Voters in the Maldives are casting their ballots in a presidential run-off that will determine the fate of the Indian Ocean archipelago’s nascent democracy as well as its ties with China and India.
The election on Saturday pits President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who has championed an India-first policy, against the mayor of the capital, Mohamed Muizzu, whose opposition coalition sought closer ties with China and oversaw a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent while in power from 2013-18.
Muizzu emerged as the surprise frontrunner during the first round of voting on September 8, taking some 46 percent of the ballots cast. Solih – hurt by low voter turnout and a split within his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – won 39 percent.
Observers say the outcome of Saturday’s run-off is too close to call.
Polling opened at 8am local time (03:00 GMT) and will close at 5pm (12:00 GMT). Some 282,804 people are eligible to vote in the run-off. Vote counting begins immediately and the results will be known within hours.
As polling begins in the Maldives, here’s what you need to know about its high-stakes election.
The outcome of Saturday’s vote could be key in deciding the battle for influence in the Maldives between China and India.
Solih has racked up some $1bn in debt to New Delhi after winning the last election in 2018 by a landslide amid widespread anger over corruption and human rights abuses under his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen. This debt includes loans for housing and transport projects in the capital, Male.
The Maldives owes a similar amount to China.
Beijing had funded Yameen’s plans for a first-of-its-kind bridge connecting Male to its neighbouring islands, as well as upgrades to its main international airport. According to the Baani Centre for International Policy, a Maldivian think tank, the country’s debt to China and India at the end of 2021 stood at 26 percent of GDP each.
N Sathiya Moorthy, a political commentator based in the Indian city of Chennai, said for both Beijing and New Delhi, Saturday’s election is “about the predictability of their Maldivian relations under the next presidency”. Solih is now predictable for both, he said, but Muizzu – who is contesting the election after Yameen was jailed on a corruption conviction last year – spells uncertainty.
This is because Muizzu’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-led coalition has launched a vitriolic “India Out” campaign seeking to reduce what it calls New Delhi’s outsized influence in the country’s affairs. “India has become the unnamed issue in this second round of polling with anti-India social media posts doing the rounds much more than in the first,” Moorthy said.
Fears for democracy
A change in government will not only test the country’s foreign policy, but also its fledgling democracy.
Muizzu’s opponents say the mayor – who was a cabinet member in Yameen’s government – could return the country to the authoritarianism seen under the former president. While in office, Yameen presided over a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent that included the jailing of nearly all opposition leaders, the prosecution of journalists and a huge corruption scandal, in which tens of millions of dollars were stolen from public coffers and used to bribe judges, legislators and members of watchdog institutions. He also turned a blind eye to the growing presence of groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), even after the killing of a young journalist and a blogger.
“The Maldivian experiment with democratic politics is still very precarious,” said Azim Zahir, a lecturer and research fellow in international relations and politics at the University of Western Australia in Perth. “And this very experiment was under serious threat when PPM was in power. The fact that Muizzu was a cabinet minister of that government makes me really nervous for the future of democracy should he win the election.”
Muizzu, however, has pledged not to go after his political opponents.
“I do not support brutality,” the 45-year-old mayor told the Dhauru newspaper last week. “I will not take action against my opponents for disagreeing with me … Everyone will have the opportunity [to carry out political activities].”
Ruling party split
Solih, meanwhile, has dismissed Muizzu’s assurances.
The incumbent has portrayed Saturday’s vote as a contest between democracy and autocracy.
“This election is a choice between peace and stability in the Maldives, or brutality, fear and chaos,” the 61-year-old president told supporters on the eve of the run-off. “If you do not vote [for me], the whole of Maldives may have to mourn and shed tears.”
With much at stake, the president sought to win the backing of third and fourth-placed candidates in the first round, but to no avail.
At third in the first round was Ilyas Labeeb, who won seven percent of the vote. Labeeb was the candidate of the Democrats, a party founded by Parliament Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed, who fell out with Solih after losing a bitterly contested presidential primary earlier this year.
Nasheed and the Democrats accuse Solih of failing to fulfil campaign pledges he made in 2018 to ensure justice for the Maldives’s biggest corruption scandal as well as the al-Qaeda-linked killings. They also accuse his government of setting in place a vast system of patronage, using state-owned enterprises to hand out thousands of jobs and to buy out media outlets.
The government denies the claims.
Without the backing of the Democrats, Solih comes to the second round with a “significant disadvantage”, said Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister and professor of international human rights law at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom.
“It is quite striking that [Solih] has not managed to put together a firm coalition. And without an open endorsement from [Nasheed], it is unlikely the Democrats will vote for Solih,” he said.
“It’s going to be a very tight contest. I don’t think anyone is in a position to comfortably declare that the election is theirs,” Shaheed added.