Ibrahim Solih Wins Maldivian Ruling Party’s Presidential Primary Election amidst the Intra-Party Differences

By Dr Gulbin Sultana The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)- the ruling party of the Maldives- held its presidential primary on 28 January 2023 to elect its candidate for the upcoming Presidential elections scheduled on 9 September 2023. The two main leaders of the MDP- Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (the current President of the Republic of Maldives) […]

President Ibrahim Solih, presidential primary election, Maldivian Democratic Party,
President Ibrahim Solih, (File/Reuters)

By Dr Gulbin Sultana

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)- the ruling party of the Maldives- held its presidential primary on 28 January 2023 to elect its candidate for the upcoming Presidential elections scheduled on 9 September 2023. The two main leaders of the MDP- Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (the current President of the Republic of Maldives) and Mohamed Nasheed (current Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament and former President) contested for the party’s presidential ticket. Out of the 57,257 eligible voters, 30,000 people cast their votes of which 61percent voted for Solih and 39 percent voted for Nasheed.

Maldivian media termed the landslide victory of Ibrahim Solih in the presidential primary election as a “history-changing event for the MDP”. Mohamed Nasheed has reigned over the party as the prime leader since the foundation of the party in 2003.No one could ever challenge and win against Mohamed Nasheed within the party until yesterday’s election.

Nasheed was elected unopposed in the 2018 presidential primary even though he was in exile at that time. But the then election commission declared him ineligible to contest the 2018 Presidential election as he was convicted of a terrorism charge by a criminal court and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2015, and the Abdulla Yameen administration refused to accept the Supreme Court’s ruling to release Nasheed in February 2018. Nasheed, therefore, renounced his party ticket and urged it to choose a replacement candidate.

Accordingly, MDP’s governing statutes were amended to authorise either the party congress or national council to appoint a replacement. MDP’s congress then unanimously nominated Ibrahim Solih, the party’s Parliamentary group leader since 2011 and a friend and relative of Mohamed Nasheed to contest the Presidential election in September 2018.

However, differences between the two leaders on various policy matters and issues of national concerns came up after Solih won the 2018 Presidential elections on MDP’s ticket and with the support of three other political parties- Adhaalath Party (AP), Jumhooree Party (JP) and Maldives Reform Movement (MRM). The main issue of contention between the two leaders is the change of the system of governance from the Presidential to a Parliamentary one. Reportedly, Nasheed through a text message asked President Solih to dissolve the government and cancel the presidential election due in 2023 and change the system into a parliamentary one. He also apparently, suggested bringing about the changes in February 2023 and allowing the parliament to run the country until the next parliamentary elections in 2024.President Solih, however, refused to take any decision on the same and said that changes can be brought in only by the people’s votes and that he was not contemplating conducting such an exercise at this point. Reacting to the response of Solih, Nasheed accused the President of getting influenced by the coalition partners and ignoring his own party’s agenda and manifesto.

Nasheed became more vocal against Ibrahim Solih’s Presidency after the 6 May 2021terrorist attack on him. He questioned the Solih administration’s efficiency and seriousness to deal with the issue of radicalisation and violent extremism, corruption, and financial management of the country, particularly the debt management issue. Mohamed Nasheed accused Solih of compromising MDP’s principles, values, and reputation. The former president stated in front of the media that MDP would never be able to win elections under the leadership of Ibrahim Solih and therefore, he should not contest the Presidential elections. But President Solih, who claimed the majority support of the party members, made it clear that he would contest for the second term on MDP’s ticket. Therefore, Mohamed Nasheed decided to contest for the party’s presidential primary believing that the majority within the party is with him.

Throughout the election campaign for the presidential primary, Mohamed Nasheed blamed Solih and his loyalists for amending and tempering the party membership registry and thereby dismembering around 39000 voters who were considered loyalists of Mohamed Nasheed. Solih was also accused of using government influence and resources to influence the outcome of the vote.

Reacting to these allegations, President Solih said, “MDP was founded on the sacrifices of many, and does not belong to any single person”. Indirectly accusing Nasheed, Solih in one of the campaign meetings stated that “throwing allegations at people who sacrificed for the MDP, just to push the agenda of a specific person, will not benefit the party or the accuser.”

In this backdrop of political mudslinging between the two factions, MDP held a contentious presidential primary election as there were allegations of rigging, clashes between the supporters of opponent groups, and mismanagement in some of the polling booths on the election day. Several people were arrested by the police too.  Mohamed Nasheed alleged of twisting the vote and some of his loyalists refused to accept the outcome of the elections.

Ibrahim Solih, post his victory on 28 January, invited Nasheed to forget all hostilities and join hands to work together as one to win the presidential election. He urged the two factions within the party to slow down in their internal competition and work together as they have a “common ideology and common purpose of bringing peace and unity to the Maldives.” It is to see how Nasheed reacts to Solih’s olive branch extended to him.

Nonetheless, it will not be surprising if Mohamed Nasheed decides to part ways with Solih and his loyalists and forms an alliance with other parties. There were occasions in the past when he hinted at the possibility of ending the political relationship with Ibrahim Solih and joining hands with the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) led by former President Abdulla Yameen. During the presidential primary election campaign, Mohamed Nasheed praised the former President as more efficient than Ibrahim Solih. Ideologically Nasheed and Solih’s MDP and Yameen’s PPM are poles apart. Interestingly, however, Mohamed Nasheed during his campaign stated that the only difference of opinion between Yameen and PPM, and him, was the idea of “India Out ”.

PPM in the past refused to join hands with Nasheed. However, following the conviction of Abdulla Yameen and sentence to imprisonment for 11 years on corruption and money laundering charges by the Maldives criminal court, the party is indecisive about its candidature for the upcoming Presidential elections. The PPM is right now focusing on the process to appeal the conviction of the criminal court in the high court. PPM is also trying to gain international support to put pressure on the Solih government to release Yameen from prison. In such circumstances, a new electoral alliance between Nasheed and PPM cannot be ruled out.

Given the anger and frustration expressed by the loyalists of Mohamed Nasheed on the outcome of yesterday’s party primary, it is unlikely that the intra-party issues are going to simmer down anytime soon. The internal problems in the MDP are likely to unfold several dynamics in the domestic politics of the Maldives before the forthcoming Presidential elections. India needs to closely monitor the domestic political developments in the Maldives in the coming months as the impact of the same would be felt in the bilateral relations between the two neighbours.

The author is Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA).

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First published on: 29-01-2023 at 17:26 IST