Maldives Presidential Elections 2023
Umang Bhansali, Research Assistant, VIF
Introduction

Maldives is an archipelagic state situated strategically in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Maldives concluded its second phase of the fourth presidential elections on September 20, 2023, electing Mohamed Muizzu as the new President. It was the first instance that the Maldives, since its first democratic elections in 2008, witnessed eight candidates for the presidential race. On the one end, such development highlights an increasing political space and opportunities, with three independent candidates while on the other hand, it also highlights the fragmentation going on within party politics in the state, with the split-up in the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP).

Political Development in the Lead-up to Elections

The addition of prospective candidates in the presidential race was due to two major reasons. Firstly, the split between the then-ruling MDP; that left a staggering impact on the party but mainly Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives, who resigned on June 21, 2023.[1] The strife between Nasheed and the MDP had come about after Mohammed Solih won the MDP's primary elections in January 2023 and thus became the party candidate for the 2023 presidential polls.[2] Since then, the party has been divided into two factions. The political turmoil in the MDP was even more aggravated when Nasheed said that the party was violating the democratic values once instilled in it and tried to reclaim the control of the party from within.[3] The burgeoning discontent within the party led to the resignation of its 12 MPs and Vice President Mohammed Shifaz on May 17, 2023[4], forming a new party, “The Democrats”, which was joined a month later by Nasheed.

Secondly, the Jumhooree Party (JP) & Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) broke their ruling coalition with the MDP. For the Jumhooree Party (JP), the split from the ruling coalition was due to dissatisfaction with the MDP's environment and also for realising their political ambitions. In July 2023, JP left the coalition with the ruling government over the issue of lack of representation in the parliament. The leader of JP, Qasim Ibrahim, stated that "the agreement was to give 25 per cent of parliamentary jobs to JP candidates…, however, we got about 8 per cent".[5]

During this time, the major opposition party, the People's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), was also having its coming of age. In 2018, the leader of the party, former President Abdulla Yameen, was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment on bribery and money laundering charges. After the Supreme Court of Maldives upheld the rejection of Yameen's candidacy, he urged his party to boycott the 2023 presidential elections. In Yameen's absence, the coalition of PPM and People's National Congress (PNC) elected, through a secret ballot, Dr. Mohammed Muizzu as the presidential candidate.[6] Day after election results were announced, the decision to transfer Yameen to house arrest was taken at the request of the winning candidate, Muizzu.[7]

Such instability within the political parties has caused a confusion in the minds of conventional voters attached to a particular political party, ideology, or even a face. This, in return, is assumed to have created a good amount of swing voters, which apparently influenced the results of the 2023 Maldives elections.

2023 General Elections of the Maldives

In the campaign for the fourth presidential election, the manifestos of the political parties considered the youth population as their central concern for contesting elections; added to this were the issues of employment opportunities, housing & medical facilities, infrastructural development, political and economic stability. Apart from the internal affairs, the India-China question has been one of the key points during the election campaigns.[8]

Since no conclusive majority (50 per cent and above) was formed in the preview of the Presidential Elections Act of the Maldives, 2008, in the first round held on September 9, the elections were carried forward to a runoff second round.[9] The table below depicts the results of the first round of the elections.

In the second-round runoff, the primary contestation was between President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and Dr. Mohammed Muizzu's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). On September 30, 2023, Muizzu, head of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), was elected as President with 53.9 per cent of votes, whereas Solih got 46.1 per cent of votes.[10] Soon after the election results were announced, Nasheed expressed his willingness to join the MDP if he had 50 percent support from the MDP National Congress[11], although cooperation between the two is yet to be affirmed.

It is important to look at the impact of India-Maldives relations in the presidential elections, as it was one of the major issues in the election campaign.

Geo-Strategic Importance of India-Maldives Relations

Considering the geo-strategic location of Maldives, the island nation has immense strategic value the significance of which cannot be overlooked by the major powers in the region that look to strengthen their hold in the region. India has been actively engaging with the Maldives in tandem with the long-standing ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and people-people bond shared between the two. Both nations enjoy close, cordial, and multidimensional relations based on shared values of democratic virtues, peaceful coexistence, and rule of law.[12] In the recent past, bilateral relations between India and Maldives have been further strengthened. The defence cooperation between the two nations has also grown. The foundation stone for the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) Coast Guard ‘Ekatha Harbour’ was laid down by the Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, along with his counterpart, Minister of Defence of the Maldives, Mariya Didi, on May 1, 2023, together with the repair facility at Sifavaru, the Coastguard Harbour is now one of the biggest ‘grant-in-aid’ projects of India.[13]

