Tight race in Maldives between India-leaning Solih and Muizzu, who is supported by China-backed PPM

The outcome of the September 30 run-off will have far-reaching implications for the Maldives’ future, both domestically and internationally.

Published : Sep 21, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Three is not a crowd: former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom stares down from all billboards in Male, while the actual presidential candidate, Mohamed Muizzu, is relegated to second place.

Three is not a crowd: former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom stares down from all billboards in Male, while the actual presidential candidate, Mohamed Muizzu, is relegated to second place. | Photo Credit: Mohamed Afrah/AFP

By the evening of September 30, Maldivians will know who their new President will be—the India-leaning Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (‘Ibu’ Solih) of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) who is seeking a second term, or Male city Mayor Mohamed Muizzu, who is supported by the China-leaning main opposition party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). While Muizzu has not said anything significantly anti-Indian, it is fair to assume that if he is elected the PPM will drive his governance agenda.

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Male on September 9.

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Male on September 9. | Photo Credit: Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP

Early on September 10, the Maldives Elections Commission released the final numbers of the first round of the presidential election held the day before: of the 225,486 votes polled, Muizzu secured 101,635 votes (46.06 per cent), while President ‘Ibu’ Solih, managed only 86,161 votes (39.05 per cent). In third place was former President Mohamed Nasheed’s proxy candidate, Iliyas Labeeb (15,839 votes; 7.18 per cent). Of the five other candidates, none managed even a 3 per cent vote share.

“The 2018 vote was against President Yameen. Regardless of who contested against President Yameen, that person would have won. It is just a coincidence that Ibu was the opponent,” said Masood Imad, secretary to a former President and a keen political observer. He predicts a vote against Ibu Solih in the September 30 run-off.

Back in campaign mode

By September 10 morning, the MDP and the PPM switched back to campaign mode, with loudspeakers blaring music. It is doubtful if the catchy tunes will sway any of the 282,395 voters (as on September 9), in a country with 99.4 per cent literacy. Of the total number of voters, 51 per cent are in the 36 to 65 age group while youth (aged 18 to 35) make up 42 per cent of the electorate.

Mohamed Muizzu, presidential candidate of People's National Congress, speaks at a campaign rally.

Mohamed Muizzu, presidential candidate of People's National Congress, speaks at a campaign rally. | Photo Credit: Mohamed Afrah/AFP

While the MDP is trying to push Muizzu’s relationship with the Salafi leadership to impress upon the liberal Maldivian that Muizzu’s ultra-conservative views will affect the Maldivian way of life, the PPM is using the anti-India card to woo voters. The PPM ran a strident “India Out” campaign—meaning that Indian military personnel should get out of Maldives. Rumours that Maldives had given a few islands on lease were floated on social media, only to be shot down within minutes by the Indian High Commission. The high commission has been busy denying fake news about India since the announcement of the first-round results.

“What is the need to hide the presence of Indian military personnel here?” asked Nasheed, in an interaction with this correspondent. “I welcome their presence. We are a small nation and it is useful to have Indian soldiers here. But why deny their presence?”

Muizzu needs a 4 per cent votes more to cross the constitutionally set 50 per cent plus one vote barrier to be elected President. Solih will need much more than Nasheed’s support to cross the finish line—a tall ask given the fact that Nasheed’s party, The Democrats, campaigned on the slogan “Not Ibu” and “Anyone but Ibu”.

  • The incumbent, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), is seeking re-election, while Mohamed Muizzu, the Mayor of Malé and supported by the China-leaning Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), is his main rival.
  • Both parties have resumed campaigning, with the MDP highlighting Muizzu’s conservative religious ties, suggesting they might affect the Maldivian way of life. Meanwhile, the PPM has used an “India Out” campaign to win voters.
  • Former President Mohamed Nasheed remains a central figure in Maldivian politics, and his support is crucial in the upcoming election.

A pretty strange sight

One of the strangest sights in this election is that on almost all Muizzu billboards, three people stare down at you, and the most prominent place is marked for former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. Apart from Muizzu, the hoarding also has a picture of Hussain Mohamed Latheef (Sembe), his running mate.

