Mohamed Muizzu casts his vote at a polling station in Male, Maldives, Sept. 30, 2023. Mohamed Muizzu, candidate of the coalition of Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and People s National Congress (PNC), emerged as the winner in the runoff presidential election in the Maldives. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua
Mohamed Muizzu casts his vote at a polling station in Male, Maldives, Sept. 30, 2023. Mohamed Muizzu, candidate of the coalition of Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and People s National Congress (PNC), emerged as the winner in the runoff presidential election in the Maldives. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

Interview: The Maldives makes a turn with new president Mohamed Muizzu

Journalist Daniel Bosley speaks on the India–China tussle, accountability and the climate change in the context of the Maldives’ recent presidential election

This is a machine-generated, minimally copy-edited transcript of a podcast interview and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording here.

Raisa: Today we have with us Daniel Bosley, who is a journalist and blogger working on the Maldives. He was earlier the editor of the local newspaper Minivan News and co-founded the history and culture website Two Thousand Isles. 

Raisa: On the 1st of October, it was announced that Mohamed Muizzu of the Progressive Party of the Maldives had won the Maldives presidential election, beating out the incumbent Ibrahim Solih of the Maldivian Democracy Party in a second-round runoff. Now this presidential election was particularly contentious, with as many as eight candidates vying for the top spot. This may have been due to a very public rift within the ruling MDP between parliamentary speaker and former president Mohamed Nasheed and Ibrahim Solih. What can we expect of Maldives new president? Here to discuss this is Daniel. Daniel, thank you for joining us today.

Daniel: Thanks for inviting me. 

Raisa: So most of the headlines about the Maldivian presidential election, at least in the international press, have been talking about it as a tussle between a pro-China candidate, that's Muizzu, and a pro-India candidate, which is seen as being Ibrahim Solih. But would you say that Muizzu is pro-China, as everyone is suggesting? 

Daniel: It's a tricky one because he's somewhat of an unknown element at the moment. I mean, as you'll know that he stepped in at the last moment to act almost as a proxy for former President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who was in jail at the time of the election, charged with their money laundering offenses during his term. So Muizzu has been the mayor of Malé, the capital city, and he was housing minister under President Yameen for a while. But in terms of what his beliefs are, what his opinions are, it's very difficult to tell at this stage. So I think it's the same with a lot of countries in the Southasia region, in terms of this pro-India or pro-China stance, I think it's very pragmatic. So there was an intense India out campaign by the PPM. And so a lot of people have been asking questions about whether Maldivians are intrinsically anti-India. And I don't think that's the case. This is something, it's about development, it's about investment and the framing of this election as being pro-India on the one side versus pro-China on the other side. And Muizzu's quite pithy response to this has been, I'm pro-Maldives. And I think that does get down to the nub of the issue. Maldivian leaders in the past, it was a small island nation. They have to accept that they need to balance things. There needs to be a balance between regional powers. What happened during the administration of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom as he, because his human rights record was so poor, and you'll have seen this in other countries, in Sri Lanka and in Myanmar as well in particular, when a regime becomes kind of intolerable to traditional Western allies and Western donors, then they will push over to China because China won't ask as many questions about this. It's an open wallet and it doesn't come with this overview of human rights issues. So what happened with President Yameen is his human rights record was so poor, he had to sort of lurch over to China and described it openly as an Eastern pivot, when other nations have tried to balance things out slightly more. So what  happened  when President Solih came in in 2018, he was trying to redress the balance. And you can see that India has obviously been spooked by this lurch over towards China in the previous five years. And now India has come in with what India can offer, which often is less financial and more sort of military. So there were fairly clumsy attempts to establish a military base in the Maldives. And this has got a lot of people upset or slightly concerned, and it's just played into the opposition's hands. So for the PPM campaign, it made sense to push this India Out thing, and to talk about bringing things back towards the centre. So the pro-Maldives thing, I think is a good way of putting it, because if Maldives is sensible, and if he returns to the normal leadership pattern of Maldivian leaders, he will provide more of a balance. And you won't get this swing back and forth between India and China, because I don't think that's good for the country.

Raisa: What would you say are the other social political issues that perhaps got glossed over with all the discussion about India versus China, at least internationally?

Daniel: Yeah, I think the main issue is one of law and order in the country. The problems with the gangs were becoming quite extreme towards the end of President Yameen's time in office. And it was hoped, when President Solih's administration came in, that they would sort this out. They had a good start, but then things slowed. There were also significant issues with corruption. There was a huge scandal that was revealed by Al Jazeera in 2016, almost USD 100 million from lease payments disappeared. It was in relation to this activity that President Yameen was in jail until a few weeks ago. He's out on house arrest now. There were lots and lots of people implicated in that corruption scandal, and yet only really President Yameen and one or two others were ever prosecuted, which made it look less like accountability and justice and more just like old-fashioned vengeance. So people, I think, were very disappointed with that. So yeah, I think this was the main issue that the India-China thing, I think, does feed back into that, as I mentioned, because China did not have a problem with these issues. And if the Maldives reverts to that kind of lawlessness and those human rights issues, I think China will become the preferred partner, because they won't ask those questions.

Raisa: You've mentioned the alliance with Yameen. What do you think that means given Muizzu's elected now? What do you think it means more broadly for accountability, particularly, you know, given that both of them have somewhat checkered records in terms of corruption?

Daniel: I wouldn't necessarily describe what's happening with Muizzu and Yameen as an alliance. Now, Muizzu was under incredible pressure to release President Yameen from jail. He's now on house arrest. But President Yameen himself wanted to be the candidate. Up until the last moment, he took it to the Supreme Court. He wanted to run his candidacy from his jail cell. It was only when it became very obvious that that was impossible, that Muizzu stepped in. But even then, I think President Yameen would have preferred the party to boycott the election. So this is not someone who's particularly happy with the situation. It's interesting, because what we're seeing now is almost the mirror opposite across the political divide of what happened in 2018, when former President Nasheed couldn't run. He was the MDP's preferred candidate, but he couldn't run because he was in jail, or he was in asylum in the UK. So he was immediately freed, and it was incredibly awkward. He came back. I mean, if we look at the relationship between President Solih and former President Nasheed over the past five years, it's been catastrophic. We have had President Nasheed sitting in the speaker's chair in the Majlis, heckling his own government and criticising their progress on corruption and their progress on the rule of law and this Salafi jihadi issue, essentially acting as a one man opposition, and their relationship has just deteriorated, then it's literally split the MDP down the middle. So if you take that as a kind of forewarning of what might happen in the PPM's case, I don't think there's going to be much of an alliance between Yameen and Muizzu. Yameen was out at a rally just yesterday urging, making sure that everybody knew that if the Indian troops weren't removed from the Maldives, very soon into his term, that he would be out on the streets with his supporters. I mean, apart from the fact that this contravenes the terms of his house arrest, nobody seems too concerned about that. But it's clear that he's going to hold Muizzu, hold his feet to the fire, and he's not going to be much of an ally. But yeah, in terms of accountability, as you asked, it's obviously not a good sign. It kind of confirms that there is no real accountability.

Everything is so politicised that there was progress made with the judiciary. At the beginning of Solih's term, there were significant changes in the Supreme Court bench. But I think you're seeing that this is more of a structural issue. And yeah, when we get down to the topic of my colleagues and what's happened with them and the investigation into their disappearance and murders, we're seeing that the courts don't really seem capable of pushing through these big cases, no more so than they were under the dictatorship, to be honest. It's not a good sign for accountability.

This is the first five-year term the MDP had to show what they could do in terms of cleaner democratic governance, and the corruption seems to be almost as bad. People were extremely disillusioned.

Raisa: And yes, you've kind of prompted my next question, which was going to be on whether you think there's going to be progress into investigations around the deaths and enforced disappearances of journalists and bloggers, including Yameen Rasheed and Ahmed Rilwan. 

Daniel: No, the short and sad answer to that is no, I don't think there will be. There was a deaths and disappearances commission set up very early in Solih's term. There's tremendous concern now that the work that they did will stop. There are people who are willing to testify, people who put themselves at risk to testify against individuals involved in these terrorist conspiracies who may now be left exposed. There were three individuals, two of them prominent gang leaders arrested last year as part of a terrorist conspiracy that involved the murder of Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rashid, or sorry, the likely murder of Ahmad Rilwan, because we've never found his body. We don't really know what happened to him. They were awaiting trial. And then I think in the summer, June and July, they were all just released. The same judge, the judge had seen the evidence and he was very happy with it. And then the same judge changed his mind, released them onto house arrest, which is, I mean, incredible. If you think about that, and we're talking about accountability before too, these men are involved in, these men are threats to the public. They were involved in a conspiracy to murder, and there was strong evidence and they've been released back into the community. They've already been seen out on the streets. As I mentioned with President Yameen's house arrest, you know, if there's no political will to keep someone in jail, then nobody's very likely to enforce the terms of a house arrest. So these charges have been dropped against one of these men already completely. The other two will be forthcoming very soon if it's not already happened. So yeah, not only am I concerned that there won't be justice for Rilwan and Yameen, I'm concerned that other people will suffer the same fate. 

Raisa: That's very worrying news with impacts on human rights and freedom of expression in the Maldives. I know this is like very early on into Muizzu's election, but do you have any initial thoughts on what Muizzu's election signifies and how it's going to impact the political landscape? 

