New Delhi: The initial round of elections in the Maldives has delivered a significant blow to India, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s distant second-place position indicates that his path to reclaiming power in the final polls may be exceedingly challenging. Consequently, New Delhi may need to brace itself for the possibility of a turbulent relationship with Malé.
The results of the first round went relatively unnoticed in India, while New Delhi was still basking in the afterglow of the G20 summit. On September 9, Maldives held its fourth multi-party presidential election with the largest pool of candidates.
The principal opposition candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress coalition, Mohamed Muizzu got 46% of the votes, while Solih came second with 39% of the votes.
According to the Maldivian electoral system, if no candidate gets more than 50%, there is a run-off between the top two candidates. On September 30, Solih will get another chance to improve his tally and attempt to be the first democratically elected president to get a second term.
While the polls going for a second round did not come as a surprise, the substantial gap in votes between Muizzu and Solih serves as a wake-up call.
On the political front, the odds are against Solih managing to close the gap with Muizzu in the second round on September 30, mainly because the same factors that shaped the outcome of the first round continue to exist.
Since the first multi-party presidential elections in 2008, the turnout has been consistently high, ranging from 85 to 91%. In the 2018 presidential elections, it stood at 89.22%.
On Saturday, the turnout was just 79%, leading the Maldivian Democratic Party-led ruling coalition’s vice-presidential candidate Mohammad Aslam claiming that their party supporters had not gone to the booths. “There are 37,000 votes we did not receive,” he claimed.
The reason for apathy among MDP sympathisers range from in-fighting to anger over Solih not acting on corruption charges.
In third place in the first round of polling was Ilyas Labeeb, the presidential candidate for The Democrats political party, a breakaway faction of Maldivian Democratic Party or MDP led by former president, Mohamed Nasheed. He got 7% of the votes, which meant that if the MDP had remained united, the ruling coalition’s candidate could probably have been in a competitive tie with the opposition candidate instead of trailing behind.
Once the results of first round were out, frantic negotiations for alliances started immediately based on various mathematical permutations of votes, which are all based on the hope that electoral calculations done on paper will translate into actual results on election day.
For Solih, getting Nasheed’s party to back into the fold would be the best option. But, so far, The Democrats are playing hard to get.
Despite their long political and personal association, Nasheed’s estrangement from Solih is rooted in former’s insistence of changing the governance from a presidential to parliamentary system. Nasheed separated from the MDP shortly after Solih won the presidential primary in January this year.
Hoping to capitalise on their position with the two candidates seeking to attract more alliances to boost their numbers, The Democrats have demanded that there should be a referendum on changing to a parliamentary system before the September 30 runoff elections. Nasheed tweeted on Friday, September 15, that Solih is unlikely to win the second round of presidential polls and called on MDP members to reconsider the powers of the president.
The Democrats’ demand for an immediate referendum is impossible to implement before September 30, as the Election Commission has also held. If a transition to parliamentary system is his primary concern, it is also not clear that Nasheed has much choice to change things at this point. Former President Abdulla Yameen, head of the Progressive Party of Maldives, has also reportedly refused to meet Nasheed – and his party has never been a proponent of dilution of presidential powers.
While individual MDP members have called for The Democrats to come back, there has been no public talks between Solih and Nasheed, till now. The Democrats have also pointed the finger at MDP for attempting to ‘buy’ votes in the second round.
In contrast, Solih travelled and stayed for talks for two days at the resort of the fourth runner-up – business tycoon and veteran politician, Gasim Ibrahim, of Jumhoree Party – who got 2.47% of the votes.
Gasim’s lacklustre performance in the first round has also raised eyebrows, as he was thought to have a reliable voter base among his numerous resort employees. While he has previously played a pivotal role in elections as a kingmaker, his influence has undoubtedly waned in this election due to his underwhelming electoral performance.
The opposition coalition had already courted Gasim, but the latter has yet to announce his decision.
The India problem
It was notable that a media report about the discussions claimed that Gasim’s primary concern with President Solih was on Maldives’ relation with India – a key talking point for the line-up of challengers during the campaign.
