And yet, when the results came in, to general astonishment, Mr Yameen was declared to have lost, with only 42% of the vote. The winner was the unassuming but unjailed Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the leader of the diminished opposition in parliament. Mr Yameen, who had appeared determined to cling to power just seven months before, conceded without protest.
Mr Solih, who is known by his nickname, Ibu, has pledged to overturn the dubious convictions of his fellow opposition leaders, most notably the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who is the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, to which Mr Solih belongs. “For many of us this has been a difficult journey, a journey that has led to prison cells or exile,” Mr Solih said as he claimed victory. “It’s been a journey that has ended at the ballot box.”
Maldivians can only hope that the journey is indeed at an end. Their country, a string of atolls in the Indian Ocean with a population of just 430,000, was a dictatorship for 30 years under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Mr Yameen’s half-brother. He allowed a competitive election to be held in 2008, which he lost to Mr Nasheed. But Mr Nasheed was forced from office in murky circumstances in 2012 and Mr Yameen beat him in a disputed election the following year by just 6,000 votes. His government soon began to show an authoritarian streak, prosecuting Mr Nasheed, among others, for plotting to overthrow it.
Some worry that Mr Yameen, whose term ends on November 17th, might still be planning to hold on to power somehow. Rumours have swirled that his party is preparing to challenge the results. But power seems to be ebbing away quickly. Since the election, the courts have ordered the release of four opposition MPs and a deposed police chief. Police have become less fussy about who can enter the heart of Malé, the capital.
Mr Yameen offered Maldivians a diet of nationalism and religiosity, spiced with Chinese- and Saudi-funded development projects. Mr Solih and the opposition are closer to India. Big Chinese investments may now receive the scrutiny parliament was unable to give them before. Strongman policies, such as the reintroduction of the death penalty and the recriminalisation of defamation, could be rolled back. And the corruption scandals and unexplained murders of critics that marred Mr Yameen’s rule are likely to be investigated.
Speaking from nearby Sri Lanka, an exultant Mr Nasheed declared that Maldivians had “taken back their country from the brink”. On Twitter, he declared, “Democracy is a historical inevitability.” In the Maldives at least, until this week, it had seemed anything but.
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