For the first time in the history of Maldives electoral politics, eight candidates are contesting the upcoming Presidential elections to be held on 9th September 2023. According to the Election Commission of Maldives, 282,395 persons are eligible to vote in this election and among them, approximately 27,000 people will be voting for the first time after attaining the age of 18.[i] This issue brief looks at the profile of the candidates and their pledges to win the trust of the electorate. It also assesses the probable outcome.
Out of the eight candidates contesting the election, three are contesting as independent candidates and five are representing their respective political parties. The main candidate of this election is the incumbent President of Maldives, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who is seeking a second term, supported by the ruling party the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP). The ruling party’s decision to field him as a candidate, led to split in the party. The former President of Maldives Mohamed Nasheed resigned from the party citing discrepancy in the selection of MDP Presidential candidate along with few MDP parliamentarians.
The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the Progressive National Congress (PNC) coalition has fielded the Mayor of Male, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu as coalition candidate. He has emerged as a consensus candidate of the coalition after the PPM leader and the former President of Maldives, Abdulla Yameen was barred from contesting elections by the Supreme Court of Maldives, as he is serving an eleven year jail sentence in a money laundering case.[ii] The PPM-PNC coalition had appealed to the higher court in July 2023, seeking court’s intervention to ensure the participation of Abdulla Yameen in the election. But the SC rejected the plea, citing Article 109(f) of the Constitution of Maldives, which disqualifies a person convicted of a criminal offence and serving a jail sentence, to contest the Presidential election.[iii] After the SC verdict, Abdulla Yameen gave a call to the PPM to boycott the election. But after much deliberation, the coalition agreed to back Dr. Mohamed Muizzu as a presidential candidate. He served as a Housing Minister in the government led by former President Dr. Waheed from 7 February 2012 to 16 November 2013.
The leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP), Qasim Ibrahim is also contesting the presidential election. He is an experienced politician and an important leader of Maldives electoral politics who played a key role in the formation of PPM government in 2013 and MDP government in 2018, as an alliance partner. He is also the Chairman of Villa Group, a business conglomerate. He held the position of the 18th Speaker of the Maldives from November 2018 to May 2019. He had run for the presidency in 2013, but could not secure required majority in the first round to win the election. He had supported the PPM candidate Abdulla Yameen in the second round of Presidential elections held in November 2013, against the MDP candidate Mohamed Nasheed, who lost the election with narrow margin.
The Democrats, a breakaway faction of the ruling party the MDP, led by Mohamed Nasheed was officially registered as a political party in July 2023. It chose the young parliamentarian Iliyas Labeed as the presidential candidate. He was an important and a well-known member of the MDP and was part of various MDP committees in the past but left the MDP in support of Mohamed Nasheed.
The Maldives National Party (MNP), a political party established in 2021, chose its founding member and the President of the party, Mohamed Nazim as its Presidential candidate. He is also a Member of Parliament (MP) of the Dhangethi constituency.
The leader of Maldives Reform Movement (MRM), Ahmed Faris Maumoon, a serving MP is contesting as an independent candidate, as the party could not show the minimum required membership that is 3000 members to continue as a political party according to the Political Party’s Act of Maldives.[iv] He is the son of former President of Maldives Abdulla Gayoom, who ruled Maldives for three decades (1978-2008). Faris served as a Minister of State for Economic Development under the PPM government, but resigned due to differences with the leadership.
Hassan Zameel, former Deputy Defence Minister and Umar Naseer, former Home Minister are other two independent candidates. Umar Naseer ran for office in 2008, but lost the election to Mohamed Nasheed.
Issues and pledges made by candidates
The political parties and the candidates are campaigning vigorously. Considering that the youth accounts for considerable share of population, all the political parties have tried to pick up issues faced by the youth of the country. Therefore, parties have promised to look into the issues faced by students like increasing the grace period of loans, taking care of loan repayments, ensuring employment and free education up to bachelors’ degree level are some of the promises made by political parties.
Some of the other issues promised by all candidates are related to the increasing of housing facilities, medical facilities, infrastructure at ports and harbours as well as improving tourism facilities in Atolls. Housing is an important issue in the island nation for years as it is looking for ways to provide affordable accommodation in Male and adjoining islands. Therefore, parties are trying to strike a chord with population who are looking for better employment opportunities in Malé as well as affordable housing.
