The Presidential elections in Maldives, which took place in September 2023 in two phases, were widely covered in the international media. The Maldives has been at the centre of Indian Ocean geopolitics for quite some time now due to its strategic location near major sea routes of trade and its geographical proximity to India and Sri Lanka. Therefore, internal political developments, particularly the democratic transition of the country in 2008 with regular elections, have attracted considerable international attention.
The first round of elections, which were held on 9 September 2023, did not deliver a clear verdict for the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the ruling Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) candidate. He was hopeful of returning to power based on his government’s performance in the last five years. In the second round of elections, which took place on 30 September 2023, the Opposition’s Progressive Party of Maldives and People’s National Congress (PPM-PNC) coalition candidate, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, defeated the incumbent President by securing 54.04 percent (126,842) of the total votes (282,804) polled in the second round. Ibrahim Solih secured 46 percent of the votes (108,500). According to reports by the Maldives local media, the President-elect will take office on 17 November 2023. Elections were held in a free and fair manner, and the results were accepted by the ruling party as well as other political parties. President Solih also promised to facilitate a smooth transition of power.[i]
Possible Policy Changes: Domestic and External
The President-elect has promised to focus on fulfilling the pledges made during the elections in the first 100 days of his Presidency.[ii] On the economic front, he has promised a three-pronged approach to national development, which includes the “establishment of a stable economy, revolutionary transformation, and economic expansion”.[iii] Dr. Muizzu has also pledged to raise the Gross Domestic Product per capita to US$17,000 within five years, from the current per capita of nearly US $ 11, 000, boost foreign reserves, reduce external debt, review ongoing projects, increase housing facilities, and create international tourism hubs in suitable Atolls etc.
The Fitch Ratings has predicted a growth rate of 6.6 percent in the next two years for the country.[iv] It also noted that the Maldives gross foreign reserves fell by 16.6 percent in 2022 and at present reserves stand at US$694 million. The country also has US$232 million in external debt-servicing obligations and US$298 million in publicly guaranteed obligations that are due in 2024.[v] The external debt can further rise to $363 million in 2025 if not paid on time. Therefore, addressing the debt issue is going to be a priority under the new administration. A review of infrastructure projects that commenced in the last five years in the Maldives seems to be on the agenda of the President-elect, particularly the India-funded $500 million six-kilometre Thilamalé Bridge project.[vi] He has promised to expedite the project and look into the technicalities that have delayed it. Priority will also be given to housing development projects in Male and nearby islands as promised during the elections. Enhancing the new Special Economic Zone opportunities across Maldives; a new investment bank to facilitate foreign investments to finance various sectors; air ambulance facilities are some of the other promises, the President-elect is expected to address in the future. Dr. Muizzu, has also expressed confidence in the Maldives climate resilience, contrary to the international concern about the Maldives' future due to climate change and resultant sea level rise.[vii]
Representatives from India, the US, Saudi Arabia, Australia, China, and the United Nations (UN), and others, have reached out to the Maldives President-elect in a bid to strengthen relations with the new administration in Male. Dr.Muizzu has spoken about the “pro-Maldives” foreign policy that he prefers to follow after assuming office.[viii]
Under Solih, the noticeable change seen, with regard to Maldives engagement with external actors, was Maldives deepening engagement with Indo-Pacific powers. An attempt was made to show balance in the Maldives’ relations with external actors to maximise Maldives’ economic and security interests. The West eagerly reached out to the Maldives in a bid to challenge China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The Defence Agreement signed between the Maldives and the US in September 2020 to strengthen peace and security in the Indian Ocean stands as an example.[ix]
However, China remained an important bilateral partner to the Maldives under Ibrahim Solih. China has also reached out to the President-elect after the elections and conveyed that it will carry “forward traditional friendship, deepen practical cooperation, and promote the future-oriented comprehensive friendly cooperative partnership between the two countries”.[x] Dr. Muizzu attended the 74th National Day celebrations of the People’s Republic of China, organised by the Chinese Embassy, on 8 October 2023, in Male.[xi] Other than the large-scale China funded projects, such as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, importance was also given, to encourage tourism through the resumption of direct flights and the Agreement on Mutual Visa Exemption between Maldives and China.[xii] The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that was signed between Maldives and China in 2017 under the PPM Government has not progressed under the MDP Government. This may be revived under the new leadership.
