Upcoming presidential election and political situation in the Maldives

People Rallying on Road

People Rallying on Road in Maldives

© Asad photos for Pexels

The presidential election in the Maldives is fast approaching after a relatively stable government compared to previous governments. The current President Ibrahim Mohamed Salih came to power with the support of some key coalition partners, namely, Jumhooree Party (JP), Adalat Party (AP) and Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM). As many political appointees of the coalition partners are still in office, the coalition is technically intact contrary to the previous full-term governments of President Mohamed Nasheed and President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

In all the three previous Presidential elections (2008, 2013, 2018) held after democratic reforms, no candidate has won in the first round. All had to garner support of the third candidate and some other partners to form a coalition. The first round of this year’s election is slated for September 9, 2023 with the second round – if required – scheduled for September 30, 2023.

So far, seven candidates have declared their intention to contest in the upcoming election. The candidates include current President Salih for a second term as the candidate of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP); Former President Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who is serving a prison sentence of 11 years, as the candidate of Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM); Qasim Ibrahim from JP; Mohamed Nazim from Maldives National Party (MNP); and Umar Naseer, Dr. Mohamed Munawwar and Hussain Shujau as independent candidates. As Abdul Gayoom is currently serving a court sentence, he is not eligible to contest unless the Civil Court’s verdict is overturned by the higher courts: High Court and then Supreme Court. The PPM was confident his appeal would be successful and he would be released by April, 2023, which was not the case, though.

When scrutinizing the support base of the candidates, different scenarios could emerge. The last three Presidential elections have been two-horse races with the third largest party playing the kingmaker's role. However, this time it remains to be seen whether it will be the traditional two-horse race or a three-horse race among the current President, opposition PPM candidate, which is not yet certain who it would be, and JP’s candidate Qasim Ibrahim. There seems to be more than one senior PPM figure vying to be their candidate. Candidates can submit their candidacy from July 23 until August 3, 2023. A clear idea of who the candidates will be can be ascertained by August 3.

Since the initial candidate named by PPM is in jail and his candidacy is not a certainty, there have been no substantial campaign activities against current President Salih. It is not yet clear on what issues the election debates will focus on. It is unlikely issues like corruption and extrajudicial arrests will be taken up this time like in the previous election in 2018. The economy is unlikely to be an election issue as it has rebounded significantly after Covid-19 due to the massive increment witnessed in the tourism industry.

One particular issue that could be taken up against President Salih is that the current government seems to be too lenient towards Mauritius’ claim of Chagos Archipelago that is closer to the Maldives. The opposition argues the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITOLS) ruled in favor of the Maldives in this dispute on the overlapping maritime boundary issue and if Maldives had made a stronger claim, the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) would not have been lost. However, most of the national media have sided with the government' stand that paved the way for success in the case brought by Mauritius in ITOLS. Apparently, the United Kingdom also lays claim to parts of the archipelago.  

Maldives does not have a reliable opinion poll, hence it is difficult to predict the popularity of the candidates, and subsequently the outcome of the election. However, there are some factors that could impact the election. As mentioned above, there is still no clarity regarding PPM's candidate. If it delays the announcement of its candidate other than Abdul Gayoom then it will be challenging. Also, whether a trustworthy agreement between JP’s candidate Qasim Ibrahim and former President Mohamed Nasheed can be reached will give some idea about the support base for Qasim.

There is a possibility that current President Salih could make history by being the first President to be elected for a second term in the democratic era. He seems to have learned from past experiences by not repeating major mistakes made by the previous presidents, such as extrajudicial arrests, alienating the support base, and ending the coalition based on which the election was won. Moreover, there have been no detrimental public reactions like widespread protests by the public or civil disobedience that were a common occurrence during the later months of the tenure of previous presidents.