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Simply put: A new high in Maldives

The huge victory for Nasheed-Solih increases India’s leverage with the Indian Ocean island nation. There is new warmth and a powerful impetus to bilateral ties. But the Chinese shadow still looms.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
April 10, 2019 12:33:10 am
maldives elections, maldives elections 2019, Mohamed Nasheed, Mohamed Nasheed elections, Ibrahim Solih, india maldives relations, maldives election news, maldives news Prime Minister Modi greets Maldivian President Solih in Delhi in December. (Archive)

“The Maldives is about to welcome a new dawn, a golden yellow dawn,” former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed told supporters in Malé Saturday as preliminary results indicated a huge majority for his party. The colour of Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is a bright yellow.

The MDP, led by one of Nasheed’s closest associates and now President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has won 65 seats in the 87-member People’s Majlis. Nasheed became the first former President of the Maldives to have won the parliamentary elections, and the MDP the first party to win a two-thirds majority since multi-party elections were introduced with the country’s 2008 Constitution.

The MDP had won 26 seats each in the 2009 and 2014 elections. In 2009, it formed the government with the help of coalition partners. In 2014, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) of former President Abdulla Yameen won 33 seats, and reached a majority after several MPs joined the party.

Constitutional change

The scale of the victory has put Nasheed-Solih in a position to drive decisive change in the Maldives. On top of Nasheed’s agenda is converting the Presidential form of government into a Parliamentary one — he is among many who feel that an executive Presidency is unsuitable for a small country with deeply polarised and fractious politics. Nasheed has often spoken about moving to a Parliamentary system, and its parliamentary supermajority will allow the MDP to push through the required amendment in the Constitution.

Yameen, who had used the President’s executive powers to shackle the judiciary, impose an emergency, and muzzle the media, did not appear in public after being released from pre-trial detention a week before the election. He also did not cast his vote Saturday.

MDP’s Agenda 19

The MDP campaigned for its “Agenda 19” — with Solih telling rallies that to implement Agenda 19, which detailed the party’s pledges, it was essential to have MPs who would support the government and accept Agenda 19. The Agenda consists of 19 concept papers that will form the basis of the MDP’s legislative agenda — including Bills to introduce a minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and a personal income-tax. Among the MDP’s other priorities are strengthening the asset disclosure regime, pursuing transitional justice, and reforming the judiciary.

India and China

After the unfriendly Yameen regime, India came back in the strategic game with Solih’s victory last year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to the Maldives for his inauguration in November last year, and the President visited India the following month. In March, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to the Maldives and signalled New Delhi’s commitment to strengthening the relationship between the two countries irrespective of the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections.

India had announced financial assistance of $1.4 billion for the island nation in December. Chinese loans for projects account for around 70% of the Maldives’ national debt, and New Delhi’s economic help outreach is key to helping Male break free of Beijing’s “debt-for-leverage” model of diplomacy.

China’s infrastructure projects in the Maldives included a bridge linking Malé and the airport, and construction of housing units. The Chinese debt is estimated to be between $1.5 billion and $3 billion, and the Solih government is still trying to figure out the contours of the country’s “dire economic situation”.

Indian Ocean allies

Mindful of Chinese assertiveness, and their interlinked security interests in the Indian Ocean Region, New Delhi and Malé have agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the region. They will enhance maritime security in the region through “coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information and capacity building”.

The two sides have also expressed their “unwavering commitment and support” for increased cooperation in combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations both within the region and elsewhere. This is an important commitment, since Maldives has seen the rise of Islamist fundamentalism over the last few years, and it is said to have sent 50-200 fighters to the Islamic State — among the world’s biggest per-capita suppliers of foreign fighters to the terrorist group. Civil society has witnessed the rise of religious intolerance and violent extremism.

A new agreement on visa facilitation is aimed at addressing common concerns and ensuring that people-to-people contacts are enhanced. The Maldives is one of the very few countries with which India has a visa-free travel arrangement. The recently signed pact will allow many Maldivians who send their children to school in India, to accompany them, and will facilitate easier travel for Maldivians to India for medical treatment.

The movement of people had become restricted after the Yameen government tightened the visa regime for Indian workers and professionals. In March, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid told Swaraj in Hindi during a beach dinner: “These waves, every single one of them, that reach our beaches, also wash up on your shores. Every wave that washes up on your shore carries with it the love, the compassion, the respect, of Maldivians for the Indian people.”

And yet, the Chinese shadow persists. Former Indian diplomat Rajiv Bhatia wrote at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, “After the India visit, Maldives is bound to shift attention to refashioning its partnership with China… Hence, it will be some time before the contours of Maldives’ rebalancing becomes clear. Meanwhile, New Delhi is fully conscious of the need to leverage a small, but potentially important, window of opportunity.”

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