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Maldives elections

03 October 2018 Deepa Kumar

On 24 September, outgoing Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen conceded defeat in the country's recent election, increasing the likelihood of a smooth transfer of power to president-elect Ibrahim Solih on 17 November as scheduled.

  • Opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih defeated incumbent president Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives' presidential election.
  • Following the transfer of power Solih will probably pursue institutional reform and release jailed opposition leaders and judges.
  • Although Solih ran on a pro-India and an anti-China platform, given the Maldives' debt obligations to China Solih is likely to pursue a more nuanced policy that balances the interests of both countries.

On 23 September, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated incumbent President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives' presidential election, winning by a margin of 16.7% and receiving 58.3% of the vote compared with Yameen's 41.7%.

In the run-up to the election it was broadly expected that Yameen, of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), would win a second term amid a crackdown on the opposition and attacks on the independence of parliament and the courts. However, these actions likely served instead to mobilize voters for Solih's Maldives United Opposition (MUO): a three-party coalition of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP, of which Solih is a member), the Jumhooree Party (JP), and the Adhaalath Party (AP).

On 24 September Yameen publicly conceded, and on 27 September the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) said that it would uphold the election result. IHS Markit therefore assesses that the transfer of power - expected on 17 November - is likely to proceed without further significant incident.

Solih likely to focus on restoring independence of judiciary and releasing jailed opposition leaders

Solih campaigned on promises to restore the country's institutions and to release jailed opposition leaders. It is likely that Yameen's concession prompted the Criminal Court in the capital, Malé, to release opposition lawmaker and former police chief Abdulla Riyaz, who was detained indefinitely in February for allegedly plotting to overthrow Yameen's government. In the one-year outlook, additional political prisoners - including the Supreme Court judges and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom - are likely to be released. The return of exiled journalists and politicians, including that of former president Mohamed Nasheed (also of the MDP), is also likely to be facilitated.

After the transfer of power, Solih is also likely to seek to restore the independence of the Supreme Court following its suppression by Yameen. Following a February 2018 Supreme Court decision that overturned the convictions of nine opposition leaders - including that of the self-exiled Nasheed - Yameen suspended parliament, ordered the arrest of the Supreme Court judges, and imposed a state of emergency for 45 days. Yameen's crackdown on the judiciary was supported by the MNDF: on 4 February, Attorney General Mohamed Anil held a press conference alongside Major General Ahmed Shiyam and Commissioner of Police Abdulla Nawaz requesting the armed forces not to uphold any Supreme Court ruling that aimed to arrest or impeach Yameen.

Solih's victory - despite widespread allegations of voter suppression and election manipulation by Yameen - reduces the likelihood of violent civil unrest in the immediate post-election outlook. Ahead of the election, IHS Markit assessed that a victory for Yameen would have led to protests involving hundreds of people opposed to Yameen's government in Malé and other atolls including Addu.

Solih expected to be pro-India, but will probably balance China's interests

Solih campaigned on an anti-China platform, claiming that Yameen's courting of Chinese investment via Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects triggered a financial crisis in the country. During his campaign, Solih also noted that it would be advantageous for the Maldives to align with its traditional ally India, given that country's reported commitment to upholding democracy and independence of institutions. However, in the post-election outlook it is likely that Solih will be compelled to balance Indian and Chinese interests, particularly given the Maldives' debt obligations towards China-backed projects.

According to the Maldives Monetary Authority, in 2017 the country's debt-to-GDP ratio increased to 26% from 20% in 2016. According to media reports, 70% of the Maldives' national debt stems from loans for China-backed projects. Solih is likely to attempt to renegotiate the terms of loan repayments to China, specifically in the absence of alternative funding from India or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a move to which IHS Markit assesses China will be receptive.

The likelihood of alternative funding from India remains low, given that India's key concern is probably focused on China's efforts to increase its military presence in the Indian Ocean region, which is also an important sphere for Indian maritime cargo. Going forward, India is likely to include the Maldives in military exercises, particularly involving Sri Lanka and members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (including Australia, India, Japan, and the United States).

Outlook and implications

Solih's presidency is likely to remain unchallenged at least until upcoming parliamentary elections. Although the unicameral legislature is currently suspended, Solih's MUO wields a simple majority, holding 43 of 85 seats. Parliament's five-year term will expire in May 2019 with elections theoretically due in late April, but Yameen's suspension of parliament will probably lead to uncertainty about when the election will be held, and there is no clear indication of whether and when Solih plans to reinstate the current parliament.

IHS Markit assesses that after parliamentary elections are announced, there will be an increased likelihood of the MUO fragmenting unless it identifies a concrete policy platform in the pre-election period, as the coalition was formed with the agenda of ousting Yameen and restoring the Maldives' institutions. Crucially, if Nasheed - a former president and the leader reportedly responsible for bringing MUO together - contests the parliamentary elections, this would indicate an increased risk of coalition instability. Nasheed and Solih are both members of the MDP and a high-profile campaign by Nasheed could divide the party, particularly if Nasheed won a seat in parliament while Solih retained the presidency.

Moreover, the MUO's support is likely to erode ahead of the election if its voters believe that it has failed to make progress on Solih's pre-election pledges such as renegotiating loans with China. Conversely - although currently unlikely - any indication of India providing the Maldives with financial assistance would increase Solih's popularity, and provide him with increased political capital to continue as president and leader of MUO even if Nasheed secures a parliamentary seat.

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