Scores of Maldivians gathered at the seafront in capital Male on Friday to participate in their final rally on the eve of the island nation’s parliamentary election.
Waving flags in different hues they walked and rode bikes in groups, swaying to peppy campaign music. The city had closed down for the weekend and Friday prayers, but hours after lunch, the streets were teeming with people, as if it were a carnival.
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the chief constituent of the ruling coalition, held a final rally where President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is running for a seat in Male this election, shared centre stage, flanked by other candidates and prominent party members.
Speaking at recent poll rallies, President Solih has slammed his predecessor Abdulla Yameen’s administration for “widespread corruption”. The MDP, which led an eclectic coalition in 2018 and dislodged Mr. Yameen from power, is hoping to garner a parliamentary majority in Saturday’s polls to push the reform agenda it promised through the legislature. “People of the Maldives are very keen to see that democracy survives here. They made sure that President Yameen is no more in power, and I am sure very confident that they are going to follow it through [in this poll] and make sure we have a majority in parliament,” Mr. Nasheed told The Hindu, after the rally.
Given the former President’s earlier proposal on the Maldives shifting to a parliamentary system, his possible entry into Parliament is said to have made some coalition partners in the ruling alliance uneasy, political sources here said.
The MDP’s decision to go it alone further exposed the fissures within the alliance. Amid growing tensions within, President Solih is widely credited with holding much of the coalition together — except for the Speaker and leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP) Qasim Ibrahim, who has reportedly veered towards Mr. Yameen recently.
The main opposition force is Mr. Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), but the party’s pre-poll activity was noticeably subdued. Its candidates are contesting in some two dozen seats out of the total 87, and the party is backing select independent candidates in other constituencies.
Following Mr. Yameen’s arrest in February for alleged corruption — he was released last week — and a court order freezing his bank accounts until recently, party members complained about being denied access to their leader and party funds. After his release, Mr. Yameen made no public appearance on an election platform, but has addressed supporters at rallies over telephone, played over speakers.
Over 2.6 lakh persons are eligible to vote in Saturday’s elections. Voters voiced diverse views, ranging from hope to cynicism, on the eve of the polls.
“We have not seen leaders deliver in the past, so many people have lost interest and faith in the polls,” said Ajmed Sajid, a Male-based businessman. “For the moneyed class, the polls are invariably about backing a family member. There is no wider solidarity around issues or principles,” he said.
With a nearly-4,00,000 population, the Maldives is home to a close-knit community where familial ties, business interests and political loyalties overlap. There are no clear election issues this time, say many, but housing has emerged a key talking point for many candidates. If capital Male is confronted with massive congestion, the atolls just do not have enough housing units for the people. Rent in Male has soared in recent years and according to residents, it is impossible to find a small, two-bedroom apartment in Male for anything less than $1,200-$1,500 a month.
For voters like Asif Hussain, who owns a souvenir store, the election is an important opportunity to back a party that is “not corrupt” and whose leaders can be trusted. “This government has good relations with India. That’s important for many Maldivians like me,” he said.
However, narratives around the India-China geopolitical contest here, or democracy and authoritarianism maybe confined to small circles in capital Male, a young voter said. “Most people don’t care if India or China has influence here or not. Many of us, especially islanders [as Maldivians refer to those living in the surrounding atolls] have very basic needs like housing, a sewer network, access to education and healthcare,” she said, requesting not to be named.
“This being only the third ever multi-party parliamentary election the country has seen, it is hard to say how national and local issues may impact voter behaviour, we have to wait and watch,” said Ahmed Naaif of the Maldivian Democracy Network, an NGO working on human rights.