By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, April 20: The Maldivian parliamentary elections due to be held on April 21 differ from those held in the recent past in a striking way: there is no party or leader that the voters can bet on. 

Parties in the fray have either split or are faction-ridden. There are no towering leaders who can set appealing agendas and inspire voters to support them. There are no over-riding issues firing the imagination of the people and stirring political action.  

Observers say that there is indifference or fatigue among the voters, as successive governments have failed to give the people a stable, well-thought-out and realistic policies. 

Dr.Mohamad Muizzu won the Maldivian Presidency in October 2023 convincingly on a platform promising to getting rid of Indian domination and look to China for support instead. But he has been unable to translate his ideas into action.

Months after this stinging statements against India, Muizzu had to modify his rhetoric, seek Indian economic cooperation and woo Indian tourists, who were boycotting Maldives because of his pro-China tilt and his vituperative comments on India. 

No doubt, Maldivians did not like Indian military presence (or for that matter any foreign military presence) in their midst. They supported Muizzu’s call for the removal of the Indian military. But they did not approve of his call for the wholesale alienation of India and casting his lot entirely with China. 

The Maldivians have close historical and people-to-people ties with India, a kind of relationship they do not have with China. Maldivians highly appreciate the way the Chinese execute the projects they undertake, but they have little or relationship with the Chinese.  

Political Splits  

Muizzu’s party, the Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) is a breakaway group of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) headed by former President Abdulla Yameen. Nevertheless, the two of them had formed an alliance to fight the October 2023 Presidential election. 

However, after Muizzu won the Presidential election, the PPM split from the PNC on the grounds that Muizzu did not keep the promises he made to Yameen. 

One of the key promises was that Muizzu would give Yameen relief from the corruption cases filed against him by the Ibrahim Solih government (2018-2023). The Criminal Court had sentenced him to 11-year’s imprisonment and he was kept under arrest.

Subsequently, Yameen formed his own party called Peoples’ National Front (PNF). 

On April 18, the Maldives High Court released Yameen from the 11-year sentence he had been serving but it also asked the Criminal Court to try him again because the procedures it had followed earlier were flawed. 

In his remarks after the High Court verdict, Yameen blamed President Muizzu for the way his trial was conducted and the way the case was delayed. 

Though ideologically, Muizzu and Yameen are the same (both are pro-China and anti-India) they are now political rivals. Yameen has indicated that he will advocate a sharp anti-India line and embarrass  Muizzu over his efforts to make peace with India. .  

Government Candidates  

President Muizzu is said to be forming his own clique in the PNC by putting up candidates against the official PNC candidates in the coming elections. These are identified as “government candidates” or ‘President’s candidates’. 

As on date, the main party in the Maldivian parliament is the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The MDP also underwent a split, with one group being under former President Ibrahim Solih and the other led by former parliament Speaker and former President Mohamad Nasheed. 

Before the October 2023 Presidential election, Nasheed left the MDP and formed a group called the “Democrats”. The relationship between the two outfits varies from time to time. They cooperate on some matters and go their own way in others.  

Nasheed’s grievance against Solih was that Solih did not carry out the promises he had made to Nasheed when he became President. Solih had promised to change the Presidential system to a parliamentary system and also go after the Islamic radicals. But Solih did neither. 

There was even a rumour that Solih did not do enough to punish the Islamic radicals who tried to assassinate Nasheed.       

As for now, Solih is campaigning hard against Muizzu’s PNC. But Nasheed has made himself scarce. He is now abroad working for a climate change organization. Therefore, the Democrats are leaderless.         

As of now, the MDP led by Solih has 65 out of 87 seats in parliament; the PPM has 8; PNC 8; Jumhuri Party (JP) 5; and Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) 2. 

Since all parties are split, no party has a decisive advantage over others in the coming elections. A hung parliament is on the cards. 

Muizzu cannot bring about defections to his side because of the recently passed anti-defection law. It is to be seen how President Muizzu will deal with a divided parliament and whether the divisions will affect decision making.

Role of India and China 

Maldivian observers say that neither India nor China is playing a conspicuous role in the elections. But both nations want to help the Maldivian government despite differences with it given the fact that Muizzu is going to be President of the country for the next four and a half years.

Muizzu is seeking the help of both China and India to build his country. And both have pumped a lot of money. But both attach strings to give their aid aimed at gaining an asymmetrical strategic advantage. China wants to penetrate the Indian Ocean and exploit its resources with influence in the Maldives, while India wants to assert its right over the Maldives as the principal power in the Indian Ocean.  

Both India and China are executing massive infrastructure projects in the Maldives costing millions of dollars. But these projects could land the Maldives in a debt trap.

In a report dated October 2023, the World Bank warned that further cosying up to China could spell trouble for the Maldives since the US$ 1.37 billion it already owed to Beijing represented 20% of its total public debt. China is the Maldives’ biggest bilateral creditor, ahead of Saudi Arabia and India, to which it owes US $ 124m and US$ 123m, respectively, the Bank said.

India’s relations with the Maldives have been strained, especially since Muizzu campaigned for the Presidency on an “India Out” platform.  But after a bumpy start, Muizzu and India agreed to cooperate after India said it would replace its military personnel with civilians in the medical evacuation project.

India set aside INR 770 crores (US$ 92 million) for the Maldives in its 2024-25 budget. On April 5, India allowed the export of certain quantities of essential commodities for the year 2024-25 at the request of the Maldives government. But on April 16, the Indian government announced that these items could be exported only from the designated ports of Mundra, Tuticorin, Nhava Sheva and the Inland Container Depot at Tughlakabad. 

This is not due to any tension in bilateral relations (as reported in the media) but because of the shortages of these essential commodities in India itself.  

Immediately after taking charge as President, Muizzu went to Beijing and signed 20 MoUs with China, including one on a strategic partnership and joint exploitation of the Blue Economy. They also resolved to implement the Free Trade Agreement.   

Therefore, the Sino-Indian competition for the hand of the Maldivians is on in right earnest. And sources hint that two countries could also be doing their bit to help their friends out in the elections.



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