As The Wire had reported, the presidential debate before the polls signalled how the question of alleged Indian troops stationed in Maldives was repeatedly brought up during the campaign to corner Solih. This allegation had also been the basis of the ‘India Out’ campaign that had been spearheaded by former President Abdulla Yameen.
While denials went out, President Solih and his government were perceived to be batting from the backfoot while facing the relentless allegations. The Indian embassy in Maldives had to also issue two fact-checks when the opposition supporters circulated false documents claiming Indian military presence in the Indian Ocean nation.
For India, an electoral loss for Solih would be a big setback.
After Solih’s upset win over Yameen in the 2018 elections in the first round, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had himself attended the oath-taking ceremony of the new president. Modi has not visited any other foreign country to witness the inauguration ceremony for another leader in the last nine years. This gesture underscored the sense of relief in New Delhi – Solih’s victory marked the end of a period marked by strained relations between India and the Maldives, due to Yameen’s enthusiastic embrace of China. Yameen had boycotted the ceremony, claiming that the vote had been rigged.
The joint India-Maldives press statement issued after the visit directly referred to the “renewal of the close bonds of cooperation and friendship with the election of Mr Solih as the President of the Maldives”. It even specifically mentions that Solih requested help from India to support the “new government in meeting its pledges to the people of the Maldives”. India eagerly jumped in, announcing a series of development projects, especially in the outlying islands.
Incidentally, Solih went on an inauguration spree of small projects around Maldives just ahead of the first round, including some sponsored by India.
Overall, India spent Rs 1156.56 crore in grants and loans to Maldives from 2018-19 to 2021-22, as per the actual expenditure from the Union budget documents. This is an increase of 165.18% from the Rs 436.13 crore from 2013-14 to 2017-18.
For the year 2018-19, the allocation for Maldives in the budget estimates was Rs 125 crore. But, when the figures were revised for that year – as a consequence of the November 2018 election result, Maldives’ allocation went up to Rs 440 crore. Ultimately, the actual expenditure for that year closely matched the revised allocation, totalling Rs 439 crore.
In 2020, India announced that it will fund the Greater Male Connectivity Project, the largest civilian infrastructure project in Maldives. The ambitious completion date was 2023, but it was revised to mid-2024 due to delays.
A year later, the signing of the agreement to develop Uthuru Thilafalhu atoll as a naval dockyard for Maldives fuelled thousands of conspiracy theories, even as Malé went on the defensive amidst domestic calls for releasing the full details of the agreement. The Maldivian National Defence Forces arranged a trip of local journalists this weekend to the atoll to refute allegations that it will be turned into an Indian base.
With the opposition’s campaign against Solih’s relations with India apparently resonating among voters, there is now a question mark around India’s development diplomacy in Maldives.
Even as India has caused to worry about relations under a Muizzu presidency, observers are also not convinced that it would be a smooth ride for a Progressive Party of Maldives presidency. Even after it was clear that judiciary will not accept Yameen’s appeal to stand for election due to conviction, his first choice had been to ask his party to boycott the polls.
The former housing minister had to resign from Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives and join the alliance partner, People’s National Congress, which nominated him as presidential candidate. Yameen then accepted him as fait accompli.
Muizzu has pledged to overturn President Yameen’s conviction if he secures the presidency. However, Yameen’s return would mean that he would dominate the government, which could potentially lead to tensions with Muizzu.
While that is speculative, it is a fact the Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress candidate enthusiastic advocate for the opposition’s campaign that highlights Solih’s ‘close’ associations with India.
During his election rallies, Muizzu said multiple times that he would cancel projects with the Indian government and Indian companies if they do not benefit Maldives. “We will look at the agreements that are not disclosed. We will study what is in the agreement and fix anything that does not benefit the people,” he said. He adding that if they did not meet a criteria, “We’ll do the same with them as we did with GMR”.
The Maldives government had unilaterally cancelled the contract of the Indian conglomerate GMR group to develop and operate Malé international airport in 2012, during the interim presidency of Mohamed Waheed.