New Maldives president a reformer who must hold together diverse coalition

MALE (Reuters) - Veteran Maldives lawmaker Ibrahim Mohamed Solih overcame the detention and exile of key opposition figures to win a weekend presidential poll and unseat incumbent Abdulla Yameen, but now faces the task of holding together a disparate coalition.

Maldivian joint opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih speaks to the media at the end of the presidential election day in Male, Maldives September 23, 2018. REUTERS/Ashwa Faheem

The Maldives, a string of palm-fringed islands and atolls 325 miles (523 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of India, is best known as a luxury holiday destination.

But the Muslim nation of fewer than half a million has suffered a turbulent transition to democracy since the end of three decades of authoritarian rule in 2008.

The victory of Solih, who is known as a reformer, dislodges Yameen, a hardliner who had cultivated ties with both Beijing and Saudi Arabia, and cracked down on threats to his rule, even jailing his own half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

But Solih, who is expected to be sworn in on November 17, must now keep together a coalition that includes two fierce rivals, Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed, both former presidents.

Also part of the unlikely alliance, held together by a pro-Islam religious agenda, are business tycoon Qasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party and the Islamist Adhaalath Party, which formed a coalition that led to the downfall of Gayoon in 2013.

“For the president-elect, ensuring a smooth transition and then selecting an all-acceptable, multi-party Cabinet would be the first priority,” said N Sathiya Moorthy, an analyst at Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation.

“He would have to facilitate the return home of both Nasheed and Qasim Ibrahim, who are in self-exile.”

(GRAPHIC: Maldives election results -


The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) nominated Solih, popularly known as “Ibu”, as its presidential candidate after the Elections Commission barred Nasheed, now in exile in Sri Lanka, from standing.

Many key opposition leaders, two former presidents Gayoom and Nasheed, a vice president and scores of ministers were hit with jail terms after swift trials that drew international criticism.

Solih has been in the opposition since he first entered parliament, known as the People’s Majlis, in 1994, except for a two-year spell under Nasheed, before the latter was ousted amid a police mutiny.

A close confidant of the former president and married to one of his cousins, Solih played a leading role in forming the Maldives Political Reform Movement from 2003 until 2008, which culminated in the adoption of a new constitution.

He was also part of the special parliament set up under Gayoom, who ruled the tropical islands for three decades until 2008, to write a new modern constitution for a multi-party democracy. He has led the opposition in parliament since 2011.

He led the MDP during protests in March 2015 after Nasheed’s arrest for alleged terror offences, charges the opposition called politically motivated.

Friends say Solih has a calm temperament, and is likely to champion democracy and freedom of expression.

He has already said he will seek to free all political prisoners, including Gayoom. He also wants to rework or scrap deals not made in the best interests of the Maldives, as well as restore ties with India, which could, in turn, strain relations with Beijing.

Reporting by Mohamed Junayd in MALE and Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez