Opposition leader wins Maldives presidency amid storm


COLOMBO: Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the president-elect of the Maldives, spent his youth marching in the streets for democracy. He was elected to Parliament at age 32 as an independent candidate, helping to draw up a new constitution. But unlike other reformers of his generation, Solih was never sidelined by a prison sentence or political exile, a fact that propelled him into the role of the opposition party’s standard-bearer.
Political observers say Solih, 56, known by his nickname, Ibu, has been a quiet force behind the tropical South Asian archipelago’s transition to democracy and a rallying point for the opposition in crisis under outgoing strongman Yameen Abdul Gayoom.
“He was never in a hurry,” Mohamed Aflath, a businessman who voted for Solih in Sunday’s election, said Monday. “Some guys who were more eager to become the leader had to say goodbye to politics, some ended in jail while some in exile. But Ibu was very patient and calm.”
Solih’s supporters flooded the streets of the capital, Male, after his victory speech early Monday, waving the yellow flags of his Maldivian Democratic Party and singing campaign songs. Supporters cited his 25-year career as a parliamentarian as evidence of his commitment and self-restraint — in contrast to some of the country’s more power-hungry political leaders.
Amid the celebrations, Solih called on Yameen to immediately begin a smooth transition of power and urged his supporters to remain calm. Solih and his running mate, Faisal Naseem, are to be sworn in on Nov. 17.
An elections-eve police raid of Solih’s main campaign office cast a pall over the vote. But Solih assured Maldivians that he had spoken to police and security forces, and that “they expressed their support of the decision of the people.”
Solih and his wife, Fazna Ahmed, studied in Australia before returning to join the Maldives’ nascent democracy movement, working to establish a multiparty parliamentary system in a nation whose modern history was riddled with conflicts between an ancient monarchy and a string of aristocrats running constitutional autocracies. He dabbled in journalism — working for a state broadcaster and later an opposition magazine — before becoming a member of Parliament in 1995 as an independent.
When Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an autocrat who ruled Maldives for 30 years, introduced democratic reforms, Solih joined an assembly to draw up a constitution, introducing the country to the concepts of separation of powers and fundamental human rights.
He helped cofound the Maldivian Democratic Party in 2003 along with his wife’s cousin, Mohamed Nasheed, who in 2008 became the first president elected in multiparty polls. Solih served as Parliament majority leader during Nasheed’s presidency.
Nasheed was forced to resign in 2012 after losing military and police support over the arrest of a prominent judge. He ran for the presidency again in 2013 — the country’s second multiparty election — and lost to Gayoom’s half-brother, current President Yameen.
With Yameen cracking down on the opposition — jailing or forcing into exile almost all his potential rivals, including Nasheed, who was exiled first in the United Kingdom and then in Sri Lanka — the responsibility of rallying the opposition fell to Solih.
He was unanimously elected as the joint opposition’s presidential candidate in June.
Nasheed, at the Maldivian Democratic Party’s office in Sri Lanka, complemented Solih on Monday for having “worked extremely hard, and extremely cleverly during the last four, five years, especially since I was arrested.”
Yameen congratulated his opponent in a concession speech broadcast on national television, saying, “I know I have to step down now.”