As the Maldives gears up for the decisive second round of its presidential election scheduled for 30 September, the nation finds itself at a critical crossroads, both internally and within the larger geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean. 

With none of the candidates securing an outright majority in the first round, the political parties are scrambling to form coalitions, with an eye on electoral arithmetic as well as ideological compatibilities.

The Key Players

Incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is up against Dr Mohamed Muizzu of the main opposition PPM-PNC coalition. The provisional results showed Muizzu leading with 46% of the votes, while Solih trailed at 39%. Ilyas Labeeb, a former MDP legislator and the candidate of The Democrats, won 7% of the votes, while various smaller parties and independent candidates made up the remainder.

The Quest for Coalitions

President Solih has expressed optimism about forming new alliances ahead of the runoff. In a recent interview, he revealed that negotiations were underway with parties that did not make it to the second round and expected “two or three” to join the MDP coalition. 

However, the path is fraught with complexities. MDP Chairperson Fayyaz Ismail has acknowledged discussions with former President Mohamed Nasheed, who now leads The Democrats, about potentially supporting Solih. But Nasheed has previously shown indirect approval of a coalition with Muizzu, raising questions about his final stance.

A Divided House

The Democrats’ candidate, Ilyas Labeeb, could be in a power position, given that the party won a substantial 7% of the vote. Whether Labeeb will side with his former party, the MDP, or swing towards Muizzu remains an unanswered question. Nasheed’s ambiguous statements add to further uncertainty.

The Underlying Concerns

One significant concern is the alleged ties between Muizzu and the religious “extremist” organisation, Jamiyyat al-Salaf, a claim both Muizzu and the PPM-PNC coalition have denied. Supporters of both the MDP and The Democrats are concerned about the potential rise of religious extremism should Muizzu come to power, a sentiment that President Solih could capitalise on in rallying support.

Geopolitical Significance

Beyond domestic considerations, this election holds significant geopolitical weight. The Maldives, often considered an idyllic honeymoon destination, is a focal point in the battle for influence between India and China. The election outcome could sway the balance of power in this strategically important Indian Ocean nation.

One of the key reasons for Muizzu’s support was their strong campaign against MDP’s “India First” policy. President Solih in an interview to a local broadcaster on Monday acknowledged that addressing the misinformation surrounding Indian military presence in the Maldives was a key factor that contributed to his loss. 

PPM which ran an Eastward first foreign policy aligning closely with China was met with harsh criticism from MDP when they were in power. MDP noted that PPM’s heavy borrowing from China for mega infrastructure projects left the state in a debt-trap.

Low Voter Turnout: A Wake-up Call

The first round saw a record low voter turnout of 79%, which President Solih attributes to administrative errors and negligence. He admitted to “a lot of mistakes” in the first round and cited the low turnout as one of the significant issues that his party needs to address.