By Sarah Pitafi
Behind the coconut palms and glistening lagoons that attract flocks of tourists to the Maldives’ luxurious resorts lies a decidedly less serene reality. In February, the current president, Yameen Abdul Gayoom, declared a state of emergency in order to arrest members of his own Supreme Court for releasing his ideological opponents from prison. Ever since, the archipelago in the Indian Ocean has been plunged into political turmoil. However, the islands’ political problems have a much deeper foundation—prior to democratization in 2008, the country was under autocratic rule for thirty years. This state of chaos culminated in a presidential election held on September 23, in which Gayoom was defeated by opposition party leader Ibrahim Mohamad Solih.
Though Gayoom had conceded defeat soon after provisional results indicated that Solih, a senior Democratic Party lawmaker, had won 58 percent of the vote, he later reversed his decision, urging the Maldives’ Election Commission to delay publishing the final results until Sunday, September 29th: a full week after the election. Gayoom’s party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), claimed that there had been “systematic and planned irregularities” in the vote, citing claims by some party monitors that polling station officials failed to check the authenticity of every ballot paper. The PPM stated that delaying the release of final results would allow the party to conduct an investigation into the election. However, the Commission moved to officially declare Solih the winner on Saturday instead.
Gayoom then petitioned for an annulment of the election’s results, claiming that his opponent had tampered with the race through fraud, corruption, and even vote rigging. Of the five members of the Election Commission, four fled the country, claiming that they were being harassed by supporters of Gayoom and threatened with physical harm. However, the country’s five-member Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the election had been conducted within legal jurisdiction.
This is not the first time Gayoom has contested election results. He had been elected in 2013 under dubious circumstances that many opponents now believe involved election rigging. He had lost in the first round of presidential elections, but the Supreme Court annulled the results. The Court then continued to cancel and delay rescheduled pollings on numerous occasions, with Gayoom finally being declared the winner by a meager 6,000 votes.
Evaluating Gayoom’s claim that Solih’s party had rigged the election seems rather ironic, as Gayoom himself has been accused of extensive voter fraud. The night prior to the election, federal police raided the opposition party’s office in the capital of Malé. Gayoom’s government has also been accused of stacking the election commission with party loyalists, canceling voter registrations, and pressuring employees of state-owned companies into voting for him. However, Gayoom’s political presence has long existed in these shadows of corruption. By jailing nearly all of his political opponents and critics, including his own former vice president and two defense ministers, he had expected little competition in the election. The former and first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who had been serving a thirteen year sentence in prison prior to being exiled, had been planning to run. Due to his criminal conviction, he was declared ineligible for election (The Supreme Court had lifted Nasheed’s sentence, but Gayoom declared a state of emergency and sent his military to the Court to force the justices to keep Nasheed in jail), and the Democratic Party’s nomination went to Solih instead. Gayoom’s half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was himself dictator of the Maldives for nearly 30 years prior to being defeated by Nasheed. Yet, in an ironic turn of events, Maumoon was jailed by his half-brother. The former dictator now supports Nasheed, who in turn is a loyal supporter of incumbent Solih.
The country’s geographic location along important maritime routes gives it a key role in the economic affairs of both India and China. In a shift away from previous alliances with India, Gayoom has taken controversial steps to ally with China, welcoming investment from Beijing under the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. As part of this initiative, China has been spending billions of dollars throughout needy regions of South Asia, thereby significantly extending its political influence in countries such as the Maldives, which has received $2 billion in loans. India has expressed concern over China’s initiative, fearing that Beijing’s ‘dollar diplomacy’ will cause a rift between India and nearby countries such as the Maldives. Solih intends to step away from Chinese investment and reestablish the relationship with India that his predecessor had neglected. Despite this shift in alliance, the Maldives’ debt to China is so extensive that it would prove devastating for the Maldives to completely sever relations with China. As the loan interest to China is said to be over 20% of the Maldives’ annual budget, the archipelago may be forced to return important Chinese-backed infrastructure, such as an international airport. From the moment he is sworn in on November 17th, Ibrahim Mohamad Solih will have the hefty responsibility of calming the turbulent waves caused by these two global powerhouses.
Sarah is a first-year in Silliman. You can contact her at email@example.com.