In the Maldivian Presidential election held on September 9, neither incumbent President Ibrahim Solih nor his principal challenger, Dr.Mohamad Muizzu, got 50% plus votes to be elected President.

Therefore there is to be a run-off, which is earmarked for September 30.

In the run-off, there will be only two candidates, namely, Solih and Muizzu, and in that election too, one of the two will have to get 50% plus votes to be declared elected President.

In the September 9 poll, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu got 100,342 or 46.19%; Ibrahim Mohamed Solih got 84,805 or 39.04%; Ilyas Labeeb 15,191 or 6.99%; Umar Naseer 6,135 or 2.82%; Qasim Ibrahim 5,541 or 2.55%; Ahmed Farish Maumoon 3,097 or 1.43%; Mohamed Nazim 1,795 or 0.83%; and Hassan Zameel got 325 or 0.15%

Maldives has consistently gone to run-offs in Presidential elections where more than two candidates had contested. Elections in 2008 and 2013 both went to run-offs, while only two candidates had contested the 2018 election.

President Ibrahim Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was seeking a second term. But the MDP was split, with parliament Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed quitting and floating a new party called the “Democrats”. The Democrats put up Ilyas Labeeb as its Presidential candidate.

The main opposition party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) led by former President Abdulla Yameen had also split with one faction forming the Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) and putting up Dr.Mohamed Muizzu, the Mayor of Male, as its candidate.

Since the PPM was associated with former President Abdulla Yameen, who is in jail for corruption and is barred from contesting, the PNC was formed to contest the election.

The Yameen faction in the PPM had pledged support to PNC, but many of its members who were very close to Yameen, found it difficult to switch their loyalty to Muizzu. Therefore, there were doubts about full support for Muizzu from his former colleagues in the PPM.

Muizzu had also got his nomination from the PNC with a razor-thin majority of two votes. His support base was therefore not so strong. He was also said to have made money as Yameen’s Housing Minister though he had won kudos for his drive as a Minister and Male’s Mayor.

The “Democrats” had approached the PPM and the PMC for support to their candidate Ilyas Labeeb to defeat the common enemy Solih. But given the PPM’s strong antagonism towards Nasheed, these advances were spurned.

To complicate matters, there were other candidates in the fray.  These were former Ministers Mohamed Nazim and Umar Naseer fighting as Independents; tycoon Qasim Ibrahim (Jumhoory Party); and Faris Maumoon, a son of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, fighting as an Independent.

Though none of these candidates had a chance of winning, they could force a second round of voting called run-off. And this was what happened finally.

Ibrahim Solih’s strengths were his moderation and his ability to keep a good relationship with India, his principal international supporter, and also China, a major investor in Maldives.

However, Solih’s administration had been lacklustre, though he launched major India-financed infrastructure projects.

The country’s economic performance had not been bright, though not entirely due to his government. World conditions also impacted adversely.

The government faced external debt servicing payments of US$ 393 million on average over the next three years amidst tightening global financing conditions. The country’s total debt was US$ 1 billion according to Solih, but it was US$ 2 billion according to the opposition.

Solih pledged to tackle corruption and advance human rights. But in reality, he failed to bring essential reforms to the justice system, said the Human Rights Watch (HRW). The influence of Islamist extremist groups remained pervasive within the Solih government, police, and the judiciary, HRW added.

On July 31, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated key leaders and financial facilitators of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Maldives, including 20 ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), and al-Qaeda operatives. The OFAC also designated 29 companies associated with the individuals sanctioned.

Dr. Muizzu’s strengths were his reputation as an efficient administrator of infrastructure projects under President Yameen and his good work as Male’s Mayor. Muizzu pointed to challenges faced by the elderly in finding a means of income after retirement and announced that citizens between the ages of 65 and 75 would be offered contractual work, renewable on a yearly basis, besides a pension and an allowance of MVR 5,000.

His appeal to the Islamic constituency was also a plus point in an avowedly Islamic Maldives. He was once with the Islamic Adaalath Party but joined the PPM only to become a Minister in Yameen’s government.

A Muizzu Presidency could, therefore, worry New Delhi. China will also not be pleased with Muizzu because he is not openly pro-Beijing unlike his former chief Yameen. Muizzu had portrayed himself as a middle roader in the run-up to the polls, in the context of the Sino-Indian rivalry in the Maldives.

In fact, in the election, the Sino-Indian issue had taken a backseat.

Ilyas Labeeb of the Democrats was close to the Democrats’ founder Mohamed Nasheed. This was at once a blessing and a drawback because Nasheed had been brazenly controversial while being popular.

Nasheed wanted to change the Maldivian constitution from the Presidential to the Westminster system and was a diehard secularist. But both are problematic issues in conservative cum Islamic Maldives.

Labeeb is a computer science graduate from Coventry University, UK. He combined technical expertise with a deep passion for public service, making him a dynamic leader. He had served as the Chair of the State-Owned Enterprises Committee, playing a vital role in overseeing the efficient management of public enterprises. Being young he hoped to tap into the votes of the 30-40 age group, which had traditionally supported Nasheed.

But in the final analysis, the choice before the voters was between Solih and Muizzu.