Churn in the Neighbourhood: In Maldives, storm subsides, ocean calmer

A new President, Ibrahim Solih, takes over in the Maldives on November 17. India is relieved at the defeat of the pro-China Yameen, but has its fingers crossed over what happens in the Indian Ocean archipelago now.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chandigarh | Updated: October 31, 2018 7:35:38 am
Maldives election results, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Yameen, Abdulla Yameen, Maldives news, Narendra Modi, India Maldives relations, Indian Express Maldives Supreme Court has dismissed Abdulla Yameen’s (left) petition seeking annulment of the election. Ibrahim Solih is set to take over next month. (AP File)

While the seeming political calm of the last three years in Sri Lanka was shattered last week, the turmoil in another Indian Ocean country and key neighbour of India, Maldives, is yet to subside after President Abdulla Yameen lost to joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih, who won over 58% of the popular vote. But the pieces are beginning to fall into place.

Yameen initially conceded defeat but subsequently challenged the outcome, alleging vote rigging and fraud, and insinuating that the Election Commission had been bribed. Four of the five Commission members fled the country a few weeks ago, alleging intimidation and threat to their lives. The dismissal of Yameen’s petition seeking annulment of the election by the Maldives Supreme Court, however, put the lid on efforts by the outgoing President to hang on to his position. Yameen remains in office until President-elect Solih is sworn in on November 17.

Also read | Jail term suspended, ex-President Nasheed set to return home to Maldives tomorrow

The court has also suspended enforcement of former President Mohamed Nasheed’s prison sentence for a 2015 conviction on terrorism charges. Nasheed, who has lived in self-imposed exile in London and Colombo since 2016, is now set to fly into Male Thursday without fear of arrest.

Supporters of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih celebrate their victory in Male, Maldives. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena/File)

The joint opposition has also strengthened its hold on the People’s Majlis or Parliament. Through this month, the country’s top court has restored the memberships of 12 lawmakers who were disqualified after they defected from Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) last year. The joint opposition now has 45 seats in the 85-member House; the PPM has 40.

Last week, the joint opposition made a third bid to impeach Speaker Abdullah Maseeh Mohammed. The motion was signed by 51 members, not including the dozen who have been restored, indicating that more defections from the PPM may be in store. The first attempt to impeach Mohammed, in March 2017, failed after 13 opposition MPs were controversially removed from the Majlis chamber. The disqualification of the rebel PPM parliamentarians had come ahead of the second attempt in July last year.

The police and National Defence Forces played a key role in helping Yameen tighten his grip on power. They prevented the disqualified parliamentarians from entering Parliament and, in February this year, arrested the Chief Justice and two other justices of the Supreme Court (for overturning Nasheed’s conviction and sentence), and a host of opposition leaders. But they were also the first to issue statements last month saying the elections results would be upheld.

Also read | PM Modi invited to Maldives, may go if transition process is smooth

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, center, jumps as he walks in a street march with supporters in Male, Maldives. (Source: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena/File)

India, China, Maldives

Like in Sri Lanka, the India-China rivalry has been playing out in the Maldives as well, with some going as far as to describe the Yameen-Solih presidential election as an “India-China proxy war”. In his campaign speeches, Solih made many references to the Chinese “debt trap”, and described Chinese development projects in the country as “land grab”.

In a study released in February, Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House estimated the three “largest” Chinese projects — development of Male International airport, a “Friendship Bridge” connecting Hulhule island on which the airport is located to the capital Male, and a mega housing project on a reclaimed island — together worth $1.5 billion. Quoting Nasheed, the study said that following a change in the law, China had leases for 17 of the 1,200 islands in the archipelago, and it was in addition, involved in developing hotels, airlines, power, water and sewage treatment plants. Chinese tourists to Maldives are estimated to have crossed 300,000 in 2017 — from about 60,000 in 2009. Yameen’s government also pushed a controversial Free Trade Agreement with China through Parliament last year.

A Maldivian man walks past a wall filled with posters showing opposition leaders, outside the residence of former president Mohamed Nasheed in Male, Maldives. (Source: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena/File)

It is no secret that India, which heartily welcomed Solih’s election, is hoping that the new dispensation will roll back some of the China-linked projects, or put them in cold storage. The President-elect has given no interviews since his election, but in his first remarks after Solih’s victory, Nasheed said some Chinese infrastructure projects would have to be reviewed.

But as in Sri Lanka, where the National Unity Government had promised to review projects with China, politicians in Maldives too, may find it difficult to follow through on their intentions. In Sri Lanka, the NUG gave the go ahead for the Port City reclamation despite serious environmental concerns, and sold the majority stake in Hambantota Port to the Chinese.

Soon after Solih’s victory, Zhao Gancheng, director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told The Global Times that he hoped that despite the President-elect’s “unfriendly words over China during the campaign”, he would not turn away from Beijing.

“China-Maldives cooperation is reciprocal, and the infrastructural projects can improve people’s lives and development… Completely swinging to India cannot guarantee that New Delhi would make as many contributions to Maldives’ development as Malé expected… After Solih assumes office, he may launch balanced policies that serve the national interest… China has never been opposed to other countries cooperating with the Maldives, but China hopes that the election result will not turn into a zero-sum game,” he said.

Challenges ahead

Solih is to Maldives what Maithripala Sirisena was to Sri Lanka in 2015, the leader who came out of nowhere to tap into the deep resentment against the incumbent. Solih is from Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party, and his candidature was supported by the Jumhooree Party, Adhaalath Party and the PPM’s Maumoon Abdul Gayoom faction. Despite diverse ideologies, the thing that brought them together was the common desire to oust Yameen. Their challenge now is to hold together. What part Nasheed will play in forging their unity could be crucial. Negotiations are on for Cabinet posts among the allies. How the government deals with Yameen will also be important. The next big event in the Maldivian political calendar is the parliamentary election of 2019. India will keep its fingers crossed.

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