Two years ago, when former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed joined hands with another former President, Abdul Maumoon Gayoom, everyone was surprised. For, Gayoom had jailed Nasheed, an activist for democratic reforms, many times during his three-decade rule. Asked by many to explain, Nasheed said, “How can you build a future if you always want to go back to the past?”
Staring at an iron-fist rule by President Abdulla Yameen, they did not see light at the end of a long tunnel unless they joined forces to defeat Yameen. Now, their joint opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has pulled off an unlikely victory against Yameen in a dramatic election, following reports over the previous week of attempts at voter intimidation, the absence of credible international observers to monitor the poll process, and fears of rigging. Results announced by the Maldives Election Commission show Solih had 58.4% of the vote, and Yameen 41.6%.
First move India
India was among the first to congratulate Solih, even before the provisional results were officially announced. The Ministry of External Affairs “heartily” congratulated him and hoped that the “Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest”.
This appeared to reflect New Delhi’s urgency to put a stamp of approval on the opposition’s victory. India also gained the first-mover advantage, ahead of China spelling out its position. The fact that the US too gave a statement within some time hinted at some coordination between New Delhi and Washington.
“This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law,” the Indian statement read. It added India looks forward to working closely with the Maldives. This reflected India’s worries about growing authoritarian tendencies in the Maldives, about China’s influence, and its relief after a turbulent relationship with the Yameen government, whose proclaimed “India First” policy, India felt, was not being followed in letter and in spirit.
Concerns about China
Although Gayoom initiated the Chinese play in Maldives, followed by Nasheed who facilitated the Chinese embassy’s establishment in 2011, it was under Yameen that China expanded its footprint. It began with infrastructure projects: a 25-storey apartment complex in Hulhumalé, and $830 million investment to upgrade the Maldives airport and build the 2-km China-Maldives Friendship Bridge between the airport island and the capital Malé.
A 2015 constitutional amendment, allowing leasing of islands to foreign entities capable of dredging and with substantive investments, was seen as an attempt to allow Chinese ownership of islands – since Beijing is known for its dredging capabilities and reclaiming of islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Nasheed has alleged that Yameen has already leased at least 16 islets to the Chinese.
Last year, Yameen signed a free trade agreement with China, and agreed to have an ocean observatory in one of its islands. This triggered alarm bells in New Delhi, which were only aggravated when three Chinese naval ships docked in Malé in August last year.
While Yameen claimed unprecedented infrastructure development, many noted it was part of China’s “debt for leverage” model, which it can use to get access to a country’s natural resources as well as for strategic reasons. Experts say Chinese loans for projects account for around 70% of the Maldives’ national debt.
India & Maldives
In the last few years, ties between Delhi and Malé nosedived. In March 2015, India cancelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Malé as the political atmosphere was not considered conducive. Ties hit a low when a crisis erupted in February this year, after Yameen ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court along with former President Gayoom, and declared a state of emergency.
At this point, Nasheed reached out to India and requested military intervention. The memory of the 1988 coup and Indian military intervention to rescue Maldives from falling into anarchy was invoked, but India maintained it was a responsible power in the region and played by international rules, and despite strong suggestions from some in the Indian strategic affairs community, the government decided not to intervene militarily.
India did urge the government to restore credibility of the political process by releasing political prisoners. The emergency was lifted 45 days later. In July, India expressed concern over the announcement of the election without allowing democratic institutions, including Parliament and the judiciary, to work in a free, transparent manner. India’s calls found support from the US, UK and the European Union.
India did not resort to any coercive diplomacy. It did not choke its supplies of essential food items, or construction material. Having learnt its lessons from the economic blockade to Nepal, New Delhi did not want to give the Yameen government a handle with which it could stoke anti-India sentiment. Instead, it quietly supported the European Union’s efforts to impose targeted sanctions against key members of the Yameen regime.
In recent months, in a sign of assertiveness, Yameen asked India to take back military choppers — meant for medical evacuation — and about 50 military personnel stationed in Maldives. The Maldives also declined India’s invitation to its biennial eight-day naval exercise, Milan. Yameen’s government has also rejected visa renewals for scores of Indians legally working in the Maldives, and South Block was getting reports of discrimination against 20,000 Indian workers in various sectors.
The road ahead
With the internal struggle in Maldives intertwined with the complex rivalry between India and China, Solih’s victory brought relief to India. Its priority would be to see a smooth transition of power. Already, the Election Commission has alleged threats from the ruling establishment, but has so far managed to stay firm and announced its results confirming Yameen’s defeat.
The transition will witness some coalition-building, since both Nasheed and Gayoom have a shot at power. How Solih manages to navigate the differences between them will be a test. Key to this will be maintaining the rule of law, and ensuring justice for political prisoners. Both Nasheed and Gayoom face convictions, and how the new establishment is able to give them reprieve will be something to watch out for.
The new government will have to step up its fight against radicalisation, amid a rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the last few years. Maldives is said to have supplied between 50 and 200 fighters to the IS, often referred to as the world’s highest per-capita number of foreign fighters supplied to Daesh. Religious intolerance and violent extremism have risen, and organised crime is another challenge — cases in point are the killing of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed and disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, missing for four years now.
Also, Maldives has to manage its rising debt to China, as Beijing has followed a debt-trap diplomacy with the island nation – as it did with Sri Lanka. While India and Japan have the wherewithal to help Maldives, the new incumbents in the President’s house will not be immune to Chinese forays.
The China-Maldives relationship will not go away just because there has been a change in the regime. While Nasheed has talked about scrutiny of Chinese-funded projects and Beijing has reacted by saying it has been “hurt”, Solih maintained during his campaign that the relationship with China would not change. New Delhi cannot ask Malé to rebuff lucrative offers from Beijing, nor wooing by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan which have made generous commitments to the Yameen regime.
In India’s neigbourhood, those in opposition have been known to claim they are pro-India and then, once in power, to start wooing others or get wooed by them. What India’s establishment needs is a response to two questions: does any such activity adversely impact India’s core national interests; and, can India offer credible alternatives? The two answers could define relations with post-Yameen Malé. The important thing is not to drop the ball.