Along with that, India and Maldives have been conducting joint military exercises. The latest among them was the 12th edition of the joint military exercise "Ex Ekuverin" held in June 2023, with the aim of enhancing interoperability in Counter Insurgency/Counter Terrorism Operations.[14] India is also a significant provider of training opportunities for the MNDF meeting around 70% of their defence training requirements.[15] It can therefore be concluded that India shares healthy defence ties with the Maldives, but the bilateral relations are not hinged merely on defence cooperation in the region. Rather, the cooperation is development-led, too.

In the quest of raising the voice of the global south, Maldives holds a key position in the Indian policy of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and Neighbourhood First policy. The development assistance has been extended through High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs). Initiated in March 2019, the scheme undertakes projects chosen by the Government of Maldives, aiming towards community building and impacting employment, health, education, and gender, etcetera. Earlier this year, in January 2023, Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr S. Jaishankar, visited the Northern Atolls of Maldives and signed an MoU for additional grant assistance of MVR 100 million for the HICDP, taking the total outlay to MVR 255 million.[16] Following this visit, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives Abdulla Shahid visited India in July 2023, a further exchange of 9 HICDP's MoU.[17] As of now, 47 HICDPs are underway, out of which 07 have been completed and inaugurated.

The Way Forward

While India's role as a development partner is appreciated, however, the Indian military’s minuscule presence in the island nation, to service the aircraft and choppers, have not been received well by the new President. Considering that the Muizzu's election campaign was hinged on challenges and threats to Maldivian sovereignty and independence, in contrast to Yameen’s ‘India-out’ agenda in the 2013 presidential elections.

During the Yameen’s tenure of presidency China-Maldives relations experienced new heights, with Xi Jinping becoming the first Chinese President to make a state visit to Maldives in 2014. The Export Import Bank of China (EXIM China) has extended support to the country, since 2010, in the areas of housing, transport, and infrastructure, mainly in the development of Hulhumale island.[18] The financial hold of China in the Maldives has significantly increased as per the Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Maldives, the debt to GDP ratio of Maldives increased from 91 per cent in June 2022 to 96 per cent as of December 2022, and among that, in terms of debt outstanding by creditors, Exim China holds the largest share with 27 percent.[19]

Taking into account that, unparalleled debt levels was one of the issues that figured during the campaign for Maldivian presidential elections[20], and Muizzu’s emphasis was also on sovereignty and independence. It may be deduced that Muizzu would seek to make Maldivian national interest and security the central concern, rather than leaning towards any foreign power.

Apart from that, Maldives seeks to switch to a parliamentary system of governance.[21] This move is reckoned to bring more uncertainty in the political environment,[22] as without an anti-defection law the chances of floor-crossing become even more of concern in a parliamentary system.

With such political context, assistance aimed at development extended by India to the Maldives, along with defence cooperation to maintain maritime security in the IOR, makes a promising case for itself, showcasing that the two nations share deeper relations that are built on sturdy foundations. Yet, only time will tell what course the Maldivian foreign and security policies take under the newly elected government. India shall be vigilant of political developments taking place, and should highlight that the Maldives is way more than just a strategic ally.

