Bollywood thrillers have tough competition from the current Maldivian President, Mohamed Muizzu: in the Maldivian version, the anti-hero sneaks in and gets nominated as candidate for the most important election in the country; he makes tall promises, wins the election, and then makes many more statements with no actual action. The story has more twists and turns until finally he takes over the combine of parties that nominated him.
Muizzu is now the head of an alliance he had no role in putting together. The person who did all the heavy lifting, former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, is now in vanvaas (exile). Clearly comprehending where the show was headed, Yameen quit the party he founded, nurtured, and built, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and established a new party. He announced it on the social media platform X on November 23; his supporters said the PPM’s current actions did not mirror the vision of the former President.
The subplot to this thriller is that the Gayoom family (Yameen’s brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled Maldives with an iron hand for about three decades) has founded nearly half a dozen parties so far, after the dawn of multiparty democracy in Maldives.
The flashback goes back about six months, when Muizzu, the popular Malé city Mayor, was in his office, plotting, soon after Yameen had been sentenced to a massive jail term. He realised that if he remained with the PPM, he would face tough competition for nomination as candidate in the September 2023 presidential election. Among his competitors was former President Mohamed Waheed Hassan.
Indeed, Muizzu had remarkable foresight for a politician in a young democracy. He left the PPM and joined the People’s National Congress (PNC) because he was certain to manage the candidature to contest as President. He won the nomination with a narrow margin. With Yameen sentenced by a criminal court for 11 years on December 25, 2022, all chances of him becoming the PPM candidate for the presidential election had faded. It was with great reluctance that he agreed that Muizzu be announced as a PPM-PNC coalition candidate, on August 8, 2023, merely a month ahead of the election.
The coup within the President’s palace was complete when Muizzu was, on December 6, formally anointed as the head of the coalition “unanimously” at a meeting of the Senate of the combine. Yameen was the leader of this coalition until he announced his decision to leave the PPM and form his own party.
Now that Muizzu was firmly entrenched within the party, he began buying the loyalty of senior hands in the PPM and the PNC by distributing positions in government to them. He did not forget to add his wife to this list. Under the Maldivian constitution, the President can make any appointment to ministerial positions and to independent institutions. But for these appointments to take effect, they have to be approved by a majority in the Majlis (parliament). If Muizzu does not win a parliamentary majority, he will be unable to function. And hence, the parliamentary election, which will be held towards end of March or early April, will decide if Muizzu stays on as emperor. There is no anti-defection law in Maldives, and elected members frequently switch sides depending on prospects.
That is exactly the democratic loophole Muizzu seeks to exploit. Regardless of what happens on the ground, a President can still entice the new MPs with plots or apartments in land-scarce Malé. But when the President thinks large, a lot more gets included in the realm of possibility.
The Ras Male project
Muizzu plans to launch the biggest real estate project of all time, Ras Malé, which is “three times larger than Hulhumalé phases 1 and 2 combined”. He is dangling a massive carrot in front of the Malé elite as well as China that neither can ignore. This virtually means that the task of consolidating his position in Maldives is not very difficult.
While Muizzu has his eyes very firmly on the election, scheduled to be held by early April, he is also very keen to demonstrate that he is still popular in Malé, home to nearly a third of the Maldivian population. The Malé Mayor post fell vacant after Muizzu vacated it, and he is keen to see the PNC candidate Aishath Azima Shakoor occupy it. Shakoor was the first woman Advocate General of Maldives.
“Although a small contingent of Indian troops is still in the Maldives, it appears Muizzu is firm on sending them back even though statements at the end of the Modi-Muizzu meet in Dubai did not reflect this.”
Once the January 13 mayoral election is out of the way, he intends to redraw equations with India and China, ahead of the parliamentary election. Maldivian Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer said on January 2 that the Muizzu government would “recalibrate” diplomacy to face “the realities of today”.
Cold shoulder to India
One of Muizzu’s first decisions after becoming President was to ground the Indian Dornier and helicopter service. Going by reactions on Maldivian social media, the government appears to have decided to never again raise a request for Indian help during search and rescue operations or medical evacuations. This correspondent is aware of multiple instances where this has happened, and it is an extension of the cold shoulder that Muizzu extended to India when he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dubai.
To overcome the gap, the Maldivian Cabinet endorsed a suggestion to establish an air ambulance service. “The establishment of the Air Ambulance service is an integral part of the Administration’s ‘Hafutha 15’ strategic road map,” said a release dated December 25, 2023, from the President’s office. This closely followed the decision to pull out of a hydrographic survey with India. Although a small contingent of Indian troops is still in the Maldives, it appears that Muizzu is firm on sending them back even though statements at the end of the Modi-Muizzu meet in Dubai did not reflect this.
With former President Mohamed Nasheed deciding to take a break from Maldivian politics, and the main opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), split, Muizzu faces no major challenge in redrawing the polity in Maldives as well as pushing his agenda forward. The only serious resistance is from Yameen, who was the head of the pro-China PPM and has now floated a new pro-China political party, the People’s National Front.
In fact, it now appears that there are two pro-China political parties in the Maldives: one headed by Yameen and the other by Muizzu. Hence, Muizzu is under pressure to outperform Yameen and prove that he is more loyal to China. This is very important for his standing in his own party, the PNC-PPM combine, his legislators, the upcoming Malé Council election, and the national parliamentary election. Muizzu shunned India as his first destination after taking over the Maldives presidency and headed to Türkiye. He then visited Dubai for the annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28), where he met Modi on the sidelines. A statement at the end of the meeting issued by India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the Maldivian President’s Office made no mention of the withdrawal of armed service personnel stationed in the archipelago nation.
Tilting towards China
Muizzu is acutely aware that the Chinese are still backing Yameen over him. And so, people close to him shared that he would visit Beijing ahead of going to New Delhi. Muizzu’s state visit to China will be from January 8 to 12, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. His political calculation is that if he visits China ahead of the next election, PPM legislators on the fence will move firmly to his side, easing his quest to garner the seats required for a majority in the Majlis. If this plan does not succeed, his Plan B is to entice parliamentarians with concessions in Male and the new development.
This is what India is dealing with. Muizzu is not whimsical and mercurial like Maldives’ first democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed; he is not somebody’s yes man like Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who was the Vice President and succeeded Nasheed as President. He is also very different from the aloof, vengeful, and paranoid Abdulla Yameen and, like his predecessor Ibu Solih, will not follow any line that he is told to.
Commenting in The Hindu about the geopolitical developments, the former diplomat Rajiv Bhatia noted: “Beijing’s ‘incursion’ [into South Asia] is fuelled by its economic largesse and strategic vision that aims to keep India tied down to its neighbourhood.” What he says next is a telling indictment of India’s geopolitical strategy: “An effective counter-strategy needs to be devised.”
There is none currently. It is highly unlikely that India will firm up a strategy as the ruling BJP is more concerned about the 2024 Lok Sabha election at this point of time. Governance and geopolitical issues will have to wait.