Amidst political turmoil and deadlock, Maldives voted in its third democratic election on September 23, 2018. An island nation with a population of 450,000 people, Maldives has been a political battleground for the last eight years. While a number of political figures have been imprisoned, many of them have escaped the country in a search to garner international support in restoring the democratic structure of the country.
The 2018 Presidential election is historical and the clouds of uncertainty had loomed large over its peaceful conduct. Despite these fears, opposition leader Ibrahim Solih secured 58.3 percent against President Abdul Yameen — a strongman politician who conceded defeat with 41.7 percent vote share. Solih was the joint-presidential candidate for an opposition alliance of the Maldivian Democratic Party, the Jumhooree Party and the Adhaalath Party. This was the first time that any candidate had crossed the 50-percent vote mark.
As Solih managed a remarkable lead against Yameen, many feared a coup d’état would be conducted by the supporters of President Yameen on the very night of voting in Maldives. It was not until the televised by Yameen on September 24 when he conceded defeat and welcomed the victory of Solih. Nevertheless, Yameen in his statement made it clear that “The President … would continue to serve until the end of the current Presidential term and work to ensure a smooth transition in the interim.” As per the article 301 of the , the President-elect can only take oath on or after November 11. Hence, it remains to be seen whether the President-elect will have a smooth ride to power as there are ample days before he can take over.
Soon after the provisional results were announced, congratulatory wishes poured in from major powers including the United States and India. The State Department congratulated Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and cautioned: “We expect all parties to respect the will of the Maldivian people and support a peaceful transition of power through the November 17 inauguration.” The Ministry of External Affairs of was also quick in stating that: “We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest. This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in Maldives but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law. In keeping with our ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy, India looks forward to working closely with Maldives in further deepening our partnership.”
Both India and the US have been close observers of the political developments in Maldives. After the Maldivian Apex court in its ruling on February 1 asked the Yameen Government to release all the political prisoners including former President Abdul Gayoom — a former strongman who ruled Maldives for 30 years until 2008 — President Yameen defied the court ruling and ordered the State of Emergency which lasted for a total of 45 days. Initially, the emergency was imposed for a period of two weeks, but President Yameen with the help of the state machinery had managed to extend it, inviting international criticism. India and the US along with other international organizations including the UN and EU asked the Yameen government to respect the court ruling.
Amongst others ordered to be released by the court this year included Mohamad Nasheed, the ex-President who was the first democratically elected President of the island nation. He was ousted and jailed in 2012 and again in 2015 on supposedly politically motivated charges. Since 2016, Nasheed has remained in Sri Lanka in exile. He has been garnering support against President Yameen and has been seeking his comeback on the Maldivian political scene. Seen as a China loyalist in the past, Nasheed came open in seeking India’s intervention after the State of Emergency was imposed this year. In an important on February 6, Nasheed asked “India to send an envoy, backed by its military, to release judges, political detainees” and asked the United States to “stop all financial transactions Maldivian leaders through the US Banks.” Nasheed had withdrawn from the Presidential race after the Election Commission disqualified his candidature. However, he extended his support to the opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih in July this year. Nasheed has made no secret about being close to India at present and has promised to revive relations with India that had severed under the Yameen administration.
Solih’s victory provides a favorable ground to New Delhi in rebuilding ties with Maldives.
In recent years, China’s engagement with Maldives has increased manifold in the areas of trade, economic assistance, infrastructure development and tourism. Meanwhile, Maldives holds a far more critical stance for China in its broader Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific strategy. The Chinese investment in neighboring Sri Lanka in building Hambantota port and using it for its strategic and commercial purposes is well accounted. Now the port remains under Chinese control for 99 years after Sri Lanka showed its inability to repay the loans. Also of late, China’s interests in the Indian Ocean are seen through the prism of containing India’s supremacy in the Indian Ocean of which Maldives is an important part.
In a significant geopolitical shift, China has established an embassy in the Maldivian capital Male. Further, Chinese President Xi Jinping had paid a state visit to Maldives in 2014. In the follow-up, President Yameen China in December 2017. The two countries signed a Free Trade Agreement along with Maldives endorsing and agreeing to be part of China ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Additionally, China committed to financing the China-Maldives Bridge which connects Male to the International Airport at Hulhumale. To facilitate Chinese interests, the Free Trade Agreement was fast-tracked in the Maldivian parliament without members having any time to have a detailed study.
While the raised their voices against President Yameen’s decision in allowing a heavy hand to China in Maldives, they also reached out to India for timely intervention. Nevertheless, India, rather making a direct intervention, has in a series of statements on the political situation in Maldives this year, the Government of Maldives to restore democratic institutions and release the political prisoners. Of note, soon after a major contract that had been given to Indian infrastructure giant GMR to develop an airport in Maldives was cancelled in 2012, China rushed in and extended its support to Maldives. In this light, with a GDP of just USD 4.6 billion, Maldives is clearly a case of importance for India and China being the new entrant.
The close relationship between President Yameen with China had been seen as a win-win deal for the two. Yameen enjoyed political and diplomatic backing from China despite gross human rights violations under his administration and Yameen managed to keep the opposition on back-track by tracing out their reachability with India. In response, China received a number of development projects amidst the opposition’s fear of a debt-trap. Furthermore, Chinese intentions to develop a naval base in Maldives had also seen a positive response from Yameen.
India has traditionally been an important player in Maldives. Previously, the Indian armed forces had foiled a coup d’état attempts against Abdul Gayoom’s presidency in 1988. In recent years, India’s economic and people-to-people relations have formed strong ties, and in December 2014 India had swiftly dispatched planeloads of fresh water after a major water treatment plant in Maldives had failed.
However, the State of Emergency in February this year and the non-renewal of the lease of the two Indian military helicopters by Maldives had exposed the diplomatic split between New Delhi and Male. In this context, Solih’s victory provides a favorable ground to New Delhi in rebuilding ties with Maldives. As India walks a tightrope with a huge trust-deficit with its neighbors, India should look for measures to further boost cooperation. Also, India enjoys a clean image which should be supported with India’s unconditional support to the people of Maldives in promoting democratic values.