Maldives: An end to political infighting?

Date first published: 4/10/2018

Key sectors: all

Key risks: civil unrest; political instability

On 24 September President Abdulla Yameen formally conceded defeat to opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), who picked up over 58 per cent of the vote in the island’s presidential election. The Progressive Party of the Maldives’ (PPM) shocking defeat came despite years of heavy restrictions on the opposition and widespread concerns that the vote will be neither free nor fair.

The island nation has experienced a series of coups and attempted coups over the last decade. Simmering tensions within the Maldivian political scene boiled over in 2008 when Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the country’s autocratic leader of 30 years, lost elections to the liberal and progressive Mohamad Nasheed. However, the Supreme Court remained loyal to Gayoom and accused Nasheed of being anti-Islamic and interfering in the country’s judicial affairs. A coup in February 2012 forced him to resign. Elections were held in 2013, which were won by Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen and Nasheed was thrown into prison and then exiled. In February 2018, the Maldives plunged into another political crisis after the Supreme Court reinstated several members of parliament who had been sacked. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency, detaining opposition politicians – including Gayoom – and taking over the Supreme Court. Large and violent protests over Yameen’s increasingly despotic rule broke out in the capital Male, in which several people were injured and at least 25 were arrested.

The political crisis in the Maldives also drew in China and India, who are competing for influence over the islands due to their strategic location. India has longstanding political and security ties to Male but Beijing has increased its influence in the country, seeing it as a key contributor to its Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese tourists accounted for 21 per cent of the country’s total number of visitors in 2017 and Beijing has made large investments in infrastructure projects during Yameen’s tenure, which include a US$830 million project to upgrade the main airport and build a 2km bridge to link the airport island with the Male. India has sought to push back against China’s expanding presence on the islands. During the political crisis in early 2018, Maldivian opposition leaders called on New Delhi to intervene in the crisis. After Yameen declared a state of emergency, India – which sent troops to foil a coup in the Maldives three decades ago –reportedly put military forces on standby in its southern bases. Shortly after, Chinese naval combat forces entered the Indian Ocean, deterring any potential Indian intervention in the Maldives.

Following the 23 September vote, the military and police stated that they would uphold the outcome and Yameen conceded defeat. On 30 September the Maldives High Court granted bail to Gayoom and his legislator son Faris Maumoon. The administration of the president-elect is already moving against Yameen, who is facing numerous corruption allegations. While fears of election unrest and renewed political upheaval did not materialise, there is significant precedent for political infighting within the Maldivian government. As such, there remains a risk of further political turbulence ahead of Solih’s inauguration on 17 November, which may exacerbate Sino-Indian competition for influence in the Indian Ocean.