Maldives: new president must ward off threats from Islamic extremism, foreign powers and autocratic rivals

Maldive’s new president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, at his swearing-in ceremony. EPA Images

Many were worried that the 2018 presidential election in the Maldives would turn violent. Fortunately, there were no major incidents. But there were also concerns over election rigging, voiced by key opposition leader and former president, Mohamed Nasheed. In the end, sitting president, Abdulla Yameen, was defeated by the opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Some hope Solih can now usher in a new era of fair democratic processes. But it won’t be an easy task.

To understand the importance of the election we need to understand the problems that have plagued the fledgling Maldivian democracy for a decade, beginning with the 2008 vote. The presidential election that year was the first that could truly be labelled democratic, and saw Nasheed win, ending the 30-year rule of former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Male: capital of the Maldives. Shutterstock

But Nasheed had only just started to strengthen democratic institutions in the country when he was deposed by what some commentators have called a coup. Protests organised by Nasheed’s opponents saw the participation of the police and military, forcing Nasheed to resign. His resignation then paved the way for Yameen, whose presidency appeared once again to threaten democracy.

First, Yameen began to crack down on political opponents – and Nasheed became a political refugee (he now lives in Sri Lanka) after being sentenced to 13 years in prison over alleged terrorist offences. Former president, Gayoom, who happened to be Yameen’s half-brother, was jailed on terrorist charges, too. Several less prominent politicians were also imprisoned and jailed.

Yameen declared a national state of emergency, and in 2018 jailed judges from the supreme court because they intended to release imprisoned politicians.

Journalists were also targeted by the regime for their critical opinions. Two cases particularly stand out. The first was the 2014 abduction of independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan. Rilwan was critical of both Yameen’s government and Islamic radicalisation in the country. Yameen stopped the investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance and declared him dead early in 2019, but he has also been accused of being directly involved in Rilwan’s disappearance and his possible death.

The second case is that of political blogger Yameen Rasheed, who eerily foresaw his own destiny in a tweet from 2013:

Rasheed, who was also known as a critic of the political establishment, was stabbed to death in his apartment in 2017.

These two cases became important in the 2018 election and presidential candidates used Rilwan’s and Rasheed’s names in their campaigns against the sitting president.

We are Yaamyn t-shirt. ( Author provided

Islamic extremism

The Maldives’ democratic institutions have also been threatened over the past decade by the rise of Islamic extremism. At the 2018 Eid celebrations, for example, a replica of New York’s World Trade Centre was publicly burnt. There was reportedly even a model plane on a zip line.

Indeed, when Yameen took power in 2013, he used Islamic rhetoric to do so. In one widely distributed pamphlet of the time, Yameen claimed that he had uncovered, “President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians”. Yameen used the same rhetoric during the 2018 election, framing the election as a choice between “Islam and infidelity”.

Yameen’s flirtation with extreme religious sentiments backfired when it became clear that the Maldives has one of the highest per capita percentages of citizens fighting for Islamic State. Arguably, Yameen paved the way for this development by appealing to conservative Islamism to get power. Yameen’s opponents have also pointed out that he is influenced by Saudi Arabia, a country that has invested heavily in the Maldives.

The side the tourists see. Shutterstock

China’s orbit

China also considers the Maldives a strategic area of interest – and Yameen has been accused of sacrificing the Maldives’ economic interests to the emerging regional superpower.

Following Yameen’s defeat, some commentators have asked whether the Maldives will now take a step back from China and develop a closer relationship with India instead. Either way, China seems to be believe that Solih is a president they can work with, and Chinese officials congratulated him on his victory. Regardless of who is president, China will likely try to further bolster its influence in the region.

India, though, is keen to develop closer ties with the Maldives. And if both India and China try to influence domestic politics in the country, backing different candidates and movements, there is a potential threat to the country’s democratic institutions.

So what happens now? Many of the problems outlined above relate to the previous government. But whether Solih can fix them remains to be seen. It’s still early days, but he has already promised to look into the murder and disappearance of journalists:

Nothing is certain, however. Yameen seems to be eager to return to power, and he has already made accusations of election fraud. This is a worrying development. Last time Yameen started to question the elected president, he managed, with help from the armed forces and Islamic extremists, to overthrow him. If he tries again, and is successful, we may see a more permanent end to democracy in the Maldives.