Daniel: In anticipation of this question, and obviously as a foreign journalist in the country, I'm constantly accused of being sort of very pro-MDP, you know, I think that's kind of a coded term for just sort of liberal. And yes, I suppose that is true. But if you want to look at perhaps the silver lining of this election, I think the fact that the incumbent lost is something that should be seen as a positive in that, you know, Maldives and democracy is only very new. And I think I read some statistics recently about democracy in Africa and the percentage of incumbents who win, it's something like 90 percent over the past 30 years, in the electoral races, the incumbent will win every time. So if you really are looking for a silver lining in terms of the future of the country's democracy, the fact that Maldivians still are free to change leaders every five years should be seen as a positive. But yeah, beyond that, I don't really see that many positive signs in this election, because based on the previous five-year term of the PPM, you know, we've talked about the human rights issues, the entire leadership, the opposition leadership ended up in jail, we had these gangs running around doing whatever they liked, we had corruption on a scale that the country's not really seen before. So yeah, another five-year term of the PPM is not particularly appetizing.

But if you look at it from the other perspective, how the MDP performed in the past five years, I mean, it's my opinion, they lost this election rather than the PPM winning this election. So this was the first five-year term that the MDP had, the first term from 2008 was curtailed by a coup in 2012. So this is the first five-year term they had to really show what they could do to really give people, their supporters a chance to see what five years of cleaner democratic governance, what it could bring, and the corruption issues seem to be almost as bad. People were extremely disillusioned. So I think it shows that this transition to democracy is still far from being completed. It's not just about holding elections every five years, it's about democratic culture. It's accountability, as we've talked about before. It's about strong institutions. And I think this election, and the return of the PPM, and the failure of the MDP show that, yeah, democracy has a long way to go in the country, and it's far from assured that it will be a success. 

If we look at the relationship between President Solih and former President Nasheed over the past five years, it’s been catastrophic…it’s literally split the MDP down the middle.

Raisa: And in your book, Descent into Paradise, you've also written about, the different perspectives and issues raised by the islanders, versus those living in Malé. To your knowledge, what issues were raised by the islanders compared to those living in the capital that maybe didn't receive much airtime?

Daniel: Yeah, I think the divide between people in the islands and people in Malé is not as significant anymore, or it's not overt politically, because people have to spend so much time in Malé, everybody's got half of their family in Malé, they will spend a significant portion of their life in Malé, whether it's for healthcare, or education, or for work. So the politics campaigning doesn't really work in that way. I personally think it should. I think it would be very interesting if there was a party that was more based around island issues. If you're looking for the party of sort of decentralisation, that is the MDP. There's been a clear swing over the past few years and between the PPM and more conservative groups who don't really have much of a vision for the country. I think this is my main issue with them that it's very, as I mentioned at the start in relation to the India-China issue, it's hyper pragmatic. There's no real plan. And the MDP at least have this plan that they want to try and preserve island communities and they want to decentralise. The decentralisation began after the first multi-party elections in 2008, then obviously was paused after the coup, and then President Solih continued it in the last five years. So islanders do want development, obviously, and development projects are mainly based around sewerage systems and harbor construction and generators and things like this. It's not really controversial stuff in the islands. Political decentralisation is more important. But the main thing is I think they need to get more economic activity in the atolls. So there's always a lot of development and especially during election time, people will be happy to receive these development projects, but then there's not always a lot of economic activity that follows, which means that then people inevitably still have to move to the capital.

So you might have a white elephant airport, which is fine, but it doesn't really bring extra jobs. It just helps people get back and forth to Malé more quickly. It reminds me a lot of the high-speed rail project in the UK that was supposed to have similar aims to help people work away from the capital. And in actual fact, it just takes people to and from London more quickly. But yeah, the issue with decentralisation, I think, is one that's very important, but also one that leads on from that, which I always wondered why people didn't talk about more, is the issue of renting in Malé. Obviously, Maldives has less than 1 percent land. Malé is one of the most densely populated islands on the planet. So that means rents are going to be high. And yet I never hear politicians talking about that. I think it's curious. I think politicians perhaps have conflicted interests in this regard because Maldives, I'm not sure if they're aware of it, but normally it will take salaries from two good jobs to cover rent for like a two-room apartment in Malé. I think they must be paying some of the highest rents in the world. And yeah, no one seems to talk about that. I think it's very strange. 

Raisa: On a more national level, there's also been a lot of coverage recently on the Maldives' dwindling foreign currency reserves. Just curious now on what the situation is and how you think the new president is going to tackle this?

Daniel: There's talk about how there's just two and a half months worth of imports, because obviously everything has to be imported into the country and fears that the country could default in the near future. This is always an issue with the Maldives because it's highly import dependent. And while the tourism industry theoretically brings in lots of dollars to the country, which is always an issue if you need your imports, you need your dollars in your foreign exchange, but very little of this money actually enters the banking system because the people who control the economy have the dollars and they would like to keep it that way. So they keep the dollars to themselves or they bank the dollars overseas and the local economy doesn't receive that kind of sustenance from the inflow of dollars. In terms of what Muizzu will do about this, he's again not been particularly clear. 

