On 25 December 2022, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, former president of the Maldives, was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment on charges of money laundering and bribery. The opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), of which Yameen is the presidential candidate, has condemned the Maldives Criminal Court’s trial and verdict as a “political witch-hunt”. As the Maldives prepares for its presidential election on 9 September this year, Yameen’s incarceration raises questions about the potential consequences on the country’s political landscape.
PPM party members and supporters have been staging protests in the capital city of Male since Yameen’s arrest. Similar demonstrations demanding Yameen’s release have also been taking place in other parts of the country, including when high-ranking government officials visit the islands beyond the capital.
Meanwhile, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) held its primary election on 28 January to determine its presidential candidate for the upcoming election. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the current president, emerged as the winner, securing over 60 percent of the vote against his challenger, Mohamed Nasheed, the speaker of the parliament and a former president himself. However, Nasheed has rejected the election results and recently announced the formation of a separate faction within the MDP. While the MDP has had internal conflicts in the past, the current rift between Solih and Nasheed is unprecedented, with both leaders publicly criticising each other in a manner that has not been seen before.
The Maldives’ contentious presidential race could be a battle between not just two rival candidates, but two rival geopolitical powers too.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Yameen’s candidacy and Solih being the only running candidate for the presidency so far, the PPM still has a strong chance of making a comeback in the upcoming election. Yameen’s supporters and many Maldivians have expressed dissatisfaction with the current government’s handling of the post-Covid economic recovery and a perceived increase in corruption. However, the PPM’s ability to stay united will be crucial to its success. Solih’s victory in the MDP’s primary elections will also play a significant role in shaping both the domestic political landscape and the country’s ties with India and China.
Ongoing legal proceedings
Abdulla Yameen’s recent sentencing to 11 years in jail has raised several questions about his eligibility to run in the upcoming presidential election. As per the electoral laws of the Maldives, no person convicted of a crime with a jail term of more than one year can be a presidential candidate. In the current race, parties must put forward their candidates by August 2023, and as the case stands Yameen’s incarceration disqualifies him from running in the election.
Yameen’s lawyers are preparing an appeal, likely to be filed in the coming weeks. However, the Maldivian court system is known for being slow, and the likelihood of this case getting dragged out in court is high. Yameen was sentenced to five years in prison in 2019 but was acquitted by the Maldives’ apex court in late 2021. It took two years for that process to be completed, with the High Court process alone taking more than a year. Further, even in the event that Yameen is acquitted by the High Court before August 2023, the state has also charged him with money laundering and bribery in another case, and those hearings are ongoing. Many see this as a plan by the government to prevent Yameen from contesting the election in case he gets acquitted by the High Court before August.
The PPM has taken several actions to ensure that Yameen’s name will be on the ballot. Shortly after Yameen’s conviction, the PPM senate, which is the party’s highest decision-making body, held an extraordinary session where it reiterated that Yameen will remain the party’s chosen candidate.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Yameen’s candidacy and Solih being the only running candidate for the presidency so far, the PPM still has a strong chance of making a comeback in the upcoming election.
The PPM has continued its protests since Yameen’s sentencing in an attempt to put pressure on the government. The party and its supporters believe that Yameen will be acquitted before the August 2023 deadline for submitting candidates, and they will continue to push for his inclusion in the election. The government of the Maldives has full control over the judiciary, as there have been repeated allegations of politicisation of the oversight body that can remove or appoint judges at will. This has led to accusations of political influence in Yameen’s trial and raises concerns that the government may also influence the appeal proceedings.
The opposition has launched an effort to enlist the international community in exerting diplomatic pressure on the Maldives government. A delegation from the PPM visited Sri Lanka and held discussions with representatives from the European Union, Australia and Canada. The PPM has also been holding meetings with heads of foreign missions in Male. The primary objective of these meetings, according to the PPM, is to raise awareness about judicial misconduct in Yameen’s trial.
Despite the rallies and marches organised by the opposition, the government remains largely unscathed as the protests are restricted to specific areas. An amendment to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act imposes restrictions on gatherings within the capital city of Male and requires police approval. The police have been preventing people from protesting freely and have met the protesters with substantial resistance. In the past month, over 20 protesters have been arrested during demonstrations. This leaves the question of what will happen if Yameen’s name is not on the ballot come election time.
