In many ways, it all began with a bridge, connecting three islands in the Maldives. Shortly after the inauguration of the 1.39 km Sinamale Bridge, named the China–Maldives Friendship Bridge, on August 30, 2018, the then President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom was confident of his chances in the upcoming election. However, in the elections held less than a month later, on September 23, 2018, Yameen suffered a resounding defeat.
Nearly five years later, on September 6, 2023, Yameen, who is currently serving time in jail for bribery and money laundering, appeared in a local court to appeal his 11-year sentence. The Maldives watched this dramatic event unfold on live television. Yameen’s fortunes couldn’t have plummeted any lower.
Ironically, the bridge that was opened during his tenure has dramatically transformed the capital area of the Maldives, even though it was once considered one of the infrastructure projects that had pushed the Maldives dangerously close to a Chinese debt trap. This bridge connects the congested capital island of Male to the airport island, Hulumale, and a neighboring man-made sprawling island, Hulhumale.
Following Yameen’s removal from power and the assumption of office by the current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, there were numerous criticisms of Yameen’s extravagant bridge project. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), led by President Solih, openly voiced concerns about the cost of the “expensive” bridge and its impact on the nation’s finances.
Five years later, the bridge has proven to be a boon for the capital city, where more than a third of the population resides. A 30-year-old government servant, when asked about the bridge’s impact on her life, exclaimed, “I cannot imagine Male without the bridge. It is impossible to live in Male due to the high cost of living and the lack of adequate open spaces.” Many commuters who used the bridge on September 6 shared her sentiment. Some, however, noted that while the bridge was undoubtedly beneficial, it had led to a significant increase in the number of vehicles, making it impossible to even ride a bike in Male during peak hours, let alone drive a car.
Several government offices have relocated to Hulhumale, along with new embassies, including those of the United States and Australia. The Indian High Commission, previously located about 100 meters from the People’s Majlis (parliament) in Male, has also shifted to a rented building in Hulhumale, with construction underway for a dedicated Indian Mission building on the man-made island.
Furthermore, more bridge projects are in the pipeline, this time with Indian support, to the south of Male. The Male to Thilafushi link project, being implemented by the Indian company Afcons Infrastructure, is progressing rapidly. “Because of Covid, work began only later part of 2021. The progress of work is impressive,” said an official, who has monitored the project since its inception.
As the September 9 Presidential elections approach, it is clear that many candidates are promising additional infrastructure projects, particularly bridges and airports. Eight candidates remain in the race, including Solih and Male Mayor Mohamed Muizzu Mohamed, representing the People’s National Congress (PNC) with backing from the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
Many observers believe that this election will largely hinge on how many votes the other candidates in the race can garner. Notable candidates include Qasim Ibrahim, leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP), former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, who leads the relatively new Maldives National Party, and three independent candidates: Faris Maumoon, son of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former Home Minister Umar Naseer, and former Defence Minister Hassan Zameel. Faris, who was part of the Solih government, performed well in the last Presidential debate and has gained some traction. Nazim and Naseer have also made impressive strides.
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Should these leaders each secure just over 10,000 votes, it is highly likely that the election will head into a second round, as Maldivian law mandates that a candidate needs to secure 50 per cent plus one vote to win. President Solih has expressed confidence in winning in a single round. In Male, it seems that Muizzu is gaining ground, especially after Yameen’s wife publicly endorsed him on September 5, creating an impression that Muizzu is the preferred candidate of Yameen’s party. This has stirred some controversy as Muizzu switched from the PPM to join the PNC solely for the opportunity to run for President.
However, the most intriguing battle of this election is the one involving Mohamed Nasheed, the first President chosen under the multiparty system in 2008. He has refrained from entering the contest following a dispute with Solih and has instead nominated Member of Parliament Ilyas Labeeb to run. A new party, The Democrats, has been registered, and Nasheed has been actively seeking votes in Male and other regions. On September 6 he was in the southern-most atoll of Addu. He is working tirelessly to maintain his political relevance. And that is the irony of this election: a person who symbolised the transformation of the Maldives archipelago to multi-party democracy, and was once declared Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience, is today fighting for political relevance.
All this in a span of just a decade and a half!