The PPM leader, Abdulla Yameen had a difficult relationship with the West and other international bodies during his tenure as the President of Maldives (2013-2018). The West expressed concern about rights violations in the island nation as well as jailing of Opposition leaders on terrorism charges.[xiii] For instance, in July 2015, in his Independent Day address, Abdulla Yameen blamed foreign interference in “Maldivian domestic affairs and condemned alleged efforts to undermine the country’s sovereignty and spread ideologies and cultural norms contrary to Islamic faith and principles”.[xiv] He also emphasized that “membership of international bodies and multilateral organisations is also founded upon their respect for Maldives independence and sovereignty”.[xv] Maldives chose to leave the Commonwealth in October 2016, after it criticised the PPM Government of violating human rights norms and principles. It rejoined the Commonwealth in 2020, under the MDP Government.[xvi]
At present, the circumstances that promoted the external actors to speak on internal developments in the Maldives are mostly absent. Given the diplomatic, military, and development assistance outreach of the West in the last few years, the PPM-PNC government may continue the engagement with West in the future. What is to be watched is whether the PPM-PNC government will provide enough space for the West and other multilateral bodies in the island State’s economic and security domains, as well as in the Indian Ocean domain. There are other external actors like Saudi Arabia, which are important development partners to the Maldives. Saudi Arabia, has contributed significantly to various development projects in recent years in Maldives. For instance, ‘nearly US $200 million has been provided to build a new terminal in Velana international airport and US $ 50 million was also provided for projects in health and housing’.[xvii]
The Maldives, under new administration, may also stick to its stand on some of the international issues, as is evident from the position taken on the Israel-Palestine conflict after recent clashes. Dr. Muizzu tweeted, “Israel should end the illegal occupation of Palestine immediately and return the lands forcefully seized from Palestinians. Israel should recognize Palestine as an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital within 1967 borders and allow the immediate return of refugees”.[xviii]The Maldives has historically supported the Palestinian cause.
Relations with India
As far as India-Maldives relations are concerned, election results in the Maldives are unlikely to alter the basic foundations of bilateral relations. Historical and civilisational linkages and geographical proximity are important factors that shaped India-Maldives relations, particularly security relations, in the last four decades. Respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is recognised as a crucial aspect of bilateral relations and is not dependent entirely on the government in place both in Male and in New Delhi. There is a certain degree of continuity in the ties.
The PPM-PNC coalition has raised a few issues in the last five years pertaining to some aspects of the present India-Maldives bilateral defence cooperation. According to reports, the President-elect is keen to review some of the defence arrangements after assuming office, particularly the presence of Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives for technical purposes.[xix] In his first international interview to Aljazeera, on 14 October 2023, Dr. Muizzu said that ‘Maldivians do not want any foreign troops to be present in the country be it from India or any other country. He also said, his government will try to find a way out through diplomatic channels and work with the Indian Government’.[xx] At the same time he emphasized that military cooperation between India and Maldives will continue in the future.
Nevertheless, India’s response after the victory of Dr. Muizzu, probably has set the tone for bilateral engagement with the Maldives under the new administration. India emphasized its “commitment to strengthen bilateral relationship and enhancing overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean region”.[xxi] India’s development cooperation with the Maldives is a vital aspect that may continue with the same disposition in the future. Security cooperation has improved significantly in the last few years. The Defence Cooperation Dialogue (DCD), the DOSTI military exercises, and the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) are some of the mechanisms in place to work on traditional and non-traditional security threats at the bilateral and regional level. Capacity building in various sectors and humanitarian disaster relief operations are two other important areas of cooperation at the bilateral level, which may continue as before.
Future Coalitions and the Yameen Factor
Winning the parliamentary elections, which are due in early or mid-2024, with a two-thirds majority, is important for the PPM-PNC coalition to implement all the pledges made during the elections and for the smooth functioning of the government. The MDP has already decided to contest all the seats in the elections and will try to give a tough fight to win back the confidence of voters. The Democrats, led by former President Nasheed, and the current Speaker of Maldives Parliament, who are largely seen as responsible for the defeat of the ruling MDP, may join the new government. The MDP tried to amend relations with the former leader of the party after the first round of elections and even agreed to conduct a nationwide referendum on changing the present political system to a Parliamentary System, as demanded by the Democrats. However, it did not help in forging an alliance before the second round of elections. A no-confidence motion against the Speaker Nasheed has been re-submitted after the elections, on the grounds of ‘prioritizing personal interests over government bills’.[xxii]The motion was signed by 49 parliamentarians of the MDP, out of the current 55 parliamentarians of the Party. Therefore, there is a little possibility of the Democrats aligning with MDP in the future.
