releasing its manifesto last month. The PPM-PNC presidential candidate Mohamed Muizzu observed at the launch that India was ‘dictating’ the Solih government on its policies. He emphasized that if elected, his government would not align itself closely with any specific country.
Over the last couple of years, the PPM-PNC had run an ‘India Out’ campaign on the alleged grounds that Solih had allowed Indian military personnel to be stationed in Maldives. Both Malé and New Delhi have strenuously denied the claims.
The principal driver for the ‘India Out’ campaign had been former President Abdulla Yameen. But since the Supreme Court refused to accept his appeal to stand for election despite his conviction, the opposition coalition brought in former housing minister Miuzzi, who has carried forward the same narrative.
During the televised presidential debate last weekend, the candidates had to, of course, answer questions about foreign policy, including questions related to their stance on the political controversy surrounding ties with India.
The answers of nearly all the opposition candidates had an underlying common theme.
As per local reports, independent candidate and former home minister Umar Naseer asserted that “control on foreign policies have been lost since this government came into the picture”. He also accused India of influencing Maldives on changing its position on Chagos issue. Earlier in an interview to The Wire in July, foreign minister Abdulla Shahid had described these allegations as “rubbish”.
When Mohamed Nazim, presidential candidate on behalf of two-year-old Maldivian National Party (MNP), got his turn at the debate, he presented himself as the one who “solved the GMR issue” and claimed that he could “remove Indian soldiers from the Maldives”. As the defence minister under the Mohamed Waheed government in 2012, he had been put in charge of the move to unilaterally end the contract of Indian conglomerate GMR group to develop and operate Malé international airport, which was one of the lowest points in India-Maldives relations.
The business magnate and veteran politico, Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhoree party, played a pivotal role in securing electoral victories for Yameen in 2013 and, five years later, for Solih. During the debate, he criticised the government over the agreement signed with India to develop Uthuru Thila Falhu which is under Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).
Earlier in a campaign speech last month, Qasim claimed that India was making “significant efforts” to secure a second term of Solih.
With Solih’s five year presidential term having been politically stable and weathered the economic storms of covid-19 pandemic, the search for a high-profile issue to corner him has led to most opposition candidates to adopt this line.
Even the Democrats’ presidential candidate, Iliyas Labeeb had to carefully navigate on this path, stating that any “foreign presence” should be transparent and that no country should influence Maldives at the debate. In an interview on July 27, he had earlier said that it was difficult to gauge how much Indian influence there was in Maldives, but added that “people have concerns”.
The Democrats split away from the ruling MDP, after former President Mohamed Nasheed had failed to win the primary to be the party presidential candidate. Nasheed had always been a champion of strong ties with India, but his newly-formed party has seemingly made calculations on its political positioning in order to remain electorally relevant.
One of three independent candidates, Hassan Zameel, who resigned as deputy defence minister recently to stand for elections, was less strident on relations with India during the debate. He asserted that had “not observed Indian military personnel operating in a manner that threatens Maldivians, and that there is no danger to national security from their presence”.
As expected, Miuzzi, the primary opposition candidate, restated his criticism on Solih’s ties with India at the televised.
But, a few days later, he went further and asserted that suggesting that Indian-backed initiatives could be at risk of termination if he were to win the elections. He pointed to the cancelled GMR airport project as an example.
He not only raised questions about the Uthuru development but also expressed concerns about the delays in the construction of the Malé-Thilafushi link bridge, Maldives’ biggest infrastructure project that is being executed by Indian firms.
Defending himself, Solih argued that foreign troops in Maldives were only stationed for training activities and did not carry out any military operations. “There are no foreign troops in this country today for military operations—neither yesterday nor before that,” he said.
He stressed that these training programs included not just Indian military personnel but also military personnel from other countries.
Ahead of the polls, Solih has also been on a spree inaugurating infrastructure projects in various outlying atolls. Among them were also projects completed under India’s line of credit. Maldivian foreign minister also announced on Aug 31 that India has approved three new projects under the High Impact Community Development Project grant scheme.
India’s relations with Maldives had certainly rebounded from its nadir under China-aligned Yameen government after Solih won the 2018 elections in a landslide win. It meant India had been generous in announcing a slew of development projects and invested considerable diplomatic capital. Therefore, a Solih victory would certainly assure New Delhi that relations with the strategically-placed Indian ocean island nation will be on an even keel.
But, it is not an easy path for the incumbent.
As The Wire had written at the start of the campaign period, the long line-up of candidates suggests that voting will be fragmented, making it unlikely for any candidate to secure an outright victory in the first round by surpassing the halfway mark.
Around 42% of voters in Maldives have not registered themselves as members of any political party. As per norm, they will determine the fate of the candidates.
Observers estimate that around 20 to 30% of voters are still estimated. According to a poll conducted in August, the number of undecided could be as high at 52%.
While Solih and Muizzu would win the highest number of votes, there is toss-up between Ilyas and Qasim on who will come third. It is reported that the crowds at The Democrats’ rallies have been substantial, while Gasim has a captive votebank from his thousands of resort employees.
If no one wins 50% of the votes, the top two candidates will have to go for a run-off within 21 days as per constitutional guidelines.
The performance of the leading two candidates in the first round is pivotal for forging alliances with the defeated parties and candidates, whose support will be crucial in securing victory in the runoff.
The Machiavellian manoeuvring in Maldivian politics typically kicks into gear after the first round results are known, as politicians and their supporters choose between two camps based on who poses the least significant threats to their interests.