Maldives presidential runoff is set for Sept. 30 with opposition in surprise lead but short of mark

Maldivians will return to the polls on Sept. 30 to vote in a runoff election between the top two candidates in the country’s presidential race after neither secured more than 50% in the first round

Krishan Francis
Sunday 10 September 2023 12:14 BST

Maldivians will return to the polls on Sept. 30 to vote in a runoff election between the top two candidates in the country's presidential race after neither secured more than 50% in the first round, the elections commission said Sunday.

Main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz managed a surprise lead with more than 46% of votes, while the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who was seen as the favorite, got only 39%.

The election on Saturday has shaped up as a virtual referendum over which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago state.

The vote was to choose the country’s fifth freely elected president since Maldives became a multiparty democracy in 2008. Solih is perceived as pro-India, facing off against his main rival Muiz, who is seen as pro-China.

The result is seen a remarkable achievement for Muiz, who was only a late selection as a candidate by his party after its leader, former President Abdullah Yameen, was blocked from running by the Supreme Court. He is serving a prison term for corruption and money laundering.

“I did not expect Muiz to have this kind of a lead against Ibu (Ibrahim Mohamed Solih),” said Azim Zahir, a political science and international relations lecturer at the University of Western Australia.

“This is a major blow (to Solih) and one could read it even as a rejection of his government,” said Zahir.

Muiz had only three weeks to campaign and did not have the advantage of a sitting president, Zahir said. He said Muiz's strong stand against the presence of Indian troops in the Maldives could have been a significant factor in the election.

Solih is seeking a second term and is battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country.

Muiz promised that if he wins, he will remove Indian troops stationed in the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said are heavily in India’s favor. He however has promised to continue friendly and balanced relations with the Maldives' closest neighbor.

The People’s National Congress, Muiz’s party, is viewed as heavily pro-China. While its leader Abdullah Yameen was president from 2013-2018, he made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. The initiative envisages building ports, railways and roads to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Mohamed Shareef, a senior official for Muiz’s party, told The Associated Press that the removal of Indian military personnel was a “non-negotiable” position for the party. He said the number of Indian troops and their activities are hidden from Maldivians and that they have near-exclusive use of certain ports and airports in the country.

Both India and China are vying for influence in the small state made up of some 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean. It lies on the main shipping route between the East and the West.

Muiz seems to have taken advantage of a split in Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party that led Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, to break away and field his own candidate. Nasheed’s candidate, Ilyas Labeeb, secured 7% of the vote.

The “India Out” campaign — spearheaded by Muiz’s party — has been ubiquitous on social media in the runup to the election and almost all candidates except Solih adopted the “India vs. the rest” rhetoric, said Zahir.

Solih was widely credited with having brought stability to the country and adeptly handling the COVID pandemic, which was expected to help him gain support.

Regardless of who wins, there is also a possibility that the mostly Sunni Muslim nation could become more socially conservative because both sides are backed by religious hard-liners. The groups are not known to espouse violence but they want more control over women and are against music and art and religious freedom, Zahir said.

Maldives is believed to have sent the highest number of fighters per capita when the Islamic State group was at its height. A local group with the IS ideology set off a bomb targeting Nasheed, who is seen as pro-West in 2021, seriously wounding him.

More than 282,000 people were eligible to vote in the election and turnout was nearly 80%.

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