Maldives’ march to democracy has been turbulent to say the least. Under President Abdulla Yameen, the country was becoming increasingly authoritarian; except the election result on September 23rd came as a shock to both locals and the international community.
An unassuming Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (pictured below), the joint presidential candidate for an opposition alliance – which includes the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the Jumhooree Party, and the Adhaalath Party – emerged victorious with 58% of the vote share. He is only the country’s third democratically elected president, and is due to assume office on 17 November 2018. In a speech, shortly after winning the election Solih said,
"The message is loud and clear. People want justice and stability, and we will ensure accountability..."
Yameen is the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom—a dictator who ruled Maldives for 30 years up to 2008. Yameen himself has been no less than an autocrat. This February, he declared a state of emergency - that extended up to 45 days - after the Supreme Court overturned charges of terrorism against several opposition leaders. Yameen ordered the arrest of Supreme Court justices, sacked the police commissioner who sought to enforce the Court’s decision, and empowered the security forces to make arrests and disperse public gatherings.
Yameen is also accused of overseeing the embezzlement of at least $79m from tourism revenues; a charge discovered post an Al Jazeera investigation.
Given the brute nature of Yameen’s control over state institutions and the media, most were shocked at his defeat. Yameen had laid the groundwork for a clear victory in the September elections: the most prominent leaders of the opposition remained in jail or in exile. The government had showered voters with pre-election goodies, such as waiving rent fines and trimming prison sentences. The police went as far as to raid the opposition alliance’s headquarters the day before the vote. And yet Yameen garnered only 96,142 votes (approximately 42% of the vote share).
Furthermore, what greatly startled most was the peaceful manner in which Yameen (pictured above) conceded defeat. Yameen said in a televised speech on 24th September,
"The citizens of the Maldives had their say ... and I accept that result..."
Yameen's running mate, Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, a Muslim scholar with close ties to Saudi Arabia, also congratulated Solih in a post on Twitter, saying he hoped for "positive changes" in the country.
However, this harmonious transfer of power now seems unlikely. Although with a baffling delay, Yameen has now challenged the legitimacy of the verdict, filing a petition to annul the election. On 14th October, the Maldives Supreme Court heard Yameen’s petition. A day before, his Progressive Party (PPM) said in a statement that the vote was the “most farcical election in living memory” with the organisation “abysmal”, vote-rigging “rampant” and many people unable to cast ballots.
Yameen has suggested that there was collusion between the Election Commission and opposition alliance. Yameen’s lawyer, Mohamed Saleem, alleged that a conspiracy had been put into place to tamper with ballots such that those marked with Yameen’s name saw the ink disappear. There was no evidence provided to support these claims.
Yameen’s legal challenge to the election result has raised tensions in the international community. “The U.S. is concerned by troubling actions by outgoing President Yameen that threaten to undermine the will of the Maldivian people, and will consider appropriate measures against anyone who undermines a peaceful transfer of power in the Maldives,” said Robert Palladino, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State.
Both India and US were seeking Yameen’s defeat because of his increasingly close ties with China. During Yameen’s time in office, China-Maldives economic and investment relations grew at a fast pace, and his tenure also saw the conclusion of free trade agreement between the two. Additionally, in February, there were reports that talked about China’s plans to set up a joint ocean observation station in Makunudhoo, the western-most atoll, which raised alarm bells in India.
It is expected that the new government under Solih would want to renegotiate projects with China, as there is growing public realization that Chinese loans are pushing the country into a debt-trap. Nonetheless, Male will still struggle to find an alternative to Beijing. For all the goodwill that India may enjoy in Maldives, New Delhi lacks the material capacity to offset China. India’s track record in establishing infrastructure and regional connectivity networks has not been the best, to put it mildly.
As of this moment, the top court of Maldives has concluded the hearings and is yet to announce the verdict on Yameen’s legal challenge to the election. It remains to be seen whether the island nation successfully reclaims democracy.
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About the Author
Parth Maniktala is a student of LLB at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. He is the a former President of the Hansraj College Debating Society, where he also completed his Bachelors in English Literature. Parth has been recognized as one of Asia’s top 10 speakers at the United Asians Debating Championship held in Cambodia in 2017. He has also been the chief adjudicator of the annual national schools debating championship of Nepal. Apart from debating, he has a keen interest in cinema and literature. He has in the past served as the literary editor of the St. Columbas School's magazine.