Aik Ahmed Easa knew expat life wasn’t going to be easy when he moved from the Maldives to Malaysia to study law.
A degree was no guarantee for a job in the Maldives unless you had had political connections – a problem for anyone with a student loan because of high interest rates. Medical treatment was a minefield as the Maldivian model of universal health insurance didn’t apply abroad. Aik would often find friends suffering for weeks because private hospitals were unaffordable and the university’s insurance scheme didn’t cover all illnesses.
Then there were instances of racial profiling to deal with.
“A few months ago,” Aik recalls, “Malaysian police detained my brother for five hours on suspicion of carrying drugs.”
His brother was clean but police threatened to arrest him anyway. Aik reached out to the Maldivian embassy and the Foreign Ministry, but no help was forthcoming. He eventually managed to convince the police to change their mind for MYR6,000 (US$1,450, MVR22,755). “I know of many friends who have been similarly harassed and bribed their way out.”
With a presidential election in the Maldives less than 24 hours away, Aik wants these concerns to be immediately addressed by either winning candidate.
Unofficial estimates suggest around 90 percent of this voter base comprises students and medical patients. Both the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives and the Maldivian Democratic Party-led opposition have been wooing them with targeted campaign activities and promising to improve healthcare, education, employment and diplomatic relations.
The PPM has promised to double the number of scholarships, a “restructure” of educational loans and the universal health insurance scheme, as well as build the Maldives first medical university.
The opposition coalition has promised free education up to the first degree, scholarship schemes and low-interest loans, and the expansion of universal health insurance to other countries. Mindful of the housing crisis that has triggered a brain-drain the PPM has pledged low-interest loans, along with 5,000 homes across atolls.
The opposition has said it will grant subsidies, low-interest loans and free housing for those who cannot afford rent.
– Rocky relations and visa woes –
The past six weeks have seen opposition candidates Mohamed Ibrahim Solih and Faisal Naseem visit Sri Lanka, Malaysia and India between them, while the ruling party vice presidential candidate Dr Mohamed Shameem has jetted off to Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
All three candidates have met constituents at meet-and-eat events organised at rented banquet halls. Their supporters, and in some cases Maldivian embassy staff, have held re-registration drives, door-to-door visits, informal gatherings and even organised football and Playstation tournaments.
On Sunday the two parties will also provide transport for those living far from the polling station in all overseas locations.
Expats in India, usually a hot destination for those seeking education and healthcare, say the country has become increasingly resistant in granting visas to Maldivians as ties between the two countries nosedive. The number of registered voters has fallen from 1,600 in 2013 to 683 in 2018. Neither President Abdulla Yameen nor his running mate went to meet the expat community there.
Firshan Zahir, a retired video journalist who moved to Bangalore six years ago for his two children’s studies, says many of his friends were forced to relocate to Malaysia, Sri Lanka or return to the Maldives after having their visas rejected in the past three years.
“I’m currently here on a medical visa. After I applied in 2016, I first got it for a year, then an extension for six months, then five and now four. It’s only getting worse.”
Shauna Aminath, from the opposition campaign team, agrees that the Maldives’ diplomatic relations with traditional allies and friendly countries have come under pressure. Countries often reject visa applications citing political instability in the Maldives, she says. “I’d studied in Canada but when I applied for a visa to attend a student reunion two years ago, they rejected it saying they do not have the confidence I will return back to my home country.”
Strained relations have also affected Maldivians’ chances of studying in the UK, especially after its abrupt exit from the Commonwealth in 2016. Students form a chunk of the country’s 550 expat voters.
The opposition, said Aminath, will work on restoring diplomatic ties with a foreign policy that is based on democracy, human rights and climate change diplomacy.
PPM campaign manager Adhley Ismail did not respond to the Maldives Independent’s request for an interview.
Campaigning has been the most intense in Sri Lanka, which hosts the largest number of Maldivians and 2,788 eligible voters. Earlier this month, the PPM announced a “Colombo manifesto” with a 21-promise plan, including low cost flights, sports facilities and a mosque.
The opposition has been hosting weekly speeches and gatherings at its campaign centre, along with regular interactions between expats and former president Mohamed Nasheed.
A small but significant part of the expat population includes activists, ministers and MPs who were forced into exile in Sri Lanka, UK and other European countries due to the Yameen government.
Many will be unable to vote as they risk being arrested or extradited. The Elections Commission, in a move believed to specifically target Nasheed and his coalition partner Gasim Ibrahim, declared that self-exiled leaders can only vote in a Maldivian jail.
“A major concern of all these people is related to the political, social and economical stability of the country,” says Ameen Ibrahim, a campaign coordinator for the opposition in the UK. “Basically, that the Maldives needs to press the restart button in many areas and bring the nation back into the right track of the constitution.”
This article was amended in the fifth paragraph to reflect the correct bribe paid to Malaysian police.