Political landscape in the Maldives after the change of government

People's Majilis

People's Majilis - Parliament of Maldives

© Narvikk for Getty Images via Canva Pro

The victory of Mohamed Muizzu in the recent Presidential elections altered the political landscape of the Maldives, the swearing in held on 17 November, 2023, following his defeat of the incumbent President, Ibrahim Mohamed Salih.

Muizzu campaigned on the basis of compelling pledges and issues, such as “India out”, alleging that there were thousands of Indian troops stationed across the Maldives. Another pledge was to recapture what was claimed to be territorial waters of the Maldives lost to Mauritius, asserting that the previous government was complicit in ceding a large swathe of the southern economic zone to Mauritius; this was actually the result of a verdict issued by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITOLS), awarding a larger portion of the disputed maritime area to the Maldives. The accusation was that this was an arrangement arrived at with a letter sent by President Salih to the President of Mauritius. It is worth noting (and many still remember) that a central tenet of Muizzu’s presidential campaign was his promise to release former president Yameen from jail upon becoming president: it's a promise that remains unfulfilled.

So crucial was former President Yameen to Muizzu’s campaign that an empty chair bearing the former's name was placed next to Muizzu during every campaign gathering. However, once Muizzu rose to power, former President Yameen (currently serving an 11-year prison sentence) was quickly sidelined and forgotten. Recognizing the betrayal, Yameen distanced himself from Muizzu and began to form a new party, the People's National Front (PNF) with the help of his leading lawyer and former Vice President Dr. Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, former Communications Minister Maleeh Jamal and other senior politicians.

Campaigning has already begun for the Parliamentary elections, slated to be held on 21 April, 2024, in which President Muizzu’s PPM and PNC look to secure a majority to smoothen  his reign.

Muizzu's election slogan of “India-out” considerably soured the previously friendly relations between India and the Maldives. Three Deputy Ministers appointed by President Muizzu also insulted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indians in X posts that went viral. Indian celebrities frenziedly called for a boycott of Maldives tourism when these three Deputy Ministers, suspended later on but not fired, reacted inappropriately to X posts from PM Modi to promote the Indian Lakshadweep islands situated north of the Maldives. Indian boycott has really started to bite as arrivals from India have gone considerably low compared to previous year now sitting at 6th overall.

Indian calls for boycott of the Maldives's tourism coincided with Muizzu's official visit to China before India, a departure from the tradition of former presidents. Further aggravating the situation, upon his return from China, Muizzu obliquely without naming India, cautioned the latter not to meddle in the internal affairs of his country, stating that “Maldives maybe small, but no country has the right to bully Maldives,” a remark widely circulated and commented on by the Indian press.

Much of the backlash to Muizzu's foreign policy has originated from players in India; the clear warming of relations with China, the arch-rival of India, is in tandem with Muizzu's stance vis-à-vis the latter, eschewing the previous government’s “India first” policy in favor of “India-out”. Having begun as a campaign pledge, this policy has been implemented promptly, at least in terms of Muizzu's actions. Though he claimed that thousands of Indian troops reside in the Maldives, there are merely 77 or so Indian military personnel stationed to operate a helicopter and a Dornier airplane, used as air ambulances to airlift critically sick people from remote islands to hospitals, which is consistent with the previous government’s understanding. Both countries have apparently agreed now to station only non-military personnel to operate the helicopter and Dornier airplane.

In the context of economic recovery, securing foreign support is vital for the Maldives, as evidenced by the organization of investment forums with the goal of promoting investment in the country. The most recent of these efforts were the second Maldives Investment Forum in Dubai, the UAE, held from 12-14 February, 2024, following the Invest Maldives Forum at the Fuzhou Strait International Convention and Exhibition Centre in Fuzhou, China.

In terms of its approach to democratic and liberal values, the current government is more conservative than its MDP predecessor. The rhetoric of the current government officials reveals a nationalistic agenda, often critical of the liberal values that accompany democracy.