The 2023 Presidential election is unlike any other in the short history of multi-party democracy in the Maldives, a journey that the people of this archipelago nation embarked on in 2008. There is no one central issue that political parties highlight: the main opposition, the Progressive Party of Maldives, till recently, hyped up an ‘India-out’ campaign, while most of the others have been highlighting multiple issues such as unheard debt levels, congestion in the capital Male, and issues in land/apartment allotment in the Greater Male region.
Contrast this with any other election year: In 2008, the issue was the transition from a form of autocratic North Korean-type of functioning to multi-party democracy. Ironically, even in this setup, Maumoon polled the largest number of votes. Thankfully, the rule that the Presidential candidate needs to gather 50 percent plus one vote ensured that the election went into a second round between him and the person who was placed second, Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed was supported by most other political parties and won just over 54 percent of the votes to become President.
The 2013 vote was perhaps the most acrimonious one, with Nasheed claiming that he was wronged and forcefully made to resign in 2012. Nasheed believed that this would help him win an election in a single round and went to the people seeking justice. Sensing Nasheed’s plan, the entire opposition en bloc supported the newly formed political party, the Progressive Party of Maldives, and its presidential candidate, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. Yameen defeated Nasheed with a wafer-thin majority. The “justice” theme did work a bit but not enough to propel Nasheed to office.
Yameen turned out to be as autocratic as Maumoon, sending Nasheed and Maumoon to prison, as well as his own vice-president Ahmed Adeeb. The 2018 Presidential election theme was saving the country from Yameen. It was also the first election in which Yameen kept the media out of Maldives.
Nasheed managed to leave the country for treatment with “leave” from prison and did not return. He and the others in the Maldivian Democratic Party, including former Secretary-General, Hamid Abdul Gafoor, former Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem (currently Health Minister), made their plans from Colombo, Sri Lanka – a country that many Maldivians consider their second home. Since Nasheed could not contest, his close associate who was a four-term parliamentarian, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, (‘Ibu’ Solih to friends) contested. He won handsomely in the first round, securing over 58 percent of the votes.
This time around, there are concerted efforts to focus on the debt trap and focus on Indian military presence in Maldives, to put Ibu Solih on the defensive. A message shared across some social media platforms claimed that a letter written by Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to his Maldivian counterpart, Abdulla Shahid, detailed the plan and that India was to also be given land for a permanent military presence. Soon after the message began doing the rounds, the Indian High Commission issued a denial, stating that the letter was fake. “We have seen images of a fake letter being circulated on social media attributing them to EAM Jaishankar and Government of India. We unequivocally reject and condemn this malicious attempt to malign and disturb the India–Maldives relations,” the Indian High Commission said in a tweet. In a second tweet, the Indian Mission requested the Maldivian authorities to “investigate this incident and take suitable action to prevent such misinformation campaigns”.
On the question of debt, senior PPM leader Mohamed Shareef ‘Mundhu’ said that the debt now is three times more than 2018 levels. “We Maldivians have not even seen what has been signed. Financial integrity laws [have been] suspended, and the government keeps printing money like in [Robert] Mugabe’s Zimbabwe,” he added.
Former President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who has moved to the Qasim Ibrahim campaign after the PPM gave him the short shrift, also has been talking about Maldives’ debt levels. “It is ludicrous that we are being gaslighted into believing that we do not face an impending financial crisis, that our potential to default is as high as Sri Lanka’s… We deserve a concrete plan to repay this debt. We deserve more than a prayer and a whim,” he added.
MDP’s former secretary-general, Hameed Abdul Gafoor, who is now an anchor on Ocean TV, a news television station aligned with the views of the Democrats, is of the opinion that these were concepts that the people would not be able to identify with. “One thing that I have noticed is that the crowds at jalsas [rallies] are much lesser. Politicians have been forced to go from door to door, quite literally,” he adds.
Almost all candidates have been talking to as many people as possible in every single of the 188 inhabited islands, as well as the resorts. “If you see, this time, the politicians are traveling much more, trying to meet every single voter, and spending time explaining even policy positions,” Mr. Gafoor added.
Which candidate was effective in his outreach? In just over 48 hours, the Maldivian people’s verdict will be known.