New Delhi: In a month, Maldivians will be going to general elections to elect their president. They will effectively signal the start of the election season in South Asia, with four other countries in the region scheduled to hold general polls within the next year.
After the polls close on September 9, a winner will be declared if he gets more than 50% of the votes. But if there is no one to cross the half-way mark, then a second round will be held within 21 days between the two front-runners.
In the 2018 presidential elections, Abdulla Yameen had campaigned for re-election following a term marked by controversy. During his tenure, Yameen had jailed all the main opposition leaders and supreme court judges in addition to antagonising India by harbouring close ties with China.
Therefore, when Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) Ibrahim Solih, the joint opposition candidate, won by a margin of 16% in the first round itself, it was a big upset for Yameen. The key factor for the opposition victory had been huge voter turnout at 89.2%.
Five years later, Yameen is behind bars and disqualified from contesting the elections. However, it doesn’t mean that Solih will have smooth run.
With eight candidates in the fray, this is the largest pool of candidates ever taking part in a presidential election in Maldive’s history. The second-highest count occurred in the 2008 presidential elections, where six candidates were in contention.
A look at the key candidates
On paper, President Solih should be doing well. There has been political stability during his tenure and the country managed to recover relatively well after the difficult pandemic years. His administration also repaired frayed relations with India without alienating China.
However, his electoral calculations are not as favourable. Two parties of the erstwhile MDP-led ruling coalition are fielding their own candidates in the presidential elections. Former President Mohamed Nasheed split and formed his own party after he lost the presidential primary.
While Solih remains the frontrunner, there is uncertainty if he would secure an outright win in the first round. When the election advances to the second round with only two candidates, he will have to deploy his political acumen in garnering support from the remaining political parties to secure the majority of votes needed for victory.
After Yameen failed to get relief from the Supreme Court on being blocked from standing in the presidential elections, he reluctantly endorsed the presidential candidate of his alliance partner, People’s National Congress (PNC). A civil engineer with a doctorate from University of Leeds, Muizzu had been the housing minister under the Yameen government, which is an important political portfolio due to the high demand for affordable housing in the limited urban areas in the archipelago nation.
In 2021, he was elected as the first non-MDP mayor of the capital city of Male’, which hosts nearly 40% of the country’s population. While Yameen had been behind bars, Muizzu had kept up contacts with China through outreach events.
According to Maldivian media, he said at an online webinar in September 2022 that relations between Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and Communist Party were the “foundation of diplomatic relations between Maldives and China.
While he is known to be close to Yameen, his role as mayor had meant a high-visibility political profile that seems to have fuelled his presidential ambitions. Muizzu officially left his party and joined the PNC only last week, after the latter announced that they will submit a presidential nomination as a contingency plan if Yameen was not able to clear the legal hurdles to stand for elections. He was then filed his nomination as the PNC’s presidential candidate, with Yameen eventually coming around to give his official endorsement.
One of the wealthiest businessman in Maldives, Qasim Ibrahim of Jumhooree Party (JP) has always been seen to be a kingmaker due to his ability to swing elections in the second round.
He will be contesting elections for the third time, after standing in the 2008 and 2013 polls. Ibrahim may not have the numbers to win the elections outright, but he has a captive vote bank that is wooed by all parties. As the owner of several resorts, analysts believe that Qasim can ‘transfer’ votes from his extensive workforce, which could be enough to swing elections.
In the first multi-party presidential elections in 2008, he won 15% of the votes in the first round and was eliminated. Thereafter, he announced support for MDP’s Mohamed Nasheed, who eventually defeated long-term dictator Maumoon Gayoom in the second round. While he joined Nasheed’s cabinet, Qasim soon left after a fall-out.
In the 2013 elections, he got 24% of votes in the first round. A sizeable amount of his support shifted Abdulla Yameen, who secured victory over Nasheed by amassing 51% of the votes during the second round.
Qasim couldn’t stand for elections in 2018 due to a conviction, but supported Solih as joint opposition candidate.
Despite declining Solih’s invitation to join the re-election campaign, Qasim’s next move will be closely watched to ascertain which side he aligns with, should a second round of voting take place.
The other players behind the scenes
For the former president, the 2023 elections will be a test of his political relevancy. After the Supreme Court rejected his appeal for overturning Election Commission’s (EC) rejection of his candidature due to conviction, Yameen had called on his own party and alliance partner to boycott the elections.
When the PPM-PNC’s top decision body rejected the boycott proposals, Yameen still did not accept it. If he couldn’t stand for elections, Yameen would have preferred another face from his own party, with names of former president Ahmed Waheed and his nephew Gasim Maumoon floating around. However, Yameen was obviously reluctant to push for Muizzu’s candidature despite the latter having expressed interest.
Having his own proxy candidate would prevent Yameen from going into political obscurity. At the same time, Yameen would have preferred a surrogate candidate who was more politically dependent on him. This consideration stems from the recognition that even a purported proxy could readily break free from control, similar to how Yameen consolidated power and distanced himself from his elder brother Maumoon Gayoom after the 2013 elections. The mayor of Male, despite his public loyalty to Yameen and the party, had his own political base.
Right after the 2018 elections, there had been rumblings that Nasheed and Solih, childhood friends with familial links, would eventually clash due to the latter’s insistence on assuming a more prominent role. With Solih reluctant to support Nasheed’s demand of changing to a parliamentary system, the foundation for their estrangement was laid.
After Nasheed’s faction broke off from the MDP, he had been holding talks with other parties to agree on a common presidential candidate. But the talks broke down, with the main hurdle apparently being PPM’s insistence on Abdulla Yameen being their only presidential candidate.
While the Democrats have fielded their own candidate, he is also continuing to hold talks on a common strategy for the second round.
Even after Nasheed ended his 30-year-old rule in the 2008 elections, Gayoom continued to be a dominant political actor in the Maldivian elections. Gayoom was presumed to be the real power when his half-brother, Yameen won the 2013 elections, but both of them soon found themselves on different sides. Gayoom, along with his son, Faris Maumoon were even jailed by the Yameen administration.
With a new political faction, Gayoom joined the opposition, which included Nasheed, in supporting Solih. While his newly formed party Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) does not have the same clout, Gayoom has remained active behind the scenes. All of his four children are affiliated to different political parties, including Yameen’s PPM.
Despite being a member of the ruling coalition, Gayoom’s MRM had also decided to jump into the presidential elections. The EC had earlier dissolved MRM after the party failed to meet the legal requirement of 3000 members. MRM went to the civil court, which ruled against the EC’s move. However, Faris announced that he would stand as an independent candidate and submitted his nomination just before the deadline. With at least one member of his family in the fray, Gayoom has ensured that he remains part of the political calculations after September 9.