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Opinion

Maldives Election: What Now for Civil Society?

Credit: Mohamed Afrah/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Oct 12 2023 (IPS) - Ahead of the presidential election, Solih faced accusations of irregularities in his party’s primary vote, in which he defeated former president Mohamed Nasheed. The Electoral Commission was accused of making it harder for rival parties to stand, including the Democrats, a breakaway party Naheed formed after the primary vote. The ruling party also appeared to be instrumentalising public media and state resources in its favour. Solih’s political alliances with conservative religious parties were in the spotlight, including with the Adhaalath Party, which has taken an increasingly intolerant stance on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.

Big beasts battle for influence

If the two candidates seemed similar in their attitudes towards civil society, they stood on opposite sides of a geopolitical divide. In recent years Maldives, a chain of small Indian Ocean islands with a population of around half a million, has become a major site of contestation in the battle for supremacy between China and India. The location is seen as strategic, not least for control of shipping routes, vital for the transport of oil from the Gulf to China.

 

Civic space under pressure

Solih quickly conceded defeat and thanked voters for playing their part in a democratic and peaceful process. It’s far from rare for incumbents to lose in Maldives: there’s been a change at every election since the first multiparty vote in 2008. But there are concerns that Muizzu will follow the same course as former president Abdulla Yameen, leader of his party, the People’s National Congress.

Yameen, in office from 2013 to 2018, wanted to run again, but the Supreme Court barred him because he’s serving an 11-year jail sentence for corruption and money-laundering. Critics question the extent to which Muizzu will be his own person or a proxy for Yameen. Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that Yameen has already been moved from jail to house arrest on Muizzu’s request.

The question matters because the human rights situation sharply deteriorated under Yameen’s presidency. The 2018 election was preceded by the declaration of a state of emergency enabling a crackdown on civil society, the media, the judiciary and the political opposition. Judges and politicians were jailed. Protests were routinely banned and violently dispersed. Independent media websites were blocked and journalists subjected to physical attacks.

Ultimately, Yameen was roundly defeated by a united opposition who capitalised on widespread alarm at the state of human rights. Some positive developments followed, including repeal of a criminal defamation law. But many challenges for civil society remained and hopes of significant progress were largely disappointed.

A restrictive protest law stayed in effect and parliament rejected changing it in 2020. Police violence towards protesters continued, as did impunity. Civil society groups were still smeared and vilified if they criticised the government. Activists have been subjected to smears, harassment, threats and violence from hardline conservative religious groups. Women’s rights activists have been particularly targeted.

In 2019, a prominent civil society organisation, the Maldivian Democracy Group, was deregistered and had its funds seized following pressure from religious groups after it published a report on violent extremism. It now operates from exile.

Ahead of the presidential election, Solih faced accusations of irregularities in his party’s primary vote, in which he defeated former president Mohamed Nasheed. The Electoral Commission was accused of making it harder for rival parties to stand, including the Democrats, a breakaway party Naheed formed after the primary vote. The ruling party also appeared to be instrumentalising public media and state resources in its favour. Solih’s political alliances with conservative religious parties were in the spotlight, including with the Adhaalath Party, which has taken an increasingly intolerant stance on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.

Big beasts battle for influence

If the two candidates seemed similar in their attitudes towards civil society, they stood on opposite sides of a geopolitical divide. In recent years Maldives, a chain of small Indian Ocean islands with a population of around half a million, has become a major site of contestation in the battle for supremacy between China and India. The location is seen as strategic, not least for control of shipping routes, vital for the transport of oil from the Gulf to China.

India has historically had close connections with Maldives, something strongly supported by Solih. But Muizzu, like his predecessor Yameen, seems firmly in the China camp. Under Yameen, Maldives was a recipient of Chinese support to develop infrastructure under its Belt and Road Initiative, epitomised in the 1.4 km China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.

India has come to be a big issue in Maldivian politics. Under Solih, India established a small military presence in Maldives, mostly involved in providing air support for medical evacuations from isolated islands. But the development of a new India-funded harbour prompted accusations that the government was secretly planning to give India’s military a permanent base.

This sparked opposition protests calling for the Indian military to be expelled. Protests faced heavy restriction, with many protesters arrested. In 2022, Solih issued a decree deeming the protests a threat to national security and ordering them to stop. This high-handed move only further legitimised protesters’ grievances.

Muizzu’s campaign sought to centre the debate on foreign interference and Maldives’ sovereignty. He used his victory rally to reiterate his promise that foreign soldiers will be expelled.

In practice, the new administration is likely to mean a change of emphasis rather than an absolute switch. Maldives will still need to trade with both much bigger economies and likely look to play them off against each other, while India will seek to maintain relations, hoping that the political pendulum will swing its way again.

Time to break with the past

International relations were far from the only issue. Economic strife and the high cost of living – a common issue in recent elections around the world – was a major concern. And some people likely switched votes out of unhappiness with Solih’s failure to fulfil his 2018 promises to challenge impunity for killings by extremists and make inroads on corruption, and to open up civic space.

Neither India, where civic freedoms are deteriorating, nor China, which stamps down on all forms of dissent, will have any interest in whether the Maldives government respects the space for civil society. But there’s surely an opportunity here for Muizzu to prove he’ll stand on his own feet by breaking with both the dismal human rights approach of Yameen and the increasingly compromised positions of Solih. He can carve out his own direction by committing to respecting and working with civil society, including by letting it scrutinise and give feedback on the big development decisions he may soon be taking in concert with China.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

 


  
 
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