Notably, former President Yameen is going to play a vital role in government formation as well as in the policy formulation of the future government. He is serving a 11-year jail term for a money laundering case and could not contest the Presidential elections. He was transferred to house arrest at the request of the President-elect just after the victory of the PPM-PNC coalition. How the political landscape in the Maldives will change, in the future, remains to be seen if Yameen is released from a jail term. The President-elect believes that the charge against Yameen is politically motivated.[xxiii] There are other parties, such as the Jumhooree Party (JP) and the Maldives National party (MVP), who will try to have a presence in the new parliament. The Democrats might join the future PPM-PNC government, depending on the party’s prospects in the parliamentary elections.
*Dr. Samatha Mallempati, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal.
[i] President’s Office, Maldives, “President Solih congratulates President-Elect Dr Muizzu on 2023 Presidential Election victory”, 1 October 2023, https://presidency.gov.mv/Press/Article/28926. Accessed on October 3, 2023.
[ii] The Edition, “President-elect forms committee overseeing state budget for 2024”, 10 October 2023, https://edition.mv/news/29544. Accessed on October 10, 2023.
[iii] Mohamed Rehan, “PPM/PNC candidate announces economic manifesto”, 27 September 2023, https://edition.mv/ppm_pnc_coalition/29341. Accessed on October 3, 2023.
[iv] Fitch Ratings, “Fitch Affirms Maldives at 'B-'; Outlook Negative”, 9 October 2023, https://www.fitchratings.com/research/sovereigns/fitch-affirms-maldives-at-b-outlook-negative-09-10-2023. Accessed on October 10, 2023.
[vi]Mohamed Rehan, “Dr.Muizzu promises expediting Thilamalé Bridge project”, 9 October 2023, https://edition.mv/news/29535. Accessed on October 10, 2023.
[vii] Avas.mv, “Pres-Elect Dr. Muizzu expresses confidence in Maldives' climate resilience”, 16 October 2023, https://avas.mv/en/136518. Accessed on October 16, 2023.
[viii] Mohamed Rehan, “Australia commends Dr.Muizzu's "pro-Maldives" foreign policy”, The Edition MV, https://edition.mv/news/29558. Accessed on October 12, 2023.
[ix] The US Department of Defence, “The Maldives and U.S. Sign Defense Agreement”, 11 September 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/2344512/the-maldives-and-us-sign-defense- Accessed on October 4, 2023.
[x] Chen Qingqing, “Xi congratulates Mohamed Muizzu on his election as Maldives president; ‘new progress’ expected in BRI cooperation, experts say”, 3 October 2023, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202310/1299208.shtml. Accessed on October 6, 2023.
[xi] Malika Shahid, “Reception held in celebration of the 74th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China”, 9th October 2023, https://edition.mv/news/29536. Accessed on October 10, 2023.
[xiii] Daniel Bosley, Shihar Aneez, “U.S., India concerned over 13-year jail sentence for Maldives' ex-president Nasheed”, 14 March, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/maldives-politics-idINKBN0M92D220150314. Accessed on October 5, 2023
[xiv] Maldives Independent, “President Yameen slams foreign interference in Independence Day address”, 27 July 2015, https://maldivesindependent.com/politics/president-yameen-slams-foreign-interference-in-independence-day-address-115723. Accessed on October 5, 2023.
[xvii] Malika Shahid, “Saudi to provide USD 100 million for airport completion, USD 50 million for health sector”, 15 October 2023, https://edition.mv/news/2961. Accessed on October 16, 2023.
[xviii] Dr Mohamed Muirzzu, 7 October 2023, https://twitter.com/MMuizzu/status/1710666730786226417? Accessed on October 8, 2023.
[xix]Mohamed Sharuhan, “Maldives president-elect says he’s committed to removing the Indian military from the archipelago”, 3 October 2023, https://apnews.com/article/maldives-election-muiz-india-military-010182dbfdc7ef5bcb99765c763b2f80. Accessed on October 4, 2023.
[xx] Aljazeera, “Maldives president-elect: Indian troops out a week after new term”, 14 October 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/program/talk-to-al-jazeera/2023/10/14/maldives-president-elect-indian-troops-out-a-week-after-new-term. Accessed on October 16, 2023.
[xxi] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Media Briefing, 5 October 2023, https://www.mea.gov.in/media. Accessed on October 6, 2023. Accessed on October6, 2023.
[xxii] Avas Daily, “No-confidence motion against Nasheed submitted to Parliament”, 9 October 2023, https://avas.mv/en/136325. Accessed on October 10, 2023.
[xxiii] Aljazeera, “Maldives president-elect: Indian troops out a week after new term”, 14 October 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/program/talk-to-al-jazeera/2023/10/14/maldives-president-elect-indian-troops-out-a-week-after-new-term. Accessed on October 16, 2023.