The incumbent President Ibrahim Solih’s campaign seems unfazed by the developments within the MDP before the elections. He is taking the achievements of his government in the last five years both at the domestic level as well as at the foreign policy front to the electorate. Restoration of essential services in Atolls particularly at the community level, infrastructure projects aimed at improving connectivity, provision of medicines and supplies, emergency medical treatment by road, sea, and air and a special bank to finance housing are some of the promises made during his campaign.[v] The manifesto also promised five important polices that the future MDP government will follow and these include joyous living, peaceful community, new generation of the youth, economic transformation and just governance.[vi] The incumbent President has also emphasised on the need to vote for a party that can ensure political and economic stability, unlike the previous government. Solih also announced forty percent increase in salaries of government employees numbering 44,280 from next year.[vii]
The PPM-PNC manifesto tried to cater to the youth, women and fishing sector. The coalition has promised 65,000 flats in and around Malé Atolls and promised to transform the Addu City as the administrative tourism hub and an international gateway.[viii] Demolition of the existing Sinamale' flats in Malé City and the rebuilding tall towers at the location is another proposal by the Opposition coalition candidate.[ix] The Sinamale Flats that were constructed over 30 years ago, was the first major housing project in the country and needs rebuilding.[x] The party has also promised independent foreign policy and nurturing close relations with foreign countries and stressed that it would not align exclusively with one nation, in reference to Ibrahim Solih led government’s close relations with India.[xi]
In an effort to appeal to the youth of the country, the JP candidate Qasim Ibrahim has waived the outstanding loans taken by students from the Villa group headed by him.[xii] He also promised to help students in pursuing masters with state sponsorship and forgive all the loans taken by students from the government if elected to power.[xiii]The JP candidate has also raised the issue of boosting the fisheries and agriculture sectors to address the grievances of local fishers and farmers if elected to power.[xiv]
The MNP candidate, Mohamed Nazim announced, 16 large-scale projects, which include the Malé Commercial Harbor area, a ferry arrival and departure harbour project, establishment of a railway system, the construction of cinema complexes etc.[xv] Independent candidate Ahmed Faris Maumoon has promised to bring reforms at the governance level if elected.
The independent candidate, Umar Naseer’s campaign has been focussed on challenges posed by drug-related issues that are afflicting the nation. Allocation of an island specifically for drug rehabilitation efforts, addressing immigration concerns and prompt closure of unlawfully operating foreign businesses in Atolls are other promises made by him.[xvi] Drug use is an underlying problem faced by the Maldivian society for long. According to the first National Drug Use Survey (2011-2012), “the majority of drug users were between the age group of 15 and 29”.[xvii] Efforts have been made by the government to tackle the drug use in the last decade with the help of international agencies, but the problem persists because of the involvement of various interests groups in drug trade. The Situational Analysis Report 2021, prepared by the WHO and the National Drug Agency of Maldives noted that between 2016 and 2019, there is “20per cent increase in the import of drugs into the country and 47per cent increase in the sale of drugs in the country”.[xviii]
The MDP as the largest political party in Maldives with 58,035 members, is facing stiff competition from the Opposition camp, therefore it will not be a smooth sail for the incumbent President. Other than keeping the party and its members united, he has to ensure he gets the swing votes, to attain the 50 percent majority required to win the election in the first round, which is taking place on 9th of September. Out of 283,272 eligible voters, 162,935 are members of political parties, the remaining 120,337 are not registered as members of any political party. These voters will decide the prospects of all the candidates in the election.[xix] In Maldives, “the President is elected by direct popular vote through a two-round system to serve a five-year term.”[xx] If no Presidential candidate succeeds in getting the majority of votes that is 50 percent of total votes polled in the first round, Maldives can go for a second round of election. In the second round, top two candidates gets the chance to compete. This is where multiparty coalitions can be formed to defeat a candidate who secured majority of votes in the first round.
The 2013 Presidential elections result was an example in this regard. Despite securing majority of votes (46.93 percent of the total votes polled) in the first round, Mohamed Nasheed had to face the second round. In the second round he and Abdulla Yameen , who got the second highest votes, competed for the post. In the second round, the PPM candidate Yameen secured the majority with 51.39 percent of votes backed by smaller Opposition parties.[xxi] This probability cannot be ruled out in the upcoming Presidential election. If there is a possibility of second round of elections on 30th of September 2023, the PPM, the second largest political party of Maldives with 38,831 members plus its coalition partner the PNC with 3,199 members can align with smaller political parties and may also seek the support of independent candidates to form the government. The JP with 22,705 members can play a key role as in the past elections, if there is a second round.
