10 October 2018

The surprise outcome of Maldivian elections: key factors and challenges ahead

Solih’s victory over incumbent Yameen in the presidential election was aided by high rates of defections from Yameen’s PPM party and loss of military support for an autocratic government. However, challenges lie ahead for the new president who seeks to reform state institutions and to restore democracy.

On 23 September, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldives United Opposition (MUO) won a surprise victory in presidential elections over incumbent Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. Solih will assume office in November, with his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) heading a coalition cabinet and Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) consigned to the role of main opposition in the country’s unicameral legislature. Critically, the MDP-led government will face the challenge of fulfilling its campaign promises – including structural changes to improve democratic institutions – in a political system that remains influenced by the PPM.

In the months leading up to the polls Solih’s victory seemed unthinkable as Yameen’s PPM regime gradually gained control of political, judicial and military institutions since he became president in 2013. On Yameen’s orders the police and military arbitrarily arrested between 1 February and 22 September numerous political activists, including a presidential candidate from the MUO (a coalition of the MDP, Jumhooree Party - JP, Adhaalath Party - AP, and several other opposition parties), while the state-controlled Supreme Court handed them lengthy prison sentences on fabricated charges of plotting to overthrow the government. However, on the eve of the elections, the military withdrew its support for Yameen, following threats from the PPM to dismiss several security personnel, and refused to arrest MDP members, including Solih, partly aiding the MDP victory.

The MDP also beat the PPM in two of the most populous atolls, Gaafu and Lhaviyani, after Yameen’s half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and dozens of his supporters, including 12 PPM MPs, left Yameen’s party and joined the MDP in September, following disagreements between Yameen and Maumoon over the PPM’s leadership. After the polls, the Election Commission (EC), despite having many election officers appointed by Yameen, refused to comply with the PPM’s demands to withhold results after their staff realised that Yameen could no longer have them arrested for disobeying orders without the military’s support. On 30 September, the EC dismissed the PPM’s accusations of vote-buying by the MDP and confirmed Solih’s victory.

Solih’s election promises include reinstating the office of the prime minister and reducing the powers of the president, under a new parliamentary system. He also plans to revise procedures for appointments and functioning of the EC, the judiciary, police and the military to make them independent of government intervention. Solih will have to get any proposed changes to state institutions approved in the parliament where the MDP will face strong opposition from PPM members. To counter the PPM’s resistance, the MDP will need the support of its coalition partners, as the MDP alone, with 31 out of 85 seats, does not hold an absolute majority in the parliament as opposed to the PPM’s 40 seats. However, it remains to be seen how far JP and AP coalition partners will support Solih’s endeavours due to their contrasting political views, since the JP, while supporting the MDP’s views of an independent EC and judiciary, favours a presidential system with strong control over the military; the right-wing Sunni Islamic AP is solely focussed on introducing pan-Islamic governance policies first, something the MDP and JP - left-wing liberal parties - do not support. Thus, disagreements over these issues could hinder Solih’s reform agenda.

In addition, several MDP, AP and JP grassroot supporters have demanded harsh crackdowns on Yameen and other PPM members suspected of embezzling state funds or involvement in the brutal suppression of anti-government protesters in the run up to the elections. Before responding to these demands, the MDP-led coalition government will have to ensure that transparent mechanisms are in place for fair investigations and judicial proceedings. Any arbitrary arrests of PPM and ex-government personnel prompted by demands of MUO supporters could make Solih seem just as autocratic as his predecessor and trigger new anti-government protests.

The MDP-led coalition government has a chance to restore democracy for the Maldives. However, Solih will have to carefully balance his ambitious reform endeavours with the demands of his supporters and craft solutions acceptable to the MDP and its coalition partners to ensure cohesion and long-term political stability.

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