Diplomacy Editors' Picks Politics

Maldives: New president gives hope for change

15-11-2018

The image of the Maldives seen by many tourists is at odds with the country’s situation. On the one hand, it has just emerged from five year’s rule by iron-fisted Abdulla Yameen, who left a legacy of serious human rights issues. On the other hand, the tiny archipelago, formerly one of the world’s poorest countries, risks disappearing before the end of the century, due to climate change. Yet, hope is on the horizon with the surprise outcome of the September 2018 presidential elections, won by opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Will the new president be able to change the course of events and address his country’s numerous challenges?

A fragile paradise

The Maldives is an archipelago that lies some 675 km south-west of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, on several strategic shipping routes. Their population of 378 000 is scattered among 200 of the almost 1 200 islands, which, grouped in 26 natural atolls, occupy a surface of just 298 square kilometres. Most of their territory, composed of live coral reefs, has a mean elevation of 1.8 metres, which makes it highly vulnerable to constant sea level rise prompted by global warming. As a result, much of the Maldives could disappear beneath the waves within the next century. The country also lacks natural resources (water, energy and food are imported). Islam is the state religion, and most of the population are Sunni.

The Maldives is a development success story: while in the early 1980s they were one of the world’s 20 poorest countries, in just 30 years they graduated to middle-income status, showing remarkable progress in health and education. However, poverty is on the rise in the capital Male, home to a third of Maldivians. Youth unemployment remains high and contributes to a number of social problems, including young people’s Islamic radicalisation.

Tourism has been a key driver of economic growth; in 2017, the country welcomed almost 1.4 million visitors. China is the top country in terms of visitors, (22.1 %), followed by Germany (8.1 %), UK (7.5 %) and Italy (6.4 %). Outside of Male and the tourist islands, fishing and agriculture are the main activities, though they account for a modest share of GDP, which grew by 7.1 % in 2017.

A strong executive, a unicameral parliament

The Maldives, a fully independent state since 1965, has reformed its constitution in 2008 to pave the way for a democratic transition and a presidential system with a strong executive. The president is the head of state and government, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The presidential term of office is five years, and no president can serve for more than two terms. The president appoints the Cabinet of Ministers and the chief justice and judges, an arrangement that does not allow for an independent judiciary.

The People’s Majlis is a unicameral parliament of 85 directly elected members (of whom currently only five, or 5.88 %, are women) under the first-past-the-post system, and has a five-year term. The first multi-party elections took place in 2009, and the next are due in March 2019. Because of the country’s predominantly Muslim population, its legislation cannot contravene any tenet of Islamic Shari’ah law, which applies where Maldivian law is silent.

The main party in the People’s Majlis is the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM, 33 seats), founded in 2011 by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Maldives president from 1978 to 2008. It holds the majority in coalition with the Jumhooree Party (JP, 15 seats) and the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA, five seats). The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP, 26 seats) of former President Mohamed Nasheed, is the main opposition force.

After an era of political turmoil, prospects for strengthened democracy

After 30 years of Gayoom’s dictatorship, in 2008 the repeatedly jailed human rights campaigner Mohamed Nasheed became the country’s first elected president. He is known internationally for his outspoken fight on climate change. Following political turmoil, in February 2012 he was forced to resign ‘at gunpoint’, in his own words. Abdulla Yameen, Gayoom’s half-brother, won the new presidential elections, defeating Nasheed in the November 2013 run-off, after the Supreme Court annulled the first round, in which the latter had secured a large majority – though still below the necessary 50 % threshold. Yameen ruled the country with an iron fist, cracking down on the opposition through counter-terrorism laws against opposition activists and politicians, anti-defamation laws against the media and social media activists, and restrictions on assembly, which allegedly limited rallies or protests, as highlighted in a Human Rights Watch 2018 report. The Maldives plunged to 120th place in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, down from 108th in 2014. In October 2016, following criticism of the human rights situation and rumours about money laundering, the Maldives left the Commonwealth.

The situation deteriorated further in 2018, when the Supreme Court quashed terrorism convictions against nine leading opposition figures (including the exiled Nasheed, who had been living in the UK as a political refugee since 2016), and reinstated 12 People’s Majlis members, who, after having defected from the PPM, had been evicted from the chamber by a presidential order. At this point, Yameen declared a state of emergency, arrested the chief justice and another Supreme Court judge, and even detained his own halfbrother Gayoom, who had been in opposition since 2016, following the split of the PPM into two rival factions. He also sent troops to take over the parliament, where members were planning to impeach him.

Despite fears of election rigging in favour of Yameen, opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the presidential elections of 23 September 2018 in the first round, with 58.4 % of the ballot. Yameen (who is facing bribery allegations) first conceded defeat, then retracted his claim and filed a petition against the results, prompting a reaction by the US, while four of the five members of the Election Commission fled the country due to threats to their lives. The petition was eventually rejected, and now Solih, a leading figure in the political reform movement that led to the 2008 Constitution, is to begin his mandate on 17 November.

Some analysts deem the election outcome a potential blow to China, given that under Yameen, the Maldives had developed close ties with Beijing, joined its Belt and Road Initiative, signеd a free trade agreement with China, and got economic assistance from it and Saudi Arabia. Former President Nasheed – who returned from exile after the elections and could allegedly exert influence on political decisions – has claimed that 80 % of Male’s foreign debt is owed to China, whose actions he calls a ‘land grab’. Due to his anti-India sentiments, Yameen had severed his country’s traditional relations with Delhi. Currently, fearing China’s potential strategic presence in the Maldives, Delhi is eager to revive relations with the country, but it is unclear to what extent it could provide Male with the necessary economic and connectivity support.

The EU and the European Parliament

The EU is the Maldives’ second-largest export partner after Thailand and its fifth-largest import partner. In 2017, the Maldives exported €49 million of products (one-quarter of total exports, mostly fisheries) to the EU and imported €192 million (75 % were industrial products). The EU is the Maldives’ fourth-largest trading partner. The EU provides support for climate change adaptation and mitigation, which has a budget of €3.85 million. Together with other partners, the EU also supports the Maldives Climate Change Trust Fund. In line with its strategy of focusing on poverty reduction, the European Commission has adopted a country strategy paper on the Maldives for the 2007-2013 period. The EU followed the 2018 political crisis in the Maldives with concern, with the Council adopting conclusions on the issue in February 2018. In June, senior European External Action Service (EEAS) officials met with a Maldives government delegation in Brussels. On 16 July, the Council adopted a framework for targeted restrictive measures.

From 2015 to 2018, the European Parliament adopted four resolutions on the Maldives. It expressed its concern over the deteriorating political and human rights situation in the country, reiterated its call on the government to ensure full independence and impartiality of the judiciary and to engage in an inclusive dialogue with all political parties, and reaffirmed the EU’s staunch opposition to the death penalty. In its March 2015 resolution to the 2013 EU Annual report on human rights and democracy in the world, the EP regretted that the Maldives still criminalises homosexuality and that sanctions can include the death penalty.

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