Parliamentary election results in the Maldives: An affirmation of democracy that needs to be capitalized upon
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) led by President Ibrahim Solih and former President and popular leader Mohamed Nasheed romped home to a resounding victory at the parliamentary elections held in the Maldives on 6 April. The result was a shot in the arm for the fledgling democracy in this strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago, as both the earlier multi-party parliamentary elections held in the country had been marred by allegations of widespread irregularities. Election Commissioner Ahmed Shareef said after voting that there had been no complaints of irregularities in the run-up to, during, and post the elections. Election watchdog Transparency Maldives in a statement on 7 April concurred and described the voting the previous day as being “transparent and generally well administered”. Given the dodgy history of elections in the Maldives that propped up rule-bending autocrats who terrorized and distorted institutions of the State, the MDP’s first step towards fulfilling its primary pledge of putting democracy on a firm footing in the country by ensuring a free and fair electoral process has been successfully achieved - That is no mean feat.
Following closely on the heels of Solih’s unanticipated victory over incumbent Abdulla Yameen in the presidential elections in September last year, the result of the parliamentary elections presents the MDP with an unprecedented opportunity to enable democracy to dig deep, firm roots in the country. As Nasheed put it, “people of the Maldives are very keen to see that democracy survives here. This will go a long way in consolidating democracy in the Maldives”. Control of both the presidency and the legislature will also provide the ruling dispensation with a golden opportunity to rectify the economic blunders of the Yameen era and free the country of the intrusive and overbearing hold that China had prised during Yameen’s reign. Pressing internal issues including corruption, decentralization of power, health, climate change, restoration of political freedoms and human rights that confront the country can also be dealt with effectively.
As per the Election Commission of the Maldives, a total of 386 candidates were in the fray on 6 April for the 87 seats in the People’s Majlis, the Maldivian parliament. The MDP achieved a spectacular victory, gaining a two-thirds majority with 65 of the 87 seats. The MDP won all but one seat from the capital Malé, and made a clean sweep of the southernmost Fuvahmulah and Addu cities, as well as of Kulhudhuffushi and Thinadhoo. The MDP also won in islands with small populations where the party previously lacked a strong base, particularly constituencies in Shaviyani, Raa, and Meemu atolls. The MDP thus became the first party to win an outright majority since multi-party elections were introduced in the country in 2008. It had won 26 seats in both the previous elections that were held in 2009 and 2014.
The main opposition party, Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), won just 5 seats as against the 33 seats it had won in the previous election in March 2014. The People's National Congress (PNC), a new party formed in January 2019 with Yameen's backing, secured just 3 seats. The Jumhooree Party (JP), which had switched sides since the presidential elections and entered into a pre-poll alliance with the PPM, won just 5 seats as compared to the 15 it had won in 2014. The PPM and JP had both campaigned on a nationalist platform, stirring religious sentiments in an effort to garner votes. The Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) won 2 seats and the remaining 7 seats were bagged by independent candidates.
Following declaration of the results, Afshan Latheef, the campaign spokesperson for the MDP, said that the “resounding victory undoubtedly reflected the people's desire for reform and implementation of policies outlined in the President and government's manifesto”. The popular and charismatic Nasheed, who returned to the Maldives from exile in the United Kingdom (UK) and Sri Lanka (where he had been living since a politically motivated and flawed criminal conviction during Yameen’s reign in 2015) only after Solih’s victory last year, said, “I have had bad days, mind you, very bad days. And I have had good days but none as good as this. I have spent all my life working to build a political party in a very feudalistic society and tonight we have finally succeeded”. For the people of the Maldives, he had the following message, “The parliament you have elected today possesses integrity. You desired to reform the general well-being of the nation. Hopefully, we will succeed in fulfilling your wishes”.
Nasheed has, in recent years, been proposing a parliamentary form of government to replace the executive presidential system that has been in place since 2008. This had been viewed by the MDP’s alliance partners as an attempt by Nasheed to wrest back effective power that he had earlier been stripped of. Following the elections he clarified his stand on the matter, thereby assuaging the prevalent fears of an imminent clash with Solih, his childhood friend and relative. He said, “It will be for Solih to decide, but as far as I am concerned, I will back him in Parliament, just as he has defended me and the party as the Leader of the House or of the Opposition during the past decade and more”.
President Solih welcomed the victory and termed the people of the country as the election’s “biggest winners”. He, however, added a word of caution. At a post-election victory rally he said, “This is the moment for all the citizens to work together in unity. We are ready to work together to fulfill the needs of the people and serve them, without any discrimination. You will see the commission tasked with investigating corruption and recovering state assets function with the support of the new parliament. The work of the commission investigating unresolved deaths and enforced disappearances will go ahead more quickly with the support of this parliament”. He later added in a statement, “That our campaign was issue-oriented and not based on hatred and narrow divisions is a win for our young democracy. That our government did not hinder those candidates with whom we did not agree is a big win for the country. The work to strengthen our democratic institutions, to deliver basic services for citizens, to our promise of bringing corruption, past and present to book and ending impunity starts now. I look forward to working with all of you to realize our promises to the people. While we celebrate, we must also not forget the immense challenges that lie ahead of us”.
Solih has faced crippling resistance from his coalition partners, especially the JP, in pushing his reformist agenda through Parliament ever since he took over the presidency last September. He failed to secure parliamentary approval for promised commissions to inquire into corruption and recover stolen assets, the disappearance of a journalist, and the killing of a blogger during Yameen's rule. With a dominant majority in Parliament now, Solih should find pushing these and other people-oriented bills much easier now.
The MDP is also committed to taking a close look at Yameen’s policy of embroiling the Maldives into China’s debt-trap diplomacy, as a consequence of which the country has been put at risk of being pressured to offer security concessions to China as repayment for large loans. The swelling influx of Chinese infrastructure investments under Yameen has reportedly caused the Maldives’ national debt to expand to nearly a quarter of its GDP. The MDP has pledged to investigate the Chinese infrastructure projects and determine the country’s actual debt to China, which it fears could be as high as an untenable $3 billion. It also proposes to address corruption allegations relating to the accrual of these debts. Nasheed has accused Yameen of mortgaging whole islands in the Maldives to China in return for these infrastructure projects. In an interview in February he had stated that China was using the debt of the Maldives as “a leverage, as a disciplining agent. That, to my mind, would not be in our interest. Maldives and many other countries must impress upon China that this is wrong. Do not do this”.
Prior to the 6 April elections, the MDP was part of a coalition in the Majlis that included the JP. The JP had distanced itself from all proposals to commence anti-corruption proceedings, frustrating the MDP’s initiatives in this regard. As MDP spokesperson Afshan Latheef put it before the elections, “The President has not been getting the support and cooperation he needs. It is vital that the MDP gets a majority in parliament in order to fully investigate corruption and embezzlement, to seek justice for those disappeared and murdered and to fulfill the pledges of the government”.
With that majority now firmly in place, it is incumbent upon the MDP to capitalize upon it and deliver. The future of democracy in the Maldives rests on it, as does downsizing of the degree of China’s stifling influence over the country.