Yameen has been convicted to 11 years in prison on charges of bribery and money laundering, but remains an influential face in the election. It was after the PPM realised that Yameen could not contest that it backed another candidate. Yameen’s wife joined the first round of campaigning and canvassed for Muizzu. The irony is that Muizzu had earlier left the PPM to join the People’s National Congress merely because it offered him the opportunity to run for President. Even in the present race, he became the candidate with a bare majority of two votes.

A view of the King Salman mosque in Male.

A view of the King Salman mosque in Male. | Photo Credit: R.K. Radhakrishnan

The PPM has tried to portray itself as the party that stands to protect and preserve conservative Islam in the archipelago nation. Its vice president candidate, Sembe, had, in 2021, accused the MDP government of trying to modify the country’s religion in “conjunction with neighbouring countries” [read India], according to a report published in the Maldives Journal website.

Maldives is a Sunni Muslim country that adheres to Islamic laws, which includes not allowing the sale or consumption of alcohol in the 188 inhabited islands. The Salman mosque, the biggest mosque in the country, is built on reclaimed land, and is a gift from Saudi Arabia. It was built during the Yameen presidency.

Also Read | Maldives Chief Elections Commissioner Fuwad Thowfeek: ‘People think that if it is electronic, it can be manipulated’

Maldives’ traditional tiled-roof and small mosques without massive minarets are a thing of the past; all the new ones now sport minarets, and are indistinguishable from other such structures elsewhere. Sufi influences are on the wane; Wahhabi and Salafi are on the rise.

Nasheed made it clear that he was in favour of supporting Muizzu for now. Asked if he was not tarnishing his legacy, Nasheed told Frontline that elections in all countries were not fought on geopolitical considerations. “Elections are fought on local issues. There are no great geopolitical considerations involved in a national election,” he added.

An MDP rally in Male on September 8.

An MDP rally in Male on September 8. | Photo Credit: R.K. Radhakrishnan

A central election figure for years

In many ways, Nasheed has been a central figure in every election since Maldives embraced multi-party democracy in 2008. That year, he was the face of the opposition to end the 30-year rule of Maumoom Abdul Gayoom; in 2013, he went to the people seeking justice for his ouster in a bloodless coup the previous year. It did not work. In 2018, he was in exile in Colombo and allowed Ibu Solih to run in his place. On the advice of his friends and a few influential individuals, he decided not to contest and picked the enemy he would have to defeat. That enemy was Yameen. The decision brought the opposition together and gave the MDP victory.

An Indian official said: “Nasheed is part of every problem, and a part of every solution. Never forget that.” It is very clear that this lesson was forgotten by the people to whom it mattered: Solih and the MDP on one level; and India on another.

Also Read | Maldivian presidential election heads for a crucial runoff 

In fact, Solih’s decision to contest this time, and the Indian establishment’s wholehearted support for him, left Nasheed with no choice. Had Nasheed not left the party, Solih and Muizzu would have been locked with near equal vote shares at the end of round one. A Solih victory in the second round would have sealed Nasheed’s political future. If Muizzu had won in the first round, Nasheed would still have lost out even if he had remained in the MDP because there was no way of knowing the extent of his real following.

Breathing space for Nasheed

But now Nasheed has the breathing space that he so desperately seeks and this puts him in a very enviable position. If Muizzu seeks Nasheed’s support, Muizzu’s victory will be assured. If Solih seeks out Nasheed, the equations within the MDP will be redrawn. Regardless of this, a defeat for Solih will mean that the party gravitates back to its ideological czar, Nasheed.

Given Yameen’s bad experience soon after he left office, it is unlikely that Muizzu will strain his relationship with India if he were to become President. Friends of Muizzu were at pains to explain this to Frontline. “Muizzu is an engineer. He thinks like one,” said a friend of his who had worked for him during the Male City Council election. “He will not get drawn into this India or China thing. He will know what is good for our country and act accordingly.”

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