Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 21, 2020
Maldives: Development & decentralisation, MDP’s plank for Island-council polls?

With the political Opposition in disarray and the ruling MDP of President Ibrahim Solih is having a high two-thirds majority in Parliament, ensuring political stability. Maldives might have become inward looking in other ways, making economy, development and the Government’s decentralisation initiatives becoming the main electoral issues for the country-wide Island and atoll council polls, slated for 4 April.

The question is not about the MDP retaining its successive hold from the presidential and parliamentary poll victories of the past two years, but is also a sort of a mid-term referendum of sorts on President Solih’s two-year old Government. MDP is not leaving any stone unturned and party chief Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, a former President and the present Speaker of the Parliament, has taken charge of the island-poll campaign.

Months ahead of the polls, a World Bank report, namely, the first Economic Prospectus has stated that while tourism thrived in 2019, Maldivian economy as a whole declined. As per the report, the growth rate was 5.2 percent last year, which was lesser than earlier projections, what with construction industry especially facing a downtrend.

Though the World Bank has put the current year’s projections at a relatively low 5.5-5.6 percent, the Finance Ministry and the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA), the nation’s central bank have pegged the figure at a much higher 7.5 percent. While it is still the first month of the current fiscal to know what the year holds for Maldivian economy, the Government can breathe easy with the World Bank report saying that “inflation would be contained at the same level this year”.

Higher reserves

In this context reports about higher forex reserves too should be heartening to the Solih Government and MDP as a whole. Dependent on foreign exchange levels and dollar-rates for islanders to travel overseas for high-end medical care and professional and other streams of university education, any reversal or restriction would immediately capture the imagination of the island population – with adverse effects on the ruling party, especially in an election year.

It was one such year that caught the Nasheed Government almost off-guard after it followed the IMF recommendations on freeing the Maldivian rufayaa rates to the dollar from a ‘controlled environment’. It lead to a sudden shoot up in the exchange rates, as much through the back channel as through the formal, banking routes.

In an interview to web-journal, AWAS, MMA officials have as putting the forex reserves at $ 752 million, over $ 100-m more than the budgeted $ 635 m, a high 18.5 percent, or close to a one-fifth increase. With the actual figures for the previous year in hand, officials have felt encouraged to fix the current year-end figure at $ 863 m, or close to a conservative 15 percent rise, compared to the previous year’s actuals.

Tourism record 

Officials now expect the tourism sector growth to be higher than a good year in 2019, with a projected growth rate of 9.6 percent. They attribute the growth to the development of Velana International Airport, Male, and the opening up of new resorts. They have also estimated a 9.3 percent growth in the infrastructure sector.

The tourism sector growth in the year gone -by means that a record 1.7 m tourists visited the country in 2019. Tourism sector is the single largest contributor to the nation’s economy, with a prevailing share of 30 percent and more – or, a third of it all. In geographical terms, the highest number of 83,304 tourists came from Europe, followed by Asia-Pacific region (705,117), the US (84,793), Middle-East (60,003) and Africa (18,698).

For a single country, China continued to dominate the Maldivian tourism market with a high 16.7 percent of all arrivals in 2019. A record number of tourists also visited from India, Italy, Germany, and the UK, with India recording a 83.5 percent increase, or a total of 166,015 arrivals. All of it has meant that the Government could meet its goal of 1.5 million tourist-arrivals by 24 November, 1.6 million by 15 December and 1.7 million by the year-end.

While all of it could mean more money in the pocket of every Maldivian, the Government’s decision to introduce income-tax for employees from this year, could either way. It is incumbent Solih’s presidential poll plank, among others. Though new law, focussing earlier only on businesses, came into force on 1 January, tax for the salaried class will be levied only from April. With the result, it could become a subject of island poll campaign, as it was during the Nasheed presidency, when an attempt was made in this regard.

Social infrastructure

While the overall macro-economic indicators may work out positively for individual Maldivians in a third-election-year-in a-row, the Solih Government has been focussing on taking civic infrastructure development to individual islands and atolls, going beyond capital Male and other population centres. Even without the incumbent initiatives, civic infrastructure development in the country has received great attention from successive Governments over the four decades of tourism boom and national economic uplift.

The Solih Government has revitalised the process and has launched specific projects for individual islands and atolls by ear-marking project-centric funding from nations, starting with India. This has meant that the projects do not suffer for want of funds halfway through and individual islands stand to benefit from India-funding, for instance, and faster too, with due credit going to the ruling party apart from the funding nation/agency.

It is in this context that the Government’s initiatives on the school education sector becomes important for the ruling Government and party, without they having to politicise it in any which way. With the academic year opening on Sunday, 12 January, the Ministry of Education has come out with the figure of 73,067 students enrolled in the 212 Government schools across the country, of which 150 schools are one-session affairs.

Maldives may be one of the few Third World countries, where people prefer Government schools to private ones. The main concentration of private schools are located in capital Male, where children of expat corporate executives and at times some foreign diplomats also enrol their children for a universally-accepted schooling pattern and model. This includes students of the private schools in the country, making it to 83,000 as per the Education Ministry.

Simultaneously, Deputy Minister for Education, Sharuma Naseer, in a statement, said that the Government had appointed the required number of teachers for all schools, Of the demand for 251 overseas appointees, all but those for six ‘Koran ‘teachers had been met, the statement said —  disproving the commonly-held mistaken global belief that the Sunni-exclusive Islamic nation is steeped in religious orthodoxy and tradition.

Not many ticket-seekers?

What should however worry the MDP leadership is not the divided and dis-spirited Opposition, but increasing perceptions of low cadre-interest in seeking party nomination for the island council polls. According to MDP officials, a total of 1,400 applications have been received for party primaries to select candidates for 980 council seats across the nation – working out to an average of two-minus per seat.

Considering that capital Male and other population centres like Addu, Fvuvamulah and Kulhudufusshi, would have more seat-seekers from the ruling party, the chances of some of the other island council seats not having any party candidate cannot be ruled out entirely, at this stage. If found correct in the final analysis, it could be indicative of a trend that first became visible with only a fourth of the party’s 85,000 registered members showing up to re-elect Nasheed as the party boss for yet another term.


With President Solih and Speaker Nasheed kick-starting their respective poll campaigns since, the Opposition PPM-PNC combine of jailed former President Abdulla Yameen has gone to town, charging the ruling party with misuse of State resources for the ruling party’s campaign for the ‘local council elections’ (LCE). Though there is no clarity yet on their poll strategy after the twin-defeats in the presidential and parliamentary polls, the combine leaders, in a statement, cautioned the voters against what they called the MDP’s unfulfillable poll promises.

In a specific reference to the Solih Government’s ‘decentralisation’ law, aimed at conferring more powers on the island councils, Nasheed, in his campaign speeches, has been stressing that the Yameen leadership and also his combine were unfamiliar to the very concept. Electing them to the island councils could only ‘create injustice’, instead.

It remains to be seen if the new scheme would work on the ground, as it requires a lot more shepherding at all levels. The authors of the scheme don’t have any functional experience  of the matter, but  just academic and observatory  knowledge,  comprising larger European nations with an altogether different set up.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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