Endnotes

[1]Mohammed Nasheed. June 21, 2023. Accessed on October 2, 2023.
https://twitter.com/MohamedNasheed
[2]Zalif, Zunana. June 21, 2023. MDP's estranged leader Nasheed leaves party. Raajje. Accessed on October 3, 2023.
https://raajje.mv/137727
[3]Nasooh, Ahmed. June 19, 2023. Nasheed’s primary target remains ‘taking back control’ of MDP. The Times of Addu. Accessed on October 3, 2023.
https://timesofaddu.com/2023/06/19/nasheeds-primary-target-remains-taking-back-control-of-mdp/
[4]Udhma, Fathmath. May 17, 2023. MDP Vice President Shifaz and 12 MPs quit the party. Raajje. Accessed on October 3, 2023.
https://raajje.mv/135610
[5]One Online. July 31, 2023. Left coalition because govt did not uphold their end of bargain: Qasim. Accessed on October 3, 2023.
https://oneonline.mv/en/79885
[6]RadhaKrishnana, R.K. September 21, 2023. Tight race in Maldives between India-leaning Solih and Muizzu, who is supported by China-backed PPM. Frontline. Accessed on October 2, 2023.
https://frontline.thehindu.com/world-affairs/maldives-poised-for-new-president-as-two-way-battle-looms-in-second-round-ibrahim-mohamed-solih-vs-mohamed-muizzu/article67303482.ece
[7]Avas. October 1, 2023. Ex-pres Yameen transferred to home arrest; warm welcome by supporters. Accessed on October 2, 2023.
https://avas.mv/en/136106
[8]Mallempati, Samantha. August 30, 2023. Maldives Presidential Elections September 2023: The Candidates, Pledges and Probable Outcome. Indian Council of World Affairs. Accessed on October 2, 2023.
https://www.icwa.in/show_content.php?lang=1&level=3&ls_id=9885&lid=6323#_edn2
[9]Presidential Elections Act of Maldives, 2008.
Section 19 (a): If one candidate from among the candidates who are contesting at the presidential election does not receive over fifty (50) percent of the valid votes cast in the election, within 21 days after the day of the election, a run-off presidential election must be held.
Section 19 (b): The run-off presidential election shall be contested only by the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes in the first election.
https://www.elections.gov.mv/en/core/downloads/Presidential%20Elections%20Act%20final(28th%20sep%202008).pdf
Udhma, Fathmath. August 8, 2023. 8 candidates running for president this year. Raajje.
https://raajje.mv/140131
[10]Provisional results of the second round of the 2023 presidential election. October 1, 2023. Election Commission of Maldives. Accessed on October 2, 2023.
https://twitter.com/ElectionsMv/status/1708496315351720423
[11]One Online. October 1, 2023. Nasheed to re-join MDP. Accessed on October 3, 2023. https://oneonline.mv/en/82527
[12]Ministry of External Affairs, Annual Report, 2021-22. Page 44. Accessed on October 4, 2023.
https://www.mea.gov.in/Uploads/PublicationDocs/34894_MEA_Annual_Report_English.pdf
[13] PIB Delhi, Ministry of Defence. 3 May, 2023. Joint Press Communique on Hon Indian Defence Minister HE Shri Rajnath Singh’s visit to Maldives on the Invitation of his Maldivian Counterpart HE Mariya Didi. Accessed on October 4, 2023.
https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1921563
[14]PIB, Delhi. June 12, 2023. Indo-Maldives Joint Military Exercise “Ekuverin” Commenced at Chaubatia, Uttarakhand. Ministry of Defence. Accessed on October 4, 2023.
https://www.pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1931728
[15]High Commission of India Male, Maldives. India-Maldives Bilateral Relations. Accessed on October 4, 2023.
https://hci.gov.in/male/?pdf17555?000
[16]High Commission of India Male, Maldives. India–Maldives High Impact Community Development Projects. July 2023.
https://hci.gov.in/male/?pdf17749
[17] Ibid. Para 30.
[18]Ministry of Finance, Republic of Maldives. May 23, 2020. Export Import Bank of China. Accessed on October 6, 2023.
https://www.finance.gov.mv/ministry/international-cooperation/export-import-bank-of-china
[19]Debt Management Department. Ministry of Finance, Republic of Maldives. December, 2022. Debt Bulletin. Issue 10. Accessed on October 6, 2023.
https://www.finance.gov.mv/public/attachments/ISm9st3l8b8QtzH6FxO4j58SbEzACsWPRn5efbP0.pdf
[20]RadhaKrishnana, R.K. September 21, 2023. Tight race in Maldives between India-leaning Solih and Muizzu, who is supported by China-backed PPM. Frontline. Accessed on October 2, 2023.
https://frontline.thehindu.com/world-affairs/maldives-poised-for-new-president-as-two-way-battle-looms-in-second-round-ibrahim-mohamed-solih-vs-mohamed-muizzu/article67303482.ece
[21]PSM News. October 3, 2023. ECM requests additional time to arrange referendum. Accessed on October 4, 2023.
https://psmnews.mv/en/126867
[22]ETV Bharat. October 3, 2023. With becoming Maldives President, India again faces Chinese Challenge in the Neighbourhood. Accessed on October 4, 2023.
https://www.etvbharat.com/english/international/top-news/with-muizzu-becoming-maldives-president-india-again-faces-chinese-challenge-in-neighbourhood/na20231003194307548548041

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