As in the past, smaller Opposition parties may play a decisive role in the formation of government in the future. The Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) with 10,227 members and conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) with 9,595 members are supporting the incumbent President. The MNP with 9,729 members, the Maldives Third Way Democrats (MTD) led by former Vice-President of Maldives Ahmed Adeed with 3,014 members, the MRM with 2,892 members and the Democrats with 3,560 members can also play an important role in government formation in the future.[xxii]
The split of the MDP just before the elections has changed the electoral climate in the country. The fight for power is not just between the ruling MDP and the main Opposition PPM-PNC coalition that has consistently attacked the present MDP government’s domestic and foreign policy approach. By not contesting the election, Mohamed Nasheed has tried to send a message to the electorate that the fight is not a personal issue between him and the incumbent President Mohamed Solih for Executive Presidency, but it is against the administration of Solih and domestic policies pursued in the last five years. He was not in agreement with for instance, the continuation of the Presidential system, delay in implementing required constitutional reforms and measures against radical Islam.
The Democrats are trying to put up a considerable challenge for the present MDP leadership. Before announcing its presidential candidate, the new party was in touch with JP and PPM for some time to form a coalition of Opposition parties to defeat the incumbent President. The alliance did not materialise as expected by the Democrats before the elections but it has definitely boosted the PPM campaign against the government. Mohamed Nasheed’s open support to former President Yameen during election campaigns and his appeal to the EU requesting assistance in transferring Abdulla Yameen from prison (who is serving 11 year jail sentence) to home,[xxiii] for the remainder of the sentence came as a surprise for many. The EU however refused to comment on internal judicial processes in Maldives. Nasheed’s support to Yameen, who was responsible for jailing him on terrorism charges during the PPM led government, is an indication of his resolve to work with any Opposition party that can stand firmly against the incumbent President. But, keeping the new party united seems like a challenge for Nasheed for now, as the party could not attract significant new membership as expected. Recently, some members have left to rejoin the MDP.[xxiv] In this context, what role Mohammed Nasheed will play in the future is not clear yet. He may wait for the result of first round of election and may decide the future course of action.
Since the first multiparty democratic elections held in 2008, governments have changed in Maldives every five years and every time incumbent President could not win the elections. This election may change the course if the incumbent President is able to garner the votes, particularly the swing votes. Overall there seems to be goodwill about the incumbent President as the way his government has handled the pandemic and the post-pandemic years, the overall stability visible in the island nation, and the efforts made to reach out to Atolls population concerning their day to day issues etc. Nonetheless, the influence of PPM-PNC candidate Dr. Muizzu on the voters as Mayor of Male, particularly on voters from Atolls cannot be ruled out. He has promised substantial changes to facilities at Atolls if elected to power.
As far as the foreign policy posture of Maldives is concerned, it has definitely improved in the last few years, despite the Opposition PPM-PNC’s attack on the government. At present Maldives established diplomatic relations with over 100 countries.[xxv] Maldives has also made a concerted effort as a small island state to establish itself in the international arena. Solih defended the foreign policy pursued in the last five years in his election campaign and also countered the stand taken by PPM-PNC candidate. The latter said in one his election rallies that “maintaining strong relations with the Maldives would require respecting the country's sovereignty”[xxvi]Ibrahim Solih, in response emphasised that “safeguarding the Maldives' independence does not necessitate isolating the nation and "building a wall around the country."[xxvii]Foreign policy and geo-politics are an important electoral issue in Maldives, but may not be a decisive factor in deciding the outcome of Presidential elections.
Maldives’ political fluidity combined with present electoral system provides room for political parties to form political alliances and shift loyalties during elections, hence, it is difficult to predict a clear winner. The electorate can also vote for a candidate of their choice irrespective of party allegiance. The electorate is looking for economic and political stability, employment opportunities for the youth, expansion of tourism sector, provision for basic necessities such as housing, health and education, connectivity and overall sustainable development in Atolls. At the same time, there are bigger societal issues that need attention from future government in Maldives such as drug use and religious extremism, as these issues have the potential of impacting the political and economic stability in the country. Maldives election is keenly watched by international actors. As in the past, the election will be observed by 143 international observers and 22 international monitors, who will be stationed in different parts of the country to ensure a smooth election. But the future of Maldives will be decided by its citizens, who will vote on 9th September 2023.
*Dr. Samatha Mallempati, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA)
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] The Edition MV, “List of 282,395 eligible voters for presidential election finalised”, 21 August 2023, https://edition.mv/news/28873. Accessed on August 21, 2023.
