The victory of the joint Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, in the just concluded presidential elections in the Maldives, and President Abdulla Yameen’s ready acceptance of his defeat, show that despite all the fears, the democratic instinct of this small Indian Ocean island is alive and well. This was the third democratic election after former Maldivian strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ushered in a new constitution. The election was held in contentious circumstances. Yameen had imposed an Emergency earlier in the year and jailed opposition leaders and judges. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohammed Nasheed could not run for office in this election, as he had been convicted on terrorism charges and disqualified. The MDP offices in Male were raided the night before voting day on September 23.
The run up was full of allegations that Yameen, would rig the election. In the end, nearly 90 per cent of the over 2.6 lakh registered voters turned out, and Solih won decisively with 58.34 per cent of the vote, to Yameen’s 41.66 per cent. The president elect is one of MDP’s founding members, and his candidature had the backing of Jhumhooree Party and Adhaalath Party. He will be sworn in when Yameen remits office at the end of his term in November this year. Going by his record, few expected Yameen to bow to the people’s verdict, but to his credit, he has accepted the result. With all the international opprobrium that he faced already, the outgoing president had the good sense to see that hanging on in defiance of the will of the people would need authoritarianism of a kind that could only end badly for himself and for the Maldives.
Assuming Male is all set for a smooth transition, for India, whose relations with Yameen had been strained for years over the manner in which he exerted himself to build relations with China while appearing to snub Delhi, Solih’s election is an opportunity for a fresh start on bilateral ties. The mistake that India has made with each of its neighbours, and should desist from repeating with the new dispensation in the Maldives, is to demand fealty. If India desires influence in its neighbourhood, it must earn it through the hard slog of smart diplomacy, not demand it as a right of geography. Solih is bound to be preoccupied with sifting through Yameen’s decisions in his first months, especially the cases against his opponents including Nasheed, who remains in exile. But as soon as it is feasible, New Delhi should plan a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Maldives, the only country in the neighbourhood that he has not visited.