Ruling party feud casts shadow over election prospects in the Maldives

An opposition victory could mean security challenges for India in the Indian Ocean region.

Published : Sep 08, 2022 11:00 IST

Former President Mohamed Nasheed (left) with Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, then the President-elect, at the airport in Male on November 1, 2018. Nasheed was returning to the Maldives after more than two years in exile. Now the two leaders of the ruling MDP are in the midst of a public quarrel.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed (left) with Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, then the President-elect, at the airport in Male on November 1, 2018. Nasheed was returning to the Maldives after more than two years in exile. Now the two leaders of the ruling MDP are in the midst of a public quarrel. | Photo Credit: MOHAMED SHARUHAAN/AP

There is a factional war going on within the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the first registered political party in the Maldives and widely seen as the closest ally of India, like the Awami League of Bangladesh. The faction feud, however, threatens to make the average Maldivian reconsider voting for the party in 2023.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was selected to run as President in 2018 as a compromise candidate ahead of former President Mohamed Nasheed, once the heart and soul of the MDP. In June this year, Solih expressed his desire to run for the post again. Nasheed chided Solih, saying this was the time to deliver on promises and not to declare one’s political fantasies. The war of words between Nasheed and his one-time buddy from Addu, ‘Ibu’ Solih, is out in the open.

Though there is no official announcement of a date for the primaries, former ministers and prominent Maldivians speculate that the MDP primary will be held in October. If it is further delayed, the Nasheed-Solih divide in the party will virtually cripple it and prevent it from functioning as an effective unit ahead of the crucial election.

Also read: Not entirely idyllic

Nasheed and Ibu have visited India in the recent past to talk to their friends in positions of power. Nasheed was part of the Raisina Dialogue in April and reportedly travelled to India again in August. Since Solih took office in 2018, he has travelled thrice to India and has secured development concessions for his country.

Party ticket      

The party’s top body has the power to hand over the ticket to any person of its choice without a poll. In 2008 and 2013, Nasheed was the presidential candidate. Nasheed won in 2008 and lost in the run-off in 2013. In 2018, Solih was named as the presidential candidate because Nasheed was facing jail: it was a compromise solution.

In 2023, there will be a contest for the ticket, but it is unclear if Nasheed will take the plunge because the elected officials in the party are clearly in Ibu’s corner. But in the primary, all MDP members vote. Nasheed built the party from scratch and made it a force to reckon with. But there is no guarantee that he will win because much of the MDP’s internal bickering is public knowledge. In any case, in a country of only 5.6 lakh people, news travels fast; gossip, even faster.

  • Factional feud in the Maldives’ ruling MDP is out in the open.
  • Opposition strikes in with its ‘India Out’ campaign.
  • MDP leaders are seen as being close to “Hindu” India.
  • Social media is abuzz with stories, fake and otherwise, of the persecution of Muslims in India.

Nasheed may be reconsidering whether to contest the primary because of the defeat of his proposal to convert the Maldives into a parliamentary democracy. He has often talked about the need to switch to parliamentary democracy because the current governance system does not give enough powers either to the President or to the parliament. The Nasheed-Solih rivalry began with the police’s inability to secure all those who tried to murder Nasheed. The recent arrest of a relative of Nasheed on charges of homosexuality (a punishable crime) and Nasheed’s inability to get his candidates into key ministries have accentuated the divide.

Flawed polity

The current system is the legacy of a deeply flawed political structure put in place because of outside influences as the Maldives emerged from an authoritarian democracy to a representative one. Successive Presidents have shared with this correspondent the difficulty in getting anything accomplished in the Maldives because the powers are divided between the President and the parliament.

Nasheed, currently Speaker of the Majlis (parliament), is also upset over the fact that the party has been almost completely taken over by Solih with the support of his Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail. Some of his closest allies have maintained a distance from Nasheed. A couple of prominent MDPians who have taken this path claimed, in conversations with this correspondent, that they have the good of the party at heart. Delivering on promises is more important that factional wars, they said. The rumblings inside the MDP have led to some instability in the government. Meanwhile, the MDP’s allies, the Jumhooree Party (JP), the second largest party in the ruling coalition, and the Adhaalath Party, also a significant constituent, are not averse to taking a shot at the presidential primary. In fact, the JP has announced its intention to run: this will be its leader Qasim Ibrahim’s last chance, given his advancing age. The Adhaalath Party has said that it is yet to decide on the 2023 election, effectively short-circuiting Ibu’s claim that the allies want him to lead the 2023 charge.

The ‘India Out’ campaign

The MDP’s biggest Achilles heel is the campaign by the opposition, particularly the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), that it is close to “Hindu” India which is said to be oppressing Muslims. Social media is abuzz with news and fake news from India on how Muslims are being treated.

The opposition’s anti-India campaign is in-your-face and no-holds-barred. Ahmed Thaufeeg, former Minister of State for Health, commenting on a picture of Nasheed and Abdulla with Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, said: “Maldives must be saved from these Indian puppets. Protect our independence and sovereignty. Let patriotic Maldivians rule Maldives.”

Also read: Campaign to get India out of Maldives

It is clear that the PPM’s poll plank will be its India Out campaign. The party, known for its pro-China stance, has already announced that former President Abdulla Yameen will be its candidate.

Because of multiple proceedings in court and the Election Commission, there is a possibility that Abdulla Yameen will not be able to contest. If that happens, he will face the situation that he got Nasheed into in 2018. In the event, because there are multiple contenders for the post, the PPM will face difficulties in agreeing on a name for the post. That would be the best case for the MDP

The PPM’s India Out campaign and the attack on the Indian Mission’s Yoga Day celebrations point to the involvement of intolerant elements in the protests against India. Barring the MDP, this correspondent has not seen statements from any major political party condemning the attack. This is an indication that political parties are hedging their bets — after all, the JP had to a large extent tilted the scales and got Yameen elected in 2013.

As of now, the Maldives has 11 registered political parties. In 2013, a close second round of presidential election witnessed Yameen win by 6,022 votes against Nasheed, which resulted in the Maldives almost immediately switching loyalties from India to China.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih during his visit to Bollywood Park at Filmcity in Mumbai on August 4, 2022.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih during his visit to Bollywood Park at Filmcity in Mumbai on August 4, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Senior MDP Ministers, including Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, who is also the UN General Assembly president for the year, have made multiple trips to New Delhi to cement the government’s “India First” policy. New Delhi, however, has been less than satisfied with the “India First” approach.

A ruling party senior explained the dichotomy of views: “India desires an ‘India Only’ policy on the part of the Maldives. This is neither practical nor possible for us. We are dependent on India for a lot of our needs. But it is impossible for us to minimise ties with China.” As seen in Sri Lanka, the India-China proxy game is set to come out in the open in the Maldives too. For India, the PPM winning the election in the strategically important archipelago nation will mean security challenges in the Indian Ocean region.

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