Is President Muizzu in troubled waters?

A senior minister in the administration of President Mohamed Muizzu in the Maldives, has accused the Opposition of trying to “illegally” overthrow the Maldivian President. Minister of Islamic Affairs Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said the administration would not allow them to do so unless they cut “every vein in our throats”. The country’s main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which holds a majority in Parliament, had intended to submit a motion to impeach President Muizzu last month. However, Muizzu got a respite when the Supreme Court ordered suspension of the recent amendment to Parliament’s standing orders that made it easier for the Opposition to impeach the President and Vice President. Legally, there was nothing “illegal” in the Opposition’s efforts to impeach Muizzu, but the President who appears to be living in an ivory tower escaped by the grace of the Supreme Court.

First, let’s go back to the narrative of how the present impasse arose in the first place. On 24 January 2024, the MDP and the Democrats expressed concern about the Muizzu government’s “anti-India stance.” This was because two of his ministers had used undiplomatic language while commenting on India and Prime Minister Modi, details of which are too well known to be reproduced here. Further, the MDP also expressed its unhappiness with the Presidential Address in the Majilis and claimed that most of the points made were things that had already been initiated by the previous government. The insecurity of the present administration therefore becomes quite apparent in the recent remark by Minister Shaheem that the MDP, “…cannot illegally overthrow this government, God willing. They cannot turn this into a sort of twisted game and impeach the President, God willing. They can only do so by first cutting every nerve in our throats, God willing…”.

What triggered the present crisis? This was the special session of the Majlis (Parliament) held to approve President Muizzu’s cabinet. The session quickly escalated, with parliamentarians exchanging blows as the Opposition, the MDP and Democrats rejecting three ministers from Muizzu’s Cabinet. Following this, the Opposition agreed to introduce an impeachment motion against the President, squarely blaming him for the altercation. On his part, Muizzu went ahead and re-appointed the very same ministers rejected by the Majlis. Pertinently, recent developments underscore the persistent tussle that has existed between the Legislative and Executive in the Maldives for several decades now. This is likely to be further exacerbated following the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in March this year.

The altercation in the Majlis arose due to a political decision by the administration last year, when six MPs from Muizzu’s party and another MP from the partner Maldives National Party (MNP) resigned to take cabinet positions. As a result, the PPM-PNC coalition was left with just four MPs in Parliament. Its partners, the MNP and the Maldivian Democratic Alliance (MDA) had two MPs each. Overall, the ruling coalition and their allies had support from only 8 of the 87 MPs in the Parliament.

Following the threat of impeachment, the Attorney General’s Office filed the case in the Supreme Court over the amendment on 28 January, which had amended Parliament’s standing orders which in effect meant that vacated seats were not counted when determining the total number of MPs in the Majilis. This meant that only 54 votes were required to impeach President Muizzu, instead of the previous 58, as, post the amendment, the total number of MPs would be counted as 80 instead of 87. In January 2024, the MDP and the Democrats announced an alliance to work together in the Parliament and hence 56 MPs between them: 43 from the MDP, and 13 from the Democrats.

The administration in its plea to the Supreme Court also asked for an injunction to suspend the amendment until the court made a final ruling. Earlier, the Election Commission had decided against holding by-elections when seven lawmakers had resigned from Parliament in November 2023 to assume positions in President Muizzu’s cabinet, arguing that Parliamentary elections were to be held anyways soon. In December 2023, Muizzu managed to get 14 MPs (13 from MDP and one independent candidate) to defect and increased his strength and weakened the possibility of being easily impeached, the threat still looms large.

With the Supreme Court having stayed the amendment order, the outcome of the Parliamentary election is likely to decide Muizzu’s future. In a way, the calls for impeachment themselves underscore a broader structural challenge for President Muizzu. A simple majority in the Majilis cannot guarantee certainty to his governance, given the lack of ananti-defection law and the Maldives’s chequered history of defection of MPs. The primary challenge is that the incumbent government has failed to build a broader coalition and remains reluctant to share power. Despite the initial possibilities of allying with the Democrats, the PPM-PNC coalition alienated them by declining to accommodate them in crucial portfolios in the government. The MDA has no political appointment or position in the government, and the MNP has just one crucial appointment. The JP has continued to remain neutral. To complicate matters – the government’s recent policies and activities have even nudged the Democrats closer to the MDP.

Thus, the Muizzu government is precariously balanced. For it to govern, it needs the Parliament. It could choose to take action by executive action, as may happen in the case of the Free Trade Agreement with China, but that may not stop the Opposition from blocking it in other ways. President Muizzu is on thin ice and will need a miracle to survive. Domestic compulsions are thus, of  greater import than any external player. The bull in the room of course, is China and it will do anything to save Muizzu, with whom Beijing recently signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement. That said, it is watch and wait as the present administration could well try to either influence the outcome of the Parliamentary elections or not hold it all, preferring instead to act by executive action. Both ways, the damage to Maldivian democracy will be irreparable.


Table 1. The current composition of the Maldives’ Majlis (Parliament)

Independent03 (02 from MNP)

Source: Avas, Sun