India or China: the upcoming Maldives Presidential elections will determine future foreign policy

Commonwealth observers watch the count following the close of polls in the Maldivian parliamentary election on 6 April 2019. Image via Flickr by Commonwealth Secretariat. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Commonwealth observers watch the count following the close of polls in the Maldivian parliamentary election on 6 April 2019. Image via Flickr by Commonwealth Secretariat. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Maldives is poised to hold the 2023 presidential elections on September 9, 2023. Around 280,000 voters are eligible to vote in this island nation with a population of around 520,000. The winner will be announced after the votes if one candidate secures over 50 percent of the votes. However, in the event that no candidate reaches the halfway threshold, a second round of voting will take place between the top two contenders within 21 days.

The incumbent president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is likely to face intense competition as seven other candidates have challenged him for the top post. President Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)  assumed office in the September 2018 election after defeating the then-incumbent president, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party (PPM). The results will have significant implications for Maldives’ foreign policy as well as status in the region.

Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the second democratically elected president of Maldives, secured victory in the 2013 presidential election by defeating incumbent president Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Yameen's presidency was marked by controversy, including the imprisonment of key opposition figures and Supreme Court judges, restrictions on the media following corruption allegations, and the lock-down of parliament after a vote of no confidence. In 2019, Yameen faced charges of corruption and money laundering, resulting in a five-year prison sentence. However, in November 2021, he was released after a top court overturned his charges.

Geopolitical influences

In the past decade, geopolitical factors have played a significant role in Maldivian politics. The 2018 Maldivian election was widely interpreted as a victory for India and a setback for China. Former President Yameen faced accusations of fostering close ties with China after he signed numerous free trade and maritime agreements. After 2012, Chinese investment in the Island nation surged with many mega projects, which racked up a huge Chinese debt. These developments strained India's historically close relationship with Maldives, spanning over six decades. Some Indian commentators even implied that Yameen was handing the Maldives over to China.

After the 2018 election, President Solih adopted an “India first” policy to restore ties with India while maintaining relations with China. India responded by increasing aid to Maldives and bolstering its military presence to counter China's growing influence in the region. However, in October 2020, the opposition coalition of Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People's National Congress (PNC) initiated an “India Out” campaign to challenge the bilateral relationship. Yameen's acquittal of money-laundering charges in 2021 fueled this campaign against Indian military presence, seemingly aimed at staging a political comeback.

The “India Out” campaign was gaining momentum until it was banned by the government in April 2022, citing national security concerns. In December 2022, the Maldives criminal court sentenced Yameen to 11 years in prison and imposed a USD 5 million fine on charges of corruption and money laundering. The current Solih government still maintains that it enjoys a special relationship with India.

The frontrunners

Among the presidential candidates, incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the MDP remains the frontrunner in the upcoming elections. He has overseen the completion of several infrastructure projects and citizen-friendly initiatives during his tenure, benefiting the Maldivians and enjoying significant popularity.

His primary rival is Mohamed Muizzu, the current mayor of the capital, Malé, represents the People's National Congress (PNC) and is endorsed by Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). During his tenure as the Minister of Housing and Infrastructure in the Yameen administration, he successfully completed numerous large-scale projects with funding from China, earning popularity among Malé residents, who constitute half of Maldives’ total population. Moreover, the Maldives Supreme Court confirmed that the imprisoned former president, Yameen, is ineligible to run in the upcoming election. Yameen was reluctant to endorse anyone else from his party to contest, even as a backup, and his party (PPM) finally decided to back Mohamed Muizzu of PNC.

However, the main challenge of Solih is coming from within his party. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had a falling out with his childhood friend and party colleague, Mohamed Nasheed, the nation's first democratically elected president. Tensions escalated in 2022 to the point where Nasheed challenged Solih in a presidential primary. In January 2023, Solih secured over 61 percent of the votes to beat Nasheed and earn the party's mandate to run in the upcoming election.

In May 2023, Nasheed resigned from the ruling MDP party and co-founded a new party called The Democrats, along with 12 members of parliament from the MDP. The party has nominated Hulhudhoo MP Ilyas Labeeb as their presidential candidate. Mohamed Nasheed is particularly popular among young Maldivians, so this move is likely to challenge Solih's prospects by dividing the MDP's voter base.

Free and fair election?

The Freedom In The World 2023 report by Freedom House, which tracks global trends in political rights and civil liberties, ranked Maldives as partially free (41/100). The key point noted was that despite improvements, many basic freedoms remained restricted in the island nation.

Transparency Maldives completed a pre-election assessment in August 2023, which identified the misuse of state resources and exertion of coordinated influence on voters through State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) by the ruling party, disturbing the level playing field.

Former MP Rukuma Ahmed Abdul Kareem of the Progressive Party of Maldives mentioned on X (formerly Twitter):

CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists, interviewed exiled activist and founder of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) Shahindha Ismail, who  commented on the upcoming election:

I think the election that will take place on 9 September has already lost any semblance of freedom or fairness. The government has unfairly, even unlawfully, monopolised all political spaces months ahead of the election. The government has sought to eliminate all viable opposition and has used judicial institutions to place one obstacle after another in the way of opposition parties, depriving them of precious time for campaigning. The Elections Commission (EC) in particular is seriously compromised, which affects the very principle of election freedom and fairness.

Amnesty International called on the candidates to adhere to a seven-point agenda and commit to protecting human rights if they are elected.

The parties and contestants are campaigning vigorously and putting forward lucrative election pledges. Nonetheless, President Solih remains confident in his chances and aims to continue his efforts to bring stability to the nation. The outcome of the election will have a significant impact on Maldives’ foreign policy direction, determining whether it tilts towards India or China. Maldivians are hoping for a huge voting turnout like the previous election (89.2 percent).

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