Maldives Election: All is Not Lost for India But China Moving Fast
India needs to re-build ties with Maldives and be a good neighbour, now that China is in the latter’s good books.
The decisive mandate against President Yameen on 25 September, in the Presidential elections in the Maldives, is an emphatic assertion of people’s will to return to democracy and the rule of law.
The Maldivians voted for the United Opposition Party’s candidate Ibrahim Solih with an overwhelming majority of 58.3 percent of the popular vote.
This, despite several attempts by President Yameen to muzzle the press, scare the Opposition into submission through repeated police raids on their offices, and the arrest of dozens of Opposition MPs and last minute instructions to the Election Commission to distort the counting process.
Yameen’s Dictatorial Rule
Well before the elections, Yameen had debarred his most important rival and former President Mohammed Nasheed on trumped charges of terrorism, who was forced to go into exile in Colombo. Similar was the fate of another important contender – Gasim Ibrahim – who was charged along with a former defence minister, of plotting to overthrow the government, which forced him to go into exile as well.
The worst was yet to come. The imprisonment of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had emerged as the patriarch of the United Opposition, was the last straw that mobilised the Opposition into a major force.
It was utterly ironic that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half brother who did the utmost to ensure President Yameen’s rise to power in the most foul manner in the last elections of 2013, had become a thorn in the side of Yameen within the last two years. That showed the degree to which Yameen had degenerated in his lust for power.
All this came to a head in June 2018 when Yameen ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and another senior judge, both of whom had issued a decree to release all the political prisoners, including Nasheed and Gasim Ibrahim – since their detention was found to be in violation of the rule of law. Soon after, that the 82-year-old Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was also arrested.
High-Handed Treatment of Opposition
This high-handed treatment of the Opposition by Yameen came as a boon to the people who were protesting for months on end in front of the president’s office on the one and only thorough fare in the Capital – the Majeedi Magu. The events of June 2018 became the glue to bind the Opposition, and as Nasheed, Gasim, and Maummon, all old rivals united to fight the common enemy of the people. They jointly put up a single candidate – Ibrahim Solih, the right hand man of Nasheed and the most sober and moderate face of the Maldivian Democratic Party to fight Yameen.
Now that President Yameen has publicly accepted the peoples’ mandate and has conceded defeat, the earlier fears that he would clamp down an emergency and nullify the vote in case it went against him, may be put to rest. He is expected to hand over power in November when his term officially ends.
Much can still happen between now and November, but the close watch by New Delhi and Washington may deter him from any misadventures.
Implications for India
The unexpected victory of Ibrahim Solih should come as a great relief and as a boost to India’s efforts to strengthen its partnerships in the neighbourhood. It must however be said that New Delhi in the last four years earned no laurels for its role in the island nation. It was often seen on the side of the dictator rather than on the side of the democratic forces.
Except for a symbolic gesture by PM Modi in skipping his visit to the Maldives in March 2015 when President Yameen cracked down on the Opposition resulting in a major political crisis, no significant message of support was ever sent to the beleaguered Opposition.
So much so that whenever former President Nasheed or senior office bearers of the Maldivian Democratic Party visited New Delhi, no one in our Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) nor the PM’s Office were willing to meet them.
Were they afraid of earning the wrath of a tin pot dictator ruling an area smaller than RK Puram in Delhi? Worse was the report that New Delhi had promised China that it would not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives following the arrest of the Chief Justice of Supreme Court and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayyom in June 2018.
From ‘India First’ Policy to ‘China First’ Policy
Well before all this, from 2016 onwards, President Yameen steadily shifted the ‘India First’ policy to ‘China First’. This, as he handed over some of the strategic islands in the Northern atoll of the country, closest to India’s territorial waters to the Chinese government, to build, repair and refuel stations to their naval ships. Later in December 2017, Yameen during his visit to Beijing, signed the Free Trade Agreement with China and declared his intent to join the Belt Road Initiative. This encouraged the Chinese to invest heavily in infrastructure projects in the country.
Significant among them was a massive loan of USD 830 million to upgrade the Hulhulé Island airport and link it with the Capital Malé through a 1.3 mile long sea-bridge at a cost of USD 400 million.
Though President Yameen, in a recent interview, denied that his country was staring at a debt trap with China, an IMF report indicated that Maldives’ debt to China in 2016 was 34.7 percent of its GDP, and by 2021, it would reach 51.2 percent of its GDP.
Merely servicing the debt, about USD 92 million a year (roughly 10 percent of the GDP) would be quite a drain on the internal revenues of the country. Such being the situation, former president Nasheed, who would be a key figure in guiding the new government, has already called for an audit of all the infrastructure projects contracted out to China.
Whatever be the intent of the new government, the harsh economic reality the country faces due to five years of Yameen’s misrule and the mortgaging of strategic assets of the country to China, may be hard to reverse. And India has neither the resources nor has shown much political will to bail out a neighbour in distress.
(The author served as a diplomat in Maldives. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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