Maldives on edge after bitterly fought presidential primary

Ruling party says President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the vote, but his rival has alleged fraud and is yet to concede.

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih greets supporters after claiming victory in the ruling party primary [Courtesy of Munshid Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

The Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been declared the winner of a contentious presidential primary, but his rival has alleged voter fraud and has yet to concede the vote, heightening political uncertainty in the popular Indian Ocean tourist destination.

The governing Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said on Sunday that Solih won the closely fought primary election with 61 percent of the vote and that his opponent Mohamed Nasheed had obtained 39 percent. The poll – held on Saturday – was tense with at least five people arrested for disrupting voting and brawls breaking out between rival factions at several polling stations.

The outcome was a blow for Nasheed, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 and was the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader. The 55-year-old had been hoping for a comeback after a “terrorism” conviction that was widely seen as politically motivated prevented him from running in the last presidential election.

Solih, who had won the 2018 vote after contesting in Nasheed’s stead, appealed for unity.

Speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters in the capital, Male’, the 60-year-old said, “our rivalry is now over”.

“Now is the time to unite and work together to win the upcoming presidential election for the MDP,” he said.

The national election is set to take place in September.

Nasheed’s campaign, however, said it was “still examining the results”.

In a short statement issued late on Saturday, the campaign alleged fraud, saying: “We are noticing that Nasheed is ahead in most of the ballot boxes, and his opponent is leading because of a few boxes where an extraordinary amount of votes have been cast.”

Hours earlier, Nasheed’s spokesperson, Hassan Latheef, had claimed their exit polls were showing that the former president would win 64 percent of the vote. “Nasheed has won this election,” he wrote on Twitter.

Maldives's former President Mohamed Nasheed
The Maldives’ former President Mohamed Nasheed at a primary campaign rally in Male on January 26, 2023 [File: Fayaz Moosa/ Mihaaru via Al Jazeera]

Fraud claims

The dispute has prompted worries about a split of the Maldives’s biggest party, one that Nasheed co-founded and that has led a decades-long campaign for democracy in the Maldives. It has also raised concerns of new turmoil in the island nation of half a million people, four years after Maldivians voted out former President Abdulla Yameen, who had overseen a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, including by jailing or forcing into exile nearly all of his political opponents.

Nasheed and Solih, childhood friends who stood together against Yameen, fell out amid the campaign to topple the autocratic leader.

Their rivalry began in 2018, when the MDP’s top decision-making body voted to transfer the party’s presidential ticket from Nasheed to Solih. At the time, Nasheed – whose first stint in power had been cut short by a military mutiny and who had been sentenced to 13 years in jail on a trumped-up charge of “terrorism” – was living in exile.

He reluctantly acquiesced to Solih’s candidacy, and the veteran legislator went on to defeat Yameen by a landslide.

Nasheed returned home to a hero’s welcome and won election as parliament speaker.

But he soon parted ways with the president, accusing him of inaction on corruption and violent groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).

Solih refutes this and claims he has brought “peace and stability” and “unparalleled development” to the Maldives after decades of turmoil.

Ahead of Saturday’s vote, Nasheed’s campaign had warned supporters to be vigilant of attempts to rig the poll.

And on the day itself, the speaker’s supporters disrupted voting at several polling stations, accusing Solih’s representatives of stuffing ballot boxes. The allegations resulted in fistfights at four polling stations, with people on the island of Gadhdhoo in southern Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll damaging the ballot box and tearing up some ballots. The brawl prompted voting to be suspended briefly.

A similar fight took place on the island of Thinadhoo in the same atoll.

Videos posted on Twitter show a group of men shouting and kicking as they wrested for control of the ballot box.

Voting was also suspended on that island for several hours.

The MDP election committee, however, insists the vote was “very successful”.

Ibrahim Waheed, the chair of the committee, told reporters on Sunday that disruptions occurred at only a handful of the 245 polling stations. The committee had received 50 complaints about the vote, he said, assuring that there had been no instances of “double voting”.

He added that 70 percent of some 57,225 eligible voters had turned out to cast their ballots.

‘Great uncertainty’

Nasheed’s supporters have rejected the assurances.

“This primary was stolen. The support for [Nasheed] is clear here,” wrote Twitter user @Mujookeynee, posting a picture of one of the former president’s well-attended campaign rallies in Male.

“Election was rigged… #Anni2023 is still on,” wrote Twitter user @HKurusee, referring to Nasheed by his nickname.

Solih’s supporters meanwhile said the president had won fair and square, on the back of a record of delivering on infrastructure projects, including providing safe drinking water in the Maldives’ dispersed islands. They also pointed to his policy of free university education and his successful steering of the tourism-dependent economy through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moosa Latheef, editor at the Dhauru news website, said it was unlikely that Nasheed could have won Saturday’s vote, given the wide margin.

“Nasheed’s refusal to concede does not bode well for our nascent democracy,” Latheef said.

“We are heading into a period of great uncertainty.”

The options open to Nasheed include setting up a new party altogether or deciding to contest the presidential election as an independent candidate. On the other hand, he could also try to leverage concessions from Solih in exchange for backing the president in the upcoming election. These could include promises to allocate certain cabinet portfolios to the speaker’s faction or a pledge to hold a referendum on switching the country’s system of governance from from a presidential to a parliamentary system.

“It’s very hard to predict what Nasheed might do,” Latheef said.

Source: Al Jazeera