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Maldives: Stability Concerns Post Presidential Transition

Internal political support, a breakup with his main benefactor, lack of majority support of the parliament, rift with India and debt trap awaits a crown of thorns for the new Maldives President.

Dr Mohamed Muizzu, an engineer-turned-politician, took oath as the eighth President of the Maldives at a ceremony attended by a multitude of foreign dignitaries, including India's Union Minister Kiren Rijiju on November 17 as per schedule.

The transfer of power of the President was smooth as the incumbent President Ibu Solih accepted the result of the polls and assured Muizzu of facilitating the same. This ensured that there were minimum hiccups in the new President taking over with a transitional team coordinating between the two sides.

Days after Dr Muizzu’s take over of the Presidency however there are several concerns over stability in the geopolitically sensitive atoll nation.

Internal Political Challenges

Within a few days of his taking over the coalition which supported Muizzu to win power was split. Former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom left the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) after accusing the leaderships of PPM and its coalition partner People’s National Congress (PNC) – a party which Dr. Muizzu now heads – as well as the government, of sidelining him.

The conflict within the PPM-PNC coalition saw the faction loyal to former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom demanding the incumbent’s resignation. “He failed to free President Yameen in his first day [in office]. He forgot the empty chair he used to get elected. Dr.Muizzu’s administration has lost its legitimacy. I demand Dr.Muizzu’s immediate resignation,” he wrote.

He referred to the empty chair with Yameen’s nametag which was kept in the front line in all of President Muizzu’s campaign rallies. He stopped keeping an empty chair for Yameen after winning the election”.

The main contention appears to be judicial relief to former President Yameen who is facing a long sentence for money laundering but is out on parole. Yameen possibly expected Muizzu to release him though the president does not have any powers to do so.

Elections Commission (EC)’s Chairperson Fuad Thaufeeq granted approval to form People’s National Front (PNF), the new political party spearheaded by Gayyoom with Yameen’s son, Zain Abdulla Yameen as its founder.

President Muizzu in a press briefing to share key decisions made during a cabinet meeting on December 05 when questioned regarding rumors of differences between him and Yameen – the former leader of the PPM-PNC coalition downplayed the rift and said that he was willing to work with anyone who prioritizes national interests.

Dr. Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, former Maldivian vice president and Yameen’s top attorney claimed that President Muizzu hadn’t responded to a single phone call from Yameen since winning the September election.

How the differences pan out remain to be seen for while presently the PPM PNC coalition is behind the President a parliamentary election is scheduled in late March or early April next year. Presently the PPM PNC coalition is in a minority in the parliament and in the Presidential system, cooperation between the two institutions is essential for smooth functioning of the government. The Maldives Democratic Party [MDP] holds a majority in the parliament and despite the split by the former Speaker and President Mohammad Nasheed who formed the Democrat it continues to remain popular.

In case the newly formed PMF of Yameen pulls away votes from the PPM PNC headed now by the President, the party may end up with low numbers and a state of permanent contest with the parliament in his tenure.

The conflict with the speaker and deputy speaker of the parliament which arose after a no confidence motion was submitted by the MDP against Nasheed has been resolved for now with both resigning and their reliefs taking over.

Rift with India

Bucking past trends as well as strategic rationale, President Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, choose Turkey for the first official visit. In the past Presidents have made the first visit to India the closest partner with long standing ties. But having won on the powerful appeal of India Out, Muizzu has played safe and avoided visiting New Delhi first.

Speaking to the press at Velana International Airport (VIA) on December 03 after returning from his maiden trip abroad since assuming office – President Muizzu said his government, the day after assuming office, officially requested to withdraw the Indian troops. He assured that the decision will not change in the future. “It is not a remark made during the campaign to secure votes. Because I am a Maldivian, I wish to put forward Maldivian citizens and the interests of the nation. Maldivians come to me first,” he said.

“During all efforts undertaken before this and efforts undertaken to date, the Indian government has come to an agreement with us to withdraw the troops,” he added. 

This comes after President Muizzu met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Twenty-Eighth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in Dubai, UAE.

President said PM Modi conveyed that he respected the democratic decision made by the Maldivian people.

It is not clear if the agreement has been reached during talks with the Prime Minister or with the officials earlier as India has been reluctant to pull out troops from Maldives given the significance of these for provision of assistance in surveillance of EEZ of the Maldives and also for HADR [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief].

There are differences over the exact number of Indian troops with some reports indicating the number to be 77 essentially to look after the naval assets for surveillance.      24 personnel were to manage the first helicopter, 25 to manage the Dornier aircraft, 26 to manage the second helicopter, and two more for maintenance and engineering.

However, during a press conference held on December 03, President Muizzu said the number of Indian soldiers has now risen to 89, adding there was a chance of the number increasing even further. MDP’s Baarah MP Ahmed Abdulla submitted the emergency motion during the parliamentary sitting seeking more information on the issue.

On the agreements with India by the previous government, a high-level committee has been formed to address difficulties faced in the undertaking of projects initiated by India in the Maldives. “Both nations have agreed to form a high-level committee that can take immediate decisions with respect to projects, including the biggest project which is the bridge project proceeding near Male’, alongside situations arising concerning loans and other national crises,” he said. India Ministry of External Affairs indicated that a “core group,” is being formed for the purpose.

As the Indian Ministry of External Affairs highlights, Maldives’ proximity to the west coast of India (barely 70 nautical miles away from Minicoy and 300 nautical miles away from India’s West coast), and its situation at the hub of commercial sea lanes running through the Indian Ocean imbues it with significant strategic importance to India.

In turn this is the reason for Chinese influence in the atoll nation to ensure that there is a degree of control over the sea lanes by regimes that are favourable to it. Muizzu's election success in September hinged on a sustained campaign against India's outsized political and economic clout in the Maldives, and specifically his pledge to eject Indian forces.

Interestingly, while Dr Muizzu avoided the first trip to India, his Vice President and Economic Affairs Minister is already in China. Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef is scheduled to address the ‘China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation' organized by the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) in Kunming, Yunnan Province in China being held on December 07 and 08. He is accompanied by Economic Minister Mohamed Saeed on this trip. So much for President Muizzu’s claim of being neutral and keeping Maldives interests first – not siding with India and China.

The Economy

The World Bank warned that the Maldives faces significant fiscal challenges, having failed to achieve its targets to reduce fiscal deficits, the national debt is projected to hover above 115 percent of GDP over the medium term. It its latest Maldives Development Update, Batten Down the Hatches, the World Bank said Maldives faces significant economic risks from rising spending, high debt and external shocks, despite a projected 6.5 percent growth in real GDP in 2023, and an average of 5.4 percent from 2024 to 2025.     

Faris H. Hadad-Zervos, the World Bank Country Director for Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, said that while Maldives has shown remarkable resilience and recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, it will need to remain vigilant in the face of new and emerging shocks such as conflicts around the world, price volatilities in global markets, and high inflation affecting the disposable income of people in major tourist markets.

Grim Portends Ahead

While Dr Muizzu is a popularly elected President he was propelled by former President Abdullah Yameen who could not stand for the post himself being disqualified. Yameen’s coalition the PPP PNC’s support was behind the win. With a rift with Yameen, the challenge of political support remains a concern as the opposition MDP is in a majority in the parliament.

A rift with India on the pull out of Indian troops and greater alignment with China will be contra-intuitive strategically for Maldives resulting in another strand of instability.

Tallying up economy is a challenge even though this may be partly inherited.  With a national debt projected to hover above 115 percent of GDP over the medium term, the President could well be inclined to tilt towards China which may result in greater fiscal allegiance with Beijing a “trap,” as many countries in the region as Sri Lanka has realized.



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