An autocrat goes down in the Maldives

I hadn’t bothered to write a preview of yesterday’s presidential election in the Maldives, because it seemed like a foregone conclusion. Not so.

In a stunning victory for democracy, opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has comfortably beaten incumbent president Abdulla Yameen, 58.3% to 41.7% – a margin of about 37,000 votes.

To see why this is such a surprise, you need some background. The Maldives were ruled as a dictatorship for 30 years under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Finally forced to concede democratic reforms in 2008, Gayoom was defeated by Mohamed Nasheed, of the Maldivian Democratic Party.

But the country’s ruling elite wasn’t giving in without a fight. Nasheed’s presidency was tumultuous, and in 2012 he resigned in disputed circumstances. Elections the following year became farcical, with the courts and the police intervening several times; the result was a dubious victory for Yameen, who was Gayoom’s half-brother.

During the course of his term Yameen became increasingly authoritarian. Nasheed was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to 13 years in prison (he was subsequently granted asylum in the UK); many other opponents of the government were also jailed, including a number of former allies such as vice-president Ahmed Adeeb and former president Gayoom.

Things came to a head earlier this year when the Maldives Supreme Court annulled Nasheed’s conviction and reinstated opposition MPs who had been deprived of their seats. Yameen responded by declaring a state of emergency and arresting several judges.

So with all sources of dissent apparently eliminated, there was little reason to expect a fair election to be held. But Yameen may have been overconfident and decided that overt ballot-stuffing was unnecessary. That turned out to be a mistake.

After Nasheed was ruled ineligible to run again, the MDP chose Solih, a veteran opposition MP, as its candidate. Reports say he is respected on all sides; he’ll need to be if he’s to establish Maldivian democracy on solid foundations.

There is much to be done. Solih will aim to reorient foreign policy towards traditional ally India and away from Yameen’s embrace of China. He will also need to rebuild bridges with the west, curb the influence of Islamic fundamentalism, and prioritise action on climate change, which Nasheed had pioneered before his ouster.

But for now, voters in the Maldives have dealt a body blow to autocracy. In a time when democracy seems under siege around the world, it’s good to be reminded that not all the news is bad.

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