I think the general instruction has been from the World Bank amongst others, is that obviously they cut back on the domestic spending and cut back on the borrowing. So again, I suppose this does bring us back to the India-China issue, that the amount of money that's owed to India after five years of a more pro-India stance is now equal to that owed to China, although nobody's quite clear what the terms are. This is one of the issues, the repayment terms, it's a bit like a black box, nobody really knows what's going on in there. So repayment's not 100% clear, but obviously that does bring up the fears of the whole debt trap diplomacy thing that's afflicted Sri Lanka. So yeah, I think Muizzu would be wise as we return to what we talked about at the start to have more of a balanced approach. This will involve domestic politics and will involve, in associated terms, not allowing the human rights and the country's democracy to flounder to the point where it has to rely on borrowing from China and can't turn to the World Bank or the IMF, because that looks like that could be something that's coming down the road. 

Raisa: Definitely resonant with what's happening in many different countries across the region. And something that's also common to many other countries in the region is political instability. Do you think that this is going to continue going forward under Muizzu as well? And how do you think the Maldivian Democratic Party is going to respond given their loss? 

Daniel: I think instability is the only constant of Maldivian politics that I've ever observed. It's very difficult to predict what's going to happen, but you can predict the unpredictability. As we mentioned earlier, I might be judging harshly, but it doesn't appear to me that Muizzu is going to be a particularly strong leader. There is a lot of competing interests. He's got Yameen behind the scenes, then you've got this problem with the gangs and the extremists who now have complete impunity and will be running wild. You have the resort owners. As you mentioned in terms of the debt problem, they're the X factor in Maldivian politics. They stay behind the scenes, but these are the people that run the economy. Most of these men will have more money than the government, those from the bigger resort owning cliques. So I remember I've done stories in the past where the finance minister will be sort of tearing his hair out one week about debt repayments. And then two weeks later, the problem will just go away and you'll ask him what happened. And there'll just be something vague about private funds that came from somewhere. And it's very obvious that some resort oligarch has dipped his hand into his pocket and made the problem go away. So when we think we understand what's going on with the Maldivian economy, there's always that factor that's hard to see. And I think it's the same in terms of the country's politics. What makes the papers internationally and domestically never really talks about the resort class, but money talks and it makes the world go round and it makes the Maldives go around. It makes this instability or it can stop this instability. So yeah, I do think it will continue. 

Raisa: The Maldives is also often discussed in the context of climate change as well. How do you think Muizzu's development policies might impact the country environmentally, especially given his recent comments to Al Jazeera on rising sea level?

Daniel: Yeah, the development policies in terms of how islands deal with the climate crisis are mainly revolved around getting good sewage systems set up and harbours and making sure the water supply is secure on the islands. These are not particularly controversial. These are things that are pursued under every government that I've observed since I've been covering the country. So I'm sure Muizzu will continue with that regard. One of the main concerns I had, and this is something that I touched upon a lot in the book, is the symptoms of the climate crisis versus the causes of the climate crisis. So there's issues in terms of what we're trying to protect and the broader issues like consumerism and urbanisation and these things that are driving the climate crisis all over the world. And in terms of how this affects island culture and people's ability to live on the islands, my concern is that when these extreme weather events and the kind of events that make the islands uninhabitable, when they finally arrive, people won't be there for entirely different reasons, some of which we've already discussed, this urbanisation, this drive to move to the capital. And I think we're seeing that with the PPM. The MDP have tried to push decentralisation more. So the MDP in particular seem to have no qualms about moving the entire population to the capital, which essentially would be the end of a 2000-year-old island culture. They seem very kind of blasé about it. They don't seem to think it's that much of a big deal, which again is I think a problem with the climate crisis, people not truly understanding the values that are promoting this issue, not valuing culture, for example, not valuing things that are, in my opinion, are represented by Maldivian island culture.

Muizzu would be wise to have more of a balanced approach. This will involve not allowing the country’s democracy to flounder to the point where it has to rely on borrowing from China and can’t turn to the World Bank or the IMF.

Raisa: Before you go, I also wanted to ask whether there are any books, movies or podcasts that you can recommend to our readers who want to understand more about the Maldive's electoral dynamic?

Daniel: Well, in terms of what I'm reading at the moment, because I've been asked about this India-China thing quite so much, I found a book focusing on this called The Costliest Pearl by an academic called Bertil Lintner. And it's really interesting stuff. It's kind of a potted history of the whole issue and all around the Indian Ocean. So I'd recommend that to people if they want to get more of a background on what's happening in the region. Thank you. 

Raisa: Thank you for that, Daniel. And thank you for joining us today on the podcast. 

Daniel: Thank you.

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