The frontrunner | Mohamed Muizzu

The former Housing Minister and current Mayor of Male, who was seen as ‘Plan C’ by the opposition, has secured the highest share of votes in the first round of presidential elections

September 17, 2023 02:58 am | Updated September 19, 2023 09:05 pm IST

It was no secret that Mohamed Muizzu entered the Maldives’ presidential race only because former President Abdulla Yameen could not. In fact, local media often called him the opposition People’s National Congress- Progressive Party of Maldives combine’s ‘plan C’, after the Supreme Court barred Mr. Yameen from contesting, and party members ruled out Dr. Mohamed Waheed, another former President.

Nonetheless, observers in the Maldives knew that ‘Dr. Muizzu’ — he holds a PhD in civil engineering from the University of Leeds, U.K. — was the opposition’s most credible challenger to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. He proved their assessment right, securing the highest share — 46.06% — of the ballot in the September 9 elections, while Mr. Solih secured 39.05%. Since neither candidate got over 50% necessary for victory, the top two will face a run-off on September 30.

It was not an easy campaign for Mr. Muizzu. After the top court made clear Mr. Yameen could not run, the jailed leader, convicted on corruption and money laundering charges, asked his party to boycott the polls. However, with the party membership refusing, the opposition bloc had to swiftly find a candidate agreeable within the coalition, and formidable as an electoral rival to the incumbent. After considerable internal debate, Mr. Muizzu was named.

He had barely a month to campaign and convince the 5.2 lakh-strong country’s electorate of 2.8 lakh voters. But, he was no new face in Maldives politics. In 2021, Mr. Muizzu became the Mayor of capital Male, after beating the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) candidate with a huge margin.

Prior to that, he served as the Minister of Housing twice, in the Cabinets of former Presidents Mr. Waheed and Mr. Yameen. While in the latter’s government, he oversaw the construction of the $200-million China-Maldives friendship bridge, linking the capital to the neighbouring Hulhumale island, where the country’s main airport is located. Last month, while marking the fifth anniversary of the bridge’s opening, Mr. Muizzu praised the “visionary leadership” of Mr. Yameen and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

His experience in dealing with housing challenges in the country, as a Minister earlier and Mayor now, gives him the insight and vocabulary to address mounting concerns over housing that many Maldivians are preoccupied with. His manifesto outlined a plan to allocate 65,000 flats in and around the capital, better electricity connectivity and water network, and enhanced infrastructure in the atolls located to the north and south of the capital.

‘India out’ campaign

Although he was left with little time ahead of the polls, it was not as if Mr. Muizzu had to craft a campaign from scratch. The Opposition had already built considerable momentum, chiefly from the “India Out” drive spearheaded by Mr. Yameen. A strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Solih administration, amid allegations of corruption and repression, saw some voters grow sympathetic to the Opposition’s critique of President Solih’s “India first” policy, although they were well aware of the obvious China tilt of Mr. Yameen’s administration from 2013 to 2018. Seen through a geopolitical prism, the contest in the Maldives is an India-China one. Outside of it, the current dynamics reflect the churn that continues after the Indian Ocean Archipelago transitioned to democracy in 2008.

The outcome of the first round could be read as a “revolt against the government”, according to U.K.-based Maldivian academic Ahmed Shaheed. Further, former President Mohamed Nasheed’s decision to break away from the ruling MDP also impacted Mr. Solih’s chances. “With Mr. Nasheed’s split, the motherboard of the MDP was gone,” observed Mr. Shaheed, a former Foreign Minister of the Maldives.

With just a fortnight left for the second round of the presidential race, both Mr. Solih and Mr. Muizzu are negotiating with the other contestants, seeking their support. Ahead of the first round of the polls, every opposition election poster and hoarding in the capital Male, in the party’s hot pink colour, screamed that Mr. Yameen is still boss. They foregrounded Mr. Yameen’s image, placing photographs of Mr. Muizzu and his running mate behind his.

Now considered the frontrunner, Mr. Muizzu, 45, has vowed to double the salaries of the police and army, and defer their rent payments, among other fresh promises. In two weeks from now, it will be clear if they were enough to tip the electoral scales the second time.

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