Maldives Election 2018: Impact on India

On September 23, 2018, the Maldives’ Joint Opposition Coalition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih emerged victorious in the presidential elections. The win came as a surprise both to the opposition in Maldives and to international observers, as the election was believed to be rigged. Many international observers and media representatives were denied access to the island nation to monitor the presidential elections.

The Election Commission of Maldives (ECM) released provisional results on Monday, September 24 showing Solih, with 58.3 percent of the votes, as the winning candidate. The results were confirmed when the ECM congratulated Solih on its Twitter handle.

Incumbent President Abdulla Yameen conceded defeat in a press conference where he said, “I know I have to step down now.”  With a massive voter turnout of 89.2 percent, the voice of the people was truly heard.

New President-elect Solih is viewed as a clean and efficient lawmaker in the Maldives, where corruption and nepotism remain prominent issues.

Elected for the first time in 1994 after defeating a ruling party candidate when there was no opposition party, Solih became one of the founding members of Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The dwindling state of the economy and popular protests had brought Yameen to power as the Maldives’ president in 2013 after Nasheed resigned.

Maldives-China Relationship –

In August 2014, during Yameen’s visit to China to attend the 2nd Youth Olympics, the Maldives expressed its wish to positively respond to China’s initiative to build what was then called the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. This strengthened the already existing bonhomie between Yameen’s administration and China.

The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge was opened to traffic on August 30, 2018. The bridge — officially called the Sinamale Bridge — links the capital city of Male to the Maldives’ Velana International Airport in Hulhule. The idea of connecting the two islands was initially mooted by an Indian company, but due to an unprecedented diplomatic row between India and Maldives, the contract was awarded to a Chinese firm.

China was further successful in making inroads into the Maldives by winning contracts for upgrading and expanding Velena International Airport and the Hulhumale Phase II housing project among others.

The signing of the China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement intensified the Chinese economic footprint in the tropical island nation.

Effect of the Election on Maldives- China Trade Agreement-

China fears losing the existing diplomatic and economic clout which it currently enjoys in the Maldives.

Solih campaigned in the election on the promises of reviving the economy, putting a check on rising extremism, reviving democratic institutions and rebuilding ties with the Maldives’ neighbors, especially India. International media simplified the election battle into a choice between “pro-China” Yameen and “pro-India” Solih.

Some analysts are of the opinion that with the victory of the “pro-India” candidate, India is assured greater engagement with its Indian Ocean neighbor and convergence of interests in the region, which indirectly means a lessening of China’s influence.

But the establishment in New Delhi should not forget that it is not so easy to push aside China’s hard economic power and its “debt-trap” diplomacy. The case of Sri Lanka is a classic example. Even though the current establishment tried to reassess the nature of Chinese investments and reframe what it called “unjust” conditions when it came to power, Sri Lanka has to live with the reality of Chinese debt and its presence in the strategically located Hambantota port.

The results are not simply a loss for Beijing or a win for New Delhi.

India has been a timely friend for the Maldives, which is evident from numerous efforts by New Delhi in helping maintain stability in Male. From “Operation Cactus” in 1988 to fending off a severe water crisis in the island nation, India has played the role of a responsible neighbor. It is in India’s interest to continue with such critical engagements and work toward building confidence and assurances to the extent that Maldives emerges out of its “Big Brother Syndrome.”

Moreover, strengthening democratic institutions, infrastructure support, and capacity building should remain India’s priorities in engagement with the Maldives. New Delhi has proved its commitments in the past with the establishment of a medical complex, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, in Male, as well as the Maldives’ first institute of Technical Education which was set up as a grant-in-aid project of India in 1996.

Policymakers in New Delhi have a renewed chance for fruitful engagement with Male. This opportunity should not be lost in weighing third parties’ interests and involvement. India should act responsibly by allowing the internal equations in the Maldives to settle first and then engage constructively in the process of restoring democratic institutions. A stable Maldives is essential for a stable neighborhood across South Asia.

The results of Maldives’ presidential elections on Sunday came as a total surprise to most observers in the Maldives and outside. The Election Commission announced the victory of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party, who secured 38,484 more votes than the incumbent president, Abdulla Yameen.

The head of the Election Commission stated that there were no election irregularities or complaints that could affect the results. President Yameen conceded defeat on Monday, clearing the path for President-elect Solih. Solih is the joint candidate of the opposition parties: the election saw the coming together of three opposition political parties – the Maldivian Democratic Party, Jumhooree Party, and the religious Adhaalath Party. The president-elect, considered an old-timer in politics, belongs to the Maldivian Democratic Party whereas his deputy, Faisal Naseem, a new face, comes from the Jumhooree Party.

Many newspaper headlines have drawn quick and not-so-correct reading on the impact of the election results. There have been exceptions of course, which called for caution. Still, most of the accounts suggested rather simplistically that the defeat of Yameen is bad news for China and good for India.

In fact, while there may be some minor setbacks for China with the new leader, the reality is that Male cannot cut China lose because of Beijing’s economic capacity to deliver what Male needs. For all the goodwill that India may enjoy in Maldives, New Delhi lacks the material capacity to offset China. India’s track record in establishing infrastructure and regional connectivity networks has not been the best, to put it mildly.

Why Maldives Election is important for India?
  • Despite its small size, the Maldives has an outsized strategic importance for India, given its location astride the sea lanes through which much of India’s shipping cargo passes. The northernmost tip of the Maldives is just 70 nautical miles from the southernmost point of India’s own Lakshadweep archipelago, where the Indian navy has a base.
  • Traditionally, the two countries have had close ties, but relations frayed after 2012, when the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced out in a coup by the old ruling establishment.
  • Yameen – in power since a controversial 2013 election – paid lip service to ties with India, and in 2016 even agreed to expand maritime security co-operation with New Delhi. But he also forged much stronger ties with Beijing, which built a 2km bridge from the airport to the capital city; forged a free trade deal; and took long-term leases on several small Maldivian islands.
  • Since China started to send naval ships to Indian Ocean roughly 10 years ago — and right up to Gulf of Adenin the name of antipiracy operations — Maldives’ significance has steadily grown and now it’s at the heart of international geopolitics.
    As the pre-eminent South Asian power and a ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region, India needs to cooperate with Maldives in security and defence sectors.
  • China’s massive economic presence in Maldives is a major concern for India. With the country now said to owe 70% of its external aid to China, many believe that Yameenhas done to Maldives what Rajapaksa did to Sri Lanka. India had to push back at some stage and the current political crisis might just have offered India the right opportunity.
  • A large section of population which supports the opposition parties like Nasheed‘s MDP wants India to act against Yameen.Maldives is also a member of Saarc. It is important for India to have Maldives on board to maintain its leadership in the region. Maldives was the only Saarc country which seemed reluctant to follow India’s call for boycott of Saarc summit in Pakistan after the Uri attack.
  • Under Yameen, radicalisation grew rapidly and it was often said that archipelago accounted for one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria in terms of per capita. India can ill-afford a neighbour which fails to check Islamic radicalisation.
  • India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links. India was among the first to recognise Maldives after its independence in 1965 and later established its mission at Malé in 1972.
  • There are 25,000 Indian nationals living in Maldives (second largest expatriate community). Indian tourists also account for close to 6% of tourists Maldives receives every year.
  • India is also a preferred destination for Maldivians for education, medical treatment, recreation and business. According to MEA, more and more Maldivians are seeking long term visa for pursuing higher studies/medical treatment in India.
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