The PPM is not short of potential presidential candidates. Possible contenders include the party’s two deputy leaders – Ghassan Maumoon, the son of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and Mohamed Muizzu, the mayor of Male – as well as Mohamed Saeed, vice president of the People’s National Congress, a sister party of the PPM. These two parties are in a coalition called the Progressive Congress. Although none of these figures have expressed interest in running for the presidency yet, it is likely that they will do so at the last minute.
Yameen has not chosen a successor in the event that his conviction is not appealed and overturned. However, based on the party’s past, it is possible that it might hold a primary to choose a contender. Yameen himself won the party’s ticket in 2013 after contesting against Umar Naseer, who later went on to become the home minister in Yameen’s cabinet. The biggest worry among party members and veteran supporters is that a last-minute primary might divide the party, as has happened with the ruling MDP.
This rift between Solih and Nasheed is a first for the MDP, which has faced internal conflicts in the past but never a challenge to Nasheed’s control over the party’s leadership. Solih’s victory marks the first time Nasheed has lost in an internal party election.
If another member runs for the PPM’s presidential candidacy, there is also the possibility that the PPM will unite behind a candidate with Yameen’s backing. Something similar happened in the rival MDP in 2018, when Mohamed Nasheed, who could not contest as he was under prison sentence, backed Ibrahim Solih, who went on to win the 2018 election. This shows that with a united front and the right candidate, the PPM can still emerge as a formidable opposition force.
For the MDP, given the frustration of Nasheed’s supporters regarding the outcome of the contentious primary, it is unlikely that the intra-party issues will be resolved any time soon. Nasheed had refrained from supporting Solih and reiterated that the MDP’s 2018 pledge to switch the Maldives’ system of governance from a presidential to a parliamentary one remains unfulfilled. This rift between Solih and Nasheed is a first for the MDP, which has faced internal conflicts in the past but never a challenge to Nasheed’s control over the party’s leadership. Solih’s victory marks the first time Nasheed has lost in an internal party election. His refusal to support Solih presents a significant challenge as he commands a large following within the party. Without the party’s support, Solih’s chances of winning the presidential election are slim. Nasheed’s decision not to back Solih may create further faultlines in the domestic politics of the Maldives.
The India-China question
Yameen’s incarceration also has significant geopolitical implications. During his administration, Yameen cultivated a close relationship with China, welcoming major infrastructure projects such as the landmark China-Maldives Friendship Bridge and a bilateral free-trade agreement, while distancing himself from India. For instance, Yameen’s request to withdraw Indian military helicopters posted in Laamu and Addu atolls caused significant concern in New Delhi. After his acquittal on money-laundering charges in 2021, Yameen’s India Out campaign against Indian military presence in the Maldives gained momentum. If he were to return to power, it is likely that the Maldives–India bilateral relationship would revert to its pre-2018 state or deteriorate further. Additionally, leaders of the PPM have publicly stated that Indian influence played a role in Yameen’s incarceration. Even without Yameen’s name on the ballot, it is likely that a PPM government will not be closely aligned with its maritime neighbour.
Both India and China will be closely watching the outcome of the September election. If Solih were to win, it would likely mean that the Maldives moves further away from China, as he has been more aligned with India during his current tenure. Likewise, a victory for Solih would possibly be in India’s best interests. The visit to the Maldives last month by the Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar is seen by some as a sign of India’s tacit support for Solih. Furthermore, key figures who are closely aligned with India – such as defence minister, Mariya Ahmed Didi, and foreign minister, Abdulla Shahid – are on Solih’s side in the MDP. Yameen’s ongoing legal battles are playing out against this diplomatic background. The Maldives’ contentious presidential race could be a battle between not just two rival candidates, but two rival geopolitical powers too.
Ahmed Azaan is a journalist and chief editor of The Maldives Journal and Dhiyares, two Maldives-based news outlets. He holds a degree in international relations and is an outspoken Right to Information activist in the Maldives.