New Delhi: As Maldivians flock to polling booths on Saturday, September 30, the curtains draw on a presidential election that has seen a targeted opposition campaign which has put President Ibrahim Solih on the backfoot over his government’s relations with India.
Booths opened at 8 am local time in Maldives. The outcome of the elections will be significant for India as the front-runner to be the next president, opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu has led an electoral campaign based on bringing down Indian influence in the Indian ocean nation, which is coupled with his background of working closely on China’s Belt and Road projects.
In the first round, the indelible ink was put on the index finger of the left hand of the voter. This time, the middle finger is being dabbed by the ink.
Around 34% of the Maldives electorate had voted by 11 am as per local reports. In the last election in 2018, the turnout had been 89.22%.
Polling booths will close at 5 pm and counting is supposed to start around half an hour after the end of voting.
The total number of eligible voters in Maldives is 282,804, with women accounting for a higher percentage than men. This is the fourth presidential multi-party elections in the islands after the end of the dictatorship of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. It has the distinction of having the largest line-up of – eight – candidates on the ballot paper.
The first round of voting was held on September 9, but since none of the eight candidates won more than 50%, the top two had to go for a second and final run-off against each other.
Till now, no president has won a re-election in Maldives since 2008.
But most analysts had said, going into the first round, that the results would be too close to call. However, the results were rather clear cut. With a 79% turnout of voters, Muizzu, the candidate of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress coalition obtained 46% of votes. Despite the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) having the largest number of registered members, Solih came second with 39% of the votes.
Political equations after first round
As the runner-up in the first round, incumbent President Solih has had an uphill task to get the right number of allies on his side to gain the numbers, at least on paper.
The third highest number of votes at 7% were received by presidential candidate of the newly-formed The Democrats, Ilyas Labeeb. As the breakaway faction of the MDP, The Democrats were certainly more ideologically aligned to support Solih, rather than the PPM-PNC coalition. The MDP even agreed to hold a referendum on whether to change the governance from a presidential to a parliamentary system.
However, the personal animosity between President Mohamed Nasheed and his childhood friend Solih runs deep. In the end, the Democrats decided not to officially endorse either Solih or Muizzu. However, Solih acknowledged that the splitting of MDP may cost the election.
The Jumhoree Party, a former ruling alliance partner, had put its leader, business tycoon Qasim Ibrahim into the fray, but he came a disappointing fifth with 2.47%, the lowest he has ever received in an election. But with his wealth and political experience, Qasim was ardently courted by the two main candidates, but he refused to endorse any one. However, his senior party members endorsed Solih.
Independent candidate and former home minister Umar Naseer, who came a surprising fourth in the polls with 3% of the votes, had also decided not to endorse any candidate. However, his running mate Ahmed Saleem announced his support for Solih, a couple of days before voting day. Both the JP party members and Saleem gave former President Abdulla Yameen’s persecution of opposition leaders during his term as the reason for them supporting the MDP.
Meanwhile, Miuzzi got early support from another presidential candidate Mohamed Nazim’s Maldives National Party.
Significantly, a constituent of the three-party ruling coalition led by MDP, which had fielded Solih as candidate, broke away and endorsed Muizzu earlier this week. The argument given by the MDA’s leader was that the MDP did not make adequate plans to gain ground after the shocking first round results.
A referendum on India relations?
For India, this is an important election as New Delhi had invested heavily in development projects soon after Solih won the last polls in 2018. India had wanted to move quickly to gain ground that it had lost to China during President Yameen’s term, who had aligned himself to Beijing despite his declared ‘India First’ policy.
The opposition had focused relentlessly on Solih’s ties with India, especially on alleged stationing of Indian security personnel in Maldives. The Maldives government had dismissed that there was any Indian military activity on the island nation, but Solih admitted later after the first round defeat that the defence may not have been robust.
A day before voting, foreign minister Abdulla Shahid gave an interview to specifically address those concerns, stating that number of soldiers brought to operate the helicopter and dornier airplanes have not been changed since the Yameen government.
The previous Maldives government had attempted to not renew the visas of the Indian military personnel operating the aircraft, which had further nose-dived relations with New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the fate of the major Indian development projects are also on balance. After Nasheed was overthrown in a coup in 2012, the new regime had unilaterally ended the contract of Indian conglomerate GMR group to operate and develop the Malé international airport. GMR had subsequently won the arbitration proceeding to get compensation from the Maldives government. Thereafter, major Chinese companies had come into Maldives and built major infrastructure projects in the island nation, strategically located on the major sea lanes of the Indian ocean.
Therefore, if Muizzi wins, the future of India’s major development projects, most of them funded through Indian soft loans and grants, is uncertain.