Opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and People’s National Congress (PNC) presidential candidate Dr. Mohamed Muizzu won the 2023 Maldives presidential election by 53.8 percent of votes in the second round. MDP’s Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the incumbent president, trailed seven percentage points behind, with 46.2 percent.
In the first round as well Dr Mohamed Muizzu won a majority of votes at 46 percent but failed to breach the 50 percent mark for a clear win, leading to a second round on September 30, with incumbent President Ibu Solih who managed 39 percent.
Two factors impacted the Presidential elections – one was divide in the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) with a group led by speaker of the parliament Mohammad Nasheed which formed the Democrats a new party. Democrats choose to stay neutral during the second round.
The second factor was the opposition blocks anti India propaganda raising issues such as alleged of Indian soldiers in Maldives and vilifying Indian workers in the country which led to a shift towards the PPM PNC in the form of an “India Out,” Campaign. The India Out campaign is the brainchild of former President Abdullah Gayoom who was disqualified for standing as a Presidential candidate undergoing a sentence for corruption.
Dr Mohamed Muizzu who is the mayor of Male, the capital emerged as a consensus candidate of the PPM PNC coalition and went on to win the polls.
All eyes will be on President-elect Dr. Mohamed Muizzu’s electoral stance and declaration that he would ensure that no foreign soldiers can be based in the Maldives against the wishes of Maldivian people and will commence efforts to remove all foreign soldiers based in the Maldives on the first day in office.
India Out – Will it happen?
Presently India is the only country which has military personnel in Maldives essentially assisting the Maldives National Defence Forces [MNDF] in surveillance of the vast EEZ.
As per the Telegraph, India has 75 military personnel mainly from the Indian Navy in Maldives to operate the Dornier aircraft and two helicopters gifted to Male in 2020 and 2013, respectively.
In the weekly media briefing on October 19, Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs highlighted the contribution of these personnel inn providing maritime tasks and disaster relief. Bagchi said, “Over the last five years, more than 500 medical evacuations have been carried out by our personnel, saving 523 Maldivian lives. Of these, 131 evacuations were carried out this year, another 140 last year, and a further 109 in 2021. Similarly, during the last five years, more than 450 multifaceted missions have been carried out to safeguard the maritime security of Maldives. Of these, 122 missions were carried out last year, while the 152 and 124 missions were undertaken in 2021 and 2020 respectively”.
On the statement of the President elect, Bagchi was more circumspect and said, “We look forward to constructively engaging with the incoming administration and discussing ways to enhance our relationship further”. “Our High Commissioner has met him, and I mentioned that we had a conversation, and we look forward to engaging with the incoming administration on all these issues” he added.
On the conversation with the Indian High Commissioner President Elect Muizzu said, "I have actually met with the Indian high commissioner few days ago during the transition period and during that meeting itself, I had mentioned that we need this to be our top most priority. They have positively noted that and have said that they will work together with us to find a way forward on this," said Muizzu, when asked about his promise to remove Indian troops as reported by Sun online.
The demand for removal of Indian troops from Maldives is not new, almost five years ago, former President Abdulla Yameen had also made a similar request to India in the last few years of his tenure when his hold over power had become shaky and he had indulged in some gerrymandering in cahoots with the judiciary.
India had snubbed Yameen and the people of Maldives had gone with the Indian snub voting him out of power. This time around with a five year tenure ahead of the new President how New Delhi tackles the issue remains to be seen but removal of Indian military personnel is not contemplated for now.
Apart from domestic pressure of the coalition China and Pakistan will also be looking at departure of Indian troops from Maldives and will be exercising pressure on President elect Muizzu when he takes over.
With the substantial assistance that has been provided by the Indian contingent located in the country as outlined by the MEA official spokesperson it may not be in the interest of Maldives to have these removed.
Moreover, the MDP though having lost the Presidential elections is in majority in the parliament despite the split in the party. A parliamentary resolution seeking adequate capacity for ensuring safety and security of citizens and the maritime sphere may be one option without mentioning the Indian presence.
There will be clarity only after Muizzu takes over on November 17.
But it is amply clear that India In will be in the interest of the people of Maldives and not India Out as 46.2 percent people in Maldives voted for incumbent President Ibu Solih, indicating their preference for continued Indian presence in the atoll nation.