NEW YORK (September 25, 2018) — On Sunday, in a surprising turn of events, the Maldives’ authoritarian President Abdulla Yameen Gayoom lost a bid to secure a second term, despite his administration’s efforts to rig the electoral process in his favor. The government-controlled Election Commission of the Maldives announced that the leading opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, won with over 58% of the vote, with a turnout of almost 90% among eligible voters. The election season was marked by a months-long crackdown on members of the opposition, state-sponsored muzzling of the media, and arbitrary changes to the vote-counting rules that caused significant concerns over vote verification. Despite these irregularities, Yameen conceded defeat yesterday.
“This weekend, Maldivians have clearly and loudly rejected Yameen’s authoritarian rule at the ballot box. The Maldives experienced democracy for a brief period before its democratically-elected leader Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in 2012 — but it’s clear that Maldivians did not forget the value of democracy in the years since the coup,” said Roberto González, international legal associate at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF). “Today, Mr. Solih has the opportunity to be on the right side of history, to disconnect the country from its autocratic past, and to work toward democracy and liberty.”
In 1965, the Maldives achieved independence after 78 years as a British protectorate, and in 1968, replaced its centuries-old sultanate with a republican system. Amir Ibrahim Nasir, who had served as prime minister since 1957, and later signed the independence agreement with Britain, became the Maldives’ first president in 1968. In 1978, the People’s Majlis — the Maldives’ unicameral parliament — selected Maumoon Abdul Gayoom as Nasir’s successor. For the next 30 years, Maumoon Gayoom ruled the atoll nation with an iron fist, remaining in power through a tightly controlled system of presidential referendums that did not allow for free and fair elections.
In 2008, the Maldives carried out its first free and fair elections in 30 years. Mohamed Nasheed, from the Maldivian Democratic Party, won the election. After his inauguration, Nasheed embarked on an anti-corruption campaign against members of the government of former President Maumoon Gayoom. Soon after, Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint. Following Nasheed’s ouster, Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan took power, and after several failed attempts and repeated interference by the Supreme Court, elections were held in November 2013. Abdulla Yameen Gayoom — the half-brother of dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — prevailed over Nasheed by a small margin. Local and international observers declared the elections free and fair, and Nasheed conceded defeat.
HRF categorizes the government in the Maldives as a competitive authoritarian regime, under which the opposition is technically allowed to organize and run for office, but is not able to do so on an even playing field. This weekend’s election was neither free nor fair, and the campaign period was marked by violations of citizens’ civil and political rights. The Maldivian Democratic Party was able to defy the odds and secure an unlikely victory, but much work remains to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy in the country.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.