New Delhi: With presidential elections due in two months, Maldives is witnessing intense political manoeuvring. Unlike the last presidential elections which were a two-way fight, the splintering of the ruling party with former President Mohamed Nasheed forming his own group means that ruling party’s path to returning to power is not as easy as it had seemed a year ago.
In an interview to The Wire, Maldives foreign minister Abdulla Shahid admitted that it would have been far “simpler” if the ruling party had remained intact and the coalition had retained its original composition. But he claimed that with opposition members also joining the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), it would also get new votes.
Maldives will be holding its presidential elections on September 9. If none of the candidates win 50% of the votes, then a run-off will be held within 21 days. In the 2018 elections, Ibrahim Solih, the candidate of a united opposition, won a surprise victory over President Abdulla Yameen with 58% of the vote.
However, the electoral fray is much more fractious, with three presidential candidates already announced and two more likely to jump in soon. The picture will be clearer once the nominations open on July 23 and the high court gives an order on the appeal by former President Yameen on his conviction.
Amidst the heightened political temperature in the Indian Ocean island nation, Shahid was in New Delhi for three days during which he met with his Indian counterpart and also met with other members of the diplomatic community.
He spoke to The Wire about the outcome of his visit, the domestic political outlook ahead of the elections, the opposition criticism over the Maldives government’s revised stance on Chagos, and whether relations with India will be an electoral issue.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
What brings you back to India right now?
During my last visit, I was here as the president of the General Assembly, but this visit is on bilateral one.
One thing that marks the relationship between our two countries during this presidency of President (Ibrahim) Solih is the frequency of high level visits. I think I have been to Delhi in my capacity as foreign minister five to six times during the last four years. And the EAM [Indian external affairs minister] also has visited Maldives a number of times. Most recently, the [Indian] defence minister was in Maldives. Also the minister of state [for external affairs] was there. The prime minister [of India] visited Maldives twice. President Solih has been here twice.
The high level visits provides opportunity to consolidate and put our officers, who are supposed to implement what we agreed upon, to task when we sit down and review what progress has been made on a regular basis. Then we are able to push for continued progress on what we agreed. Otherwise very often, we start things and then we lose focus as we move on to other things.
We have progressed in the last four years because at the very highest level, the level of the president and the prime minister, they sit down and review what is going on.
So during this visit, the EAM and I have done the same. We have reviewed the progress of what is happening.
And also we have signed and exchanged nine MoUs on high impact community development projects ranging from small fish processing plants to street lighting, to volleyball courts and many others.
What was the assessment of the speed of implementation of the projects?
Many of them are on track. There are a few which are slightly behind. So both of us meeting at this level gives the task to our officers to do regular follow up.
Are there any specific projects which require greater momentum?
Greater Male connectivity project is slightly behind schedule.
And what are the reasons for that?
We have tasked the relevant teams to take necessary steps to push forward… There were unforeseen circumstances [leading to the delay], contractual issues.
This is a flagship project for India.
Yes, and for the Maldives as well. It’s going well, but slightly behind schedule.
There could be some criticism that the nine MoUs for community development projects were signed too close to the elections, which are less than two months away. How would you react to that?
We shouldn’t link everything to the elections, The people of Dhiggaru, who have been waiting for this fish processing plant, why should they be denied the plant that they have been wanting for so long? Why should the youth of Kanditheemu be denied the volley court that they have been desiring?
If the means are available, then we should go ahead with it because even with elections, the country doesn’t come to a stop. The country continues to function, the government continues to function and we shouldn’t say, well, it is election time and we are stopping everything. That is not the spirit of elections. We were elected for a five-year term and we will continue to deliver until the last day of the five-year period.
A major leader of your party left and has formed a new political party. Former President Nasheed has also indicated a willingness to work with the opposition alliance led by former president Abdulla Yameen. How do you look at the electoral scenario against this backdrop?
