Date first published: 19/09/2023
Key sectors: all
Key risks: political instability; policy continuity; political violence; economic risks
On 9 September President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih unexpectedly came in second to his main challenger, Malé Mayor Mohamed Muizzu from the opposition coalition led by the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) – with 39 per cent of the vote compared to Muizzu’s 46 per cent. The election largely became a proxy for the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between India and China – both of which have sought to expand its influence in the small but highly strategic archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A run-off will be held on 30 September and the vote – and direction of the country – remains highly-contested.
Why it matters
While the election had been fought on economic issues ranging from inflation, housing and soaring foreign debt, issues related to neighbouring India’s long-standing influence and historic ties came to define the campaign. While Solih favours closer ties through his “India First” policy, Muizzu pledged to remove an Indian military contingent and balance trade relations with China if elected.
When the PPM was last in power under former president Abdulla Yameen, Maldives cultivated closer cooperation with Beijing and formally became a partner in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yameen was ultimately barred from participating in the election after he was sentenced to 11 years in prison over corruption and money laundering charges in December 2022. Nonetheless, he remains an influential figure for spearheading the highly-contentious “India Out” campaign which riled up anti-India sentiment and prompted a wave of protest rallies throughout 2022.
Solih was severely weakened by a primary challenge from former president and current Speaker of the People’s Majils Mohamed Nasheed – becoming the first incumbent to face an internal primary. Nasheed was the country’s first democratically-elected president and his resignation in 2012 sparked a period of political upheaval which has largely stabilised under Solih. Nasheed is also not just a former political ally to Solih, but a childhood friend and relative. The deeply personal rift ultimately splintered the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), when a faction of Nasheed supporters formed The Democrats party in May. Nasheed became its leader the following June and the party subsequently nominated lawmaker Ilyas Labeeb as its presidential candidate – garnering 7.18 per cent in the first round and splitting the MDP vote.
The country’s shared cultural, commercial and security ties with India will likely remain a major political fault line in the lead up to the 30 September run-off. As the political constellation remains uncertain, prolonged polarisation is expected to further heighten risks of political violence and radicalisation – particularly as anti-India sentiment continues to be cajoled by the opposition as a political tool. As a change of government becomes increasingly likely, the country risks returning to a period of political tumult amid yet another potential whiplash in foreign, trade, infrastructure and economic policy. Nasheed and The Democrats will also likely become kingmakers in the event of a close vote, which could ultimately prolong political uncertainty and instability.