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The race of his life: An introduction to the Maldives’ latest presidential hopeful

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has never sought the spotlight or headlines.

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Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been chosen as the presidential candidate for the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party ahead of this September’s election. Here is an introduction to the veteran lawmaker, who is facing the biggest political race of his life.

Who is he?

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, popularly known as Ibu, is 54 and comes from Hinnavaru, Lhaviyani atoll. He is one of 13 children and married to Fazna Ahmed. They have a daughter, 23-year-old Sarah, and a son, 21-year-old Yaman.

Ibu’s wife is the first cousin of former president Mohamed Nasheed as her mother and his father are siblings. Ibu and Nasheed’s friendship has always been described as a strong one, with Ibu calling it a 40-year relationship.

How long has he been a lawmaker?

Ibu was first elected to parliament in 1994, aged 30, as the MP from his home atoll of Faadhihpolhu (Lhaviyani).

He beat a government-backed candidate to secure his first seat, a break from regular Maldivian politics as parliament was usually occupied by the relatives or associates of powerful politicians. He served as the MP for Faadhihpolhu for three five-year terms.

In 2004 then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, promising a modern democratic system of governance, set up a special parliament to write a new constitution and Ibu was part of this process.

That same year, during the ‘Black Friday’ protest of August, Ibu was one of the few lawmakers who joined the demonstrations calling for the freedom of political detainees and Gayoom’s resignation.

In 2009, following the composition of the first parliament under the new constitution, Ibu stood for the new constituency of Hinnavaru and retained his parliament seat for the first time as a member of the ruling party.

Ibu has been the Maldivian Democratic Party’s parliamentary group leader since early 2011. He has also served as the leader of the joint parliamentary group since the opposition coalition was formed in March 2017.

What is he best known for?

He is best known for his reform work and as a leader of the MDP and opposition.

Ibu was one of the group of 42 people who initially attempted to form an opposition political party in 2001. But the application to form the MDP was rejected by the government. He continued to advocate for a multi-party system both in parliament and the “freedom debate” [minivan bahus] events launched by the MDP in 2004.

He was a council member in 2003, when the MDP was formed in exile in Sri Lanka. Two years later he was pressing for a multi-party system in parliament, which led to the government allowing for the formation of parties.

Ibu was among the MDP leaders in Malé while Nasheed was working in exile from Colombo.

He is known for his ability to listen and talk to people – even his  fiercest opponents have described him as calm and cool-headed. His temperament gives him an advantage in terms of engagement and negotiations and, as a result, he has played a lead role in all major talks the MDP has been a part of.

What kind of campaign can we expect from him?

One of the first campaign logos used by Ibu during his second run for parliament in 1999 was the steering wheel of a ship. He also used the same logo for the next parliament run.

Although Ibu has shied away from the spotlight and avoided being in the media, he is described as a good campaigner who can build a rapport with people.

Former staffers who have worked with him on the trail describe him as someone who gets deeply involved in the campaign and its direction.

But his 2018 tilt at the presidency will be the biggest race of his life and throws up a number of challenges including the authoritarian President Abdulla Yameen, a rehabilitated Gayoom and a fractious opposition.

Can he beat Yameen in 2018?

Ibu has worked with the Jumhooree Party and Adhaalath Party, as well as his former adversary Gayoom. His ability to cross political lines should help him to keep the opposition together during the campaign.

Ibu is also popular among the hardcore and grassroots members of the MDP as he is viewed as a full-blooded party member.

What’s at stake?

The importance of this election cannot be underestimated. The future of democracy in the Maldives depends on its outcome – although some might say democracy has already disappeared.

But this poll is also a test for the opposition. What will happen to it – or rather the MDP – without Nasheed?

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