[ii]Fathmath Ahmed Shareef, “Yameen files constitutional motion at Supreme Court over electoral rights”, 23 July 2023, https://atolltimes.mv/post/news/4711. Accessed on August 14, 2023
[iii]AP News, “Maldives top court rejects jailed ex-leader’s plea for eligibility to run again for president”, 6 August 2023, https://apnews.com/article/maldives-yameen-election-8da8f3e6009aa5728e3fa7c618e8ddf8.Accessed on August 10, 2023
[iv] Maldives Financial Review, “Dissolution of MRM - the end of Gayyoom’s Political Career?”, 25th May 2023, https://mfr.mv/gayyoom/dissolution-of-mrm-the-end-of-gayyoom-s-political-career. Accessed on August 26, 2023.
[v]PSM News, “MDP inaugurates first policy of manifesto”, 8 August 2023, https://www.psmnews.mv/en/124506.Accessed on August 11, 2023.
[vi]Mohamed Rehan, “MDP launches manifesto; includes clearing student loans, Place of Publication? 8 August 2023, https://edition.mv/mdp/28722. Accessed on August 11, 2023.
[vii]The Edition Mv, “Government employees to receive 40 percent pay raise from January 2024”, 22 August 2022, https://edition.mv/news/28797.Accessed on August 22, 2023
[viii]Avas News, “Dr.Muizzu's manifesto: 65,000 flats from Male' City area”, 21 August 2023, https://avas.mv/en/134709. Accessed on August 21, 2023.
[x]Maldives Financial Review, “Sina-Male' Flats to be rebuilt”, https://mfr.mv/male/sina-male-flats-to-be-rebuilt . Accessed on August 23, 2023.
[xi]Avas.mv, “Foreign relations will be based on independence and sovereignty respect: Muizzu”, 22 August 2023, https://avas.mv/en/134730.Accessed on August 22, 2023.
[xii]Avas.Mv, “Qasim waives outstanding student loans from Villa Foundation”, 9 August 2023, https://avas.mv/en/134303.Accessed on August 19, 2023.
[xiv]“JP pledges to solve grievances of fishers and farmers”, the Edition.mv, 19 August 2023, https://edition.mv/news/28845. Accessed on August 20, 2023
[xv]Mohamed Rehan, “Nazim’s vision for Malé; railways, cinemas, shopping malls, The Edition Mv, 21 August 2023, https://edition.mv/news/28874. Accessed on August 22, 2023.
[xvi]PSM News, “Umar Naseer holds campaign rally in Hulhumale', 19 August 2019, https://psmnews.mv/en/125033. Accessed on August 20, 2023.
[xvii]United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, “Maldives: Engaging parents in addressing drug use - parental guide book shows the way”, https://www.unodc.org/southasia/frontpage/2013/January/maldives-engaging-parents-in-addressing-drug-use---parental-guide-book-shows-the-way.html#:~:text=A%20recently%20conducted%20National%20Drug,15%20and%2029%20years%20old.Accessed on August 15, 2023.
[xviii]World Health Organisation and The National Drug Agency, republic of Maldives, “Situational Analysis of Drugs in the Maldives 2021”, https://health.gov.mv/storage/uploads/jo6xxlYr/mg4nsbtq.pdf. Accessed on August 26, 2023.
[xix] “42% of eligible voters aren’t registered to political parties”, 6 March 2023, https://en.sun.mv/81310. Accessed August 16, 2023.
[xx]Maldives Financial Review, “Voting systems in the Maldives and around the world”, 24th February 2023, https://mfr.mv/governance/voting-systems-in-the-maldives-and-around-the-world-2.Accessed on August 10, 2023.
[xxi]The Election Commission of Maldives, “Presidential Election 2013”, 7 September 2013, https://www.elections.gov.mv/en/ec/elections/Presidentialelectionsresults2013.html.. Accessed on August 9, 2023.
[xxii]Avas.mv, “EC releases latest political party membership statistics”, 5 July 2023, https://avas.mv/en/133041.Accessed on August 16, 2023.
[xxiii]Mohamed Rehan, “Cannot intervene in judiciary to release Yameen: EU”, The Edition MV, 18 August 2023, https://edition.mv/news/28842.Accessed on August 20, 2023
[xxiv] Avas. Mv, “Nasheed voices outrage as former defectors return to MDP”, 26 August 2023, https://avas.mv/en/134901. Accessed on August 27, 2023.
[xxv]Avas.mv, “No need to build walls to safeguard independence': Pres Solih”, 23 August 2023, https://avas.mv/en/134794.Accessed on August 23, 2023
[xxvi]Avas.mv, “Foreign relations will be based on independence and sovereignty respect: Muizzu”, 21 August 2023, https://avas.mv/en/134730.Accessed on August 22, 2023
[xxvii]Avas.mv, “No need to build walls to safeguard independence': Pres Solih”, 23 August 2023, https://avas.mv/en/134794.Accessed on August 23, 2023