Ibrahim Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) won the 2018 Presidential election on the basis of his non-controversial and mild personality in contrast to his rival, the dour and dictatorial sitting President Abdulla Yameen.

Yameen had latched himself to authoritarian China, while Solih latched himself to democratic India, two powers who have enormous influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Yameen’s regime lived up to Lord Acton’s dictum: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and paid for it. He not only lost his job but his liberty. He is currently serving an 11-year sentence for corruption and is unable to fight the election.

The choice before the voters in the 2018 election was thus clear-cut – democracy or dictatorship? They chose the former.

Shoe’s on the Other Foot

But five years down the line, the shoe is on the other foot as Maldivians prepare to vote in the September 9 Presidential election.

Despite generous Indian aid, the Maldivian economy under Solih has been groaning under stress. Roiled by the pandemic initially, it faced adverse global economic changes subsequently.

According to an April 2023 World Bank report, the Maldives’ import-dependent economy was hit by high global commodity prices. Public finances were strained by capital expenditure and subsidies. Unequal economic opportunities and overcrowding in urban areas were other problems confronting the government. Tourism has been the silver lining. It picked up after the pandemic and is likely to attract 1.8 million per year with the Chinese resuming overseas travel.

Increased infrastructure investments had improved living standards but these are financed through non-concessional sources. Sovereign guarantees had introduced fiscal vulnerabilities. The government turned to domestic financing sources due to the rising cost of external borrowing, which crowded out private credits and increased the financial sector’s exposure to sovereign risk, the World Bank noted.

The government faces external debt servicing payments of US$ 393 million, on average, over the next three years amidst tightening global financing conditions the World Bank added.

Human Rights

President Solih pledged to tackle corruption and advance human rights, but in reality, failed to bring essential reforms to the justice system, says the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The influence of Islamist extremist groups remained pervasive within the government, police, and the judiciary. Authorities bent to pressure from these groups, as well as from the Muslim fundamentalist Adhaalath Party—a member of the ruling coalition—by rolling back fundamental rights including freedom of speech and assembly.”

The Adaalath Party is now out of the Solih-led coalition and is sitting on the fence.

The bomb attack on former President Mohamad Nasheed in 2021 was carried out by Islamic terrorists. Nasheed’s supporters claimed that the main conspirators were unlikely to be held to account. Islamists had accused Nasheed of being a laadheenee (un-Islamic).

Islamist political organizations and political leaders incited hatred and violence against individuals and civil society groups who sought to counter religious and violent extremism and promote individual freedoms, HRW said. In June, Islamist extremists disrupted a gathering of 150 people, including diplomats and government officers, at an International Yoga Day event in the capital, Male. They deemed the event heretical, a celebration of idolatry or polytheism.

US Sanctions

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-Qa’ida in the Maldives, including 20 ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), and al-Qa’ida operatives.

The OFAC also designated 29 companies associated with the individuals sanctioned, who include leaders of Maldives-based terrorist-affiliated criminal gangs and associates of key ISIS-K recruiter Mohamad Ameen who was designated by OFAC in 2019. Several of the individuals designated had planned or carried out attacks that targeted journalists and local authorities, the US Treasury said.

The HRW alleged that the Solih government rebuffed efforts to amend the Freedom of Assembly Act and continued to use it to block protests. In May, civil society activists petitioned the High Court, seeking a repeal of the curbs.

Curbs on Media

In June, the Maldivian parliament enacted legislation that allowed the courts to force journalists and media outlets to reveal their sources. Local journalists and media rights organizations campaigned against the new Evidence Act, claiming that it risked seriously undermining press freedom in the country.

In August 2022, Solih visited New Delhi for the third time since coming into office and reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the “India First’ policy.” India is aiding the Greater Male Connectivity Project—the largest infrastructure project in the Maldives. In June he spoke to Xi Jinping and promised to continue economic cooperation. The Maldives is indebted to China considerably.

However, the opposition is accusing Solih of being a handmaiden of India in the same way as his predecessor Yameen was accused of being a handmaiden of China. Maldivians are said to be divided on these accusations.

Multiplicity of Candidates

The multiplicity of candidates in the September 9 election is the latest problem that Solih faces. He has seven candidates ranged against him. This is a problem because he needs to get more than 50% of the votes to win. Otherwise, he will have to go for a “runoff” or a second round.

Former MDP leader, Maldivian President and the current Parliament Speaker Mohamand Nasheed has split from MDP, formed a new party, the “Democrats” and nominated Ilyas Labeeb as its candidate. A close associate of Nasheed’s, Labeeb is widely recognized for his significant contributions to the nation’s political landscape.

According to sources, the “Democrats” main task is to split MDP votes.

The Peoples’ Party of Maldives (PPM), the party of former President Abdulla Yameen is not contesting as “PPM” but as “People’s National Congress” (PNC). It is said that the decision to contest as PNC rather than PPM is a way of coming out of Yameen’s shadow. PNC has nominated Dr.Mohamed Muizzu as its candidate.

Muizzu has impressive credentials as a top engineer who was a successful Housing Minister under President Yameen. He had delivered large infrastructure projects in the country, capturing the imagination of the people as a man who delivers. The mega project to build the iconic Sinamalé bridge that connected the capital Malé through the Velana International Airport on Hulhulé, all the way to the planned new city of Hulhumalé, was overseen by Dr. Muizzu. He is the current mayor of Male.

Other candidates include two former ministers, Mohamed Nazim and Umar Naseer,  tycoon Qasim Ibrahim, and Faris Maumoon, a son of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. These candidates have no chance of winning but they can split votes to Solih’s detriment.

In the elections, the candidate who receives a majority (or more than 50%) of the valid votes cast is elected President. If no candidate receives an outright majority, the election proceeds to a runoff (or second round). The candidate who receives the majority of the vote is then elected President.

Nasheed is making last-minute efforts to form an opposition alliance to defeat Solih in the first round itself. He had approached the PNC, but the PNC played hard to get. With Dr Muizz as its face, it hopes to win on its own.

All candidates are working hard, hitting the road or rather hitting the many islands in the archipelago, making promises galore. Democratic as well as Islamic credentials are on display along with commitments to development and social welfare, as in the past.

But the outcome is unpredictable, at least not as clear-cut as it was in 2018 when it was a straight contest between Solih’s democratic and clean credentials and Yameen’s credentials based on efficient and result-oriented governance but heavily tainted by authoritarianism and allegations of corruption.