A leader left, but the MDP is intact and solidly behind the candidate who won its internal primaries. That was President Solih. He had the backing of 61% of the voters who took part in the internal primary. So that very clearly said that he is the person behind whom MDP will rally.
We also have a coalition with the Adhalaath party, one of our old partners, and also with the MDA headed by Ahmed Shiyam. Together, this coalition today has total membership of over 77,000. Membership wise, this is the largest coalition that the country has at this point in time.
But if President Nasheed is joining hands with the PPM and Jumhoree Party has its own platform, isn’t that a setback for the ruling coalition?
This election would have been very simple if President Nasheed had not left the party. It would have been simpler if the current coalition including the Jumhoree Party stuck together. But that is not the reality.
Jumhoree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim has very clearly announced his presidential ambition. He has been awarded the candidacy by his own party. So it looks like that he will contest this election.
Won’t this splinter the votes that the ruling coalition had got in the last presidential election?
During the last two months, we have seen not only members from the MDP leave MDP and form other parties, but members from other parties like JP and MRM have joined MDP. From PPM, several councillors have joined us and with them, we will get PPM votes.
Even in parliament – yes, 13 of our members left and joined the newly formed The Democrats. But at the same time, we also have MPs from other parties come and join us.
The election commissioner has said he has no objection to President Yameen submitting his form for candidacy. Do you expect him to be a presidential candidate?
It will be unfair for me to say something on it because it will be for the elections commission and the judiciary to decide.
Will India figure during the campaigning as an electoral issue? President Solih is known to be close to the Indian government. Is that something that you expect to defend?
The relationship between Maldives and India is not between governments. It’s between the people of the two countries. So the few individuals who are trying to create hatred between our two peoples, they are not going to succeed. That is why the efforts by PPM to have this ‘India Out‘ campaign has not really taken off. It’s always on the fringe, just led by President Yameen and his team. But nationwide, there has no support for it
But they have not given up on the campaign.
Because they have nothing else to say. They have nothing else to sell. Nothing. No solid policies. No developmental plans, no economic policies, nothing. And in the absence of it, all they can sell is hatred and that is what they are doing. Ultra-nationalism is what they are trying to create.
But when you look at the history of cooperation between our two countries – look at 1988 the mercenary attack and 2004 tsunami, both times when India was the first responder. President Gayoom was in office at that time.
Look at the Male water crisis in 2015. It was President Yameen in office. Within six hours of Male running out of drinking water, India airlifted water for the residents. It was Yameen’s government then. During the COVID-19 pandemic when President Solih was in office, India came to our assistance.
So irrespective of who is in office, the people of India, the government of India has been most generous. Again, irrespective of the government in Male or in Delhi.
Therefore, trying to create hatred between our two peoples is something that will not succeed.
Did you expect the Chagos issue to flare up politically like this?
Well, given the fact that again, the opposition has nothing to stand on, there is no solid platform of policies for them. They were trying to cling on to anything, anything just to keep them afloat. So yes, that was something they tried to create a huge brouhaha about.
As long as we are party to the law of the Sea Convention [UNCLOS] and other international conventions and agreements and as long as we respect an international rules-based system, we’ll have to abide by the ITLOS ruling. Also it’s clearly given in the ruling that Maldives got most of the territorial waters.
But the court had also disregarded Maldives’ contention that ITLOS had no jurisdiction.
That was our first defence that ITLOS does not have the jurisdiction or Mauritius does not have the right to contest at ITLOS. It ruled that the Mauritius has the right because of the ICJ advisory opinion and the UN General Assembly resolution which was adopted.
It has also been claimed that India influenced Maldives to recognise Mauritius’s sovereignty over Chagos. How do you respond to that?
Rubbish. Complete rubbish. Again, they were trying to bring in the ‘India Out’ policy. Whichever government had been in place in Maldives, once ITLOS ruled, there was nothing that a legitimate government could do but to accept and respect it.
But then the opposition, especially during an election year, can say and do things that they will not be actually doing when they are in government.