By Alvin Chan
A 17 year old student's view on global affairs
The results of the Maldivian elections last Sunday came as a total surprise to observers in Maldives and outside. The Election Commission announced the victory of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, who garnered 134,705 votes, 38,653 more votes than the incumbent President, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. The decisive mandate against President Yameen is an emphatic assertion of the people's will to return to democracy and the rule of law. This, despite the scaremongering tactics employed by President Yameen to muzzle the press, scare the opposition through police raids on flimsy charges of engaging in vote buying and arresting critics.
Despite fears that President Yameen would dispute the election results, President Yameen conceded defeat the day after, paving the transition of power to President-elect Ibrahim Solih, the most sober and moderate face of the Maldivian Democratic Party. Solih is the right hand man of exiled former President Nasheed and was chosen as a joint candidate of the opposition, in wake of the February 2018 arrests of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and another senior judge and ironically, his 82 year old half brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on trumped up charges of attempting to overthrow the government.
Many newspapers after the election suggested that the defeat of Yameen is bad news for China and good for India, but with exceptions of course, some which called for caution.
China has a history of influencing Maldives since 2014. They recently completed the building of a 1.4-kilometer bridge linking Hulhule, where Maldives' airport is located, with its capital, Malé. Alongside the $400 million bridge, China has also invested $830 million in upgrading the airport. Maldives also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing in support of Xi's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on December 2014 and on December 2017 signed 12 agreements with China to jointly promote the BRI. The BRI is nothing more but a neocolonial practice by China to exploit countries by gaining benefits from them through expensive and wasteful infrastructure projects, and to exert greater weight on the political, cultural and economical aspects of nations, which is certainly seen in the Maldives. China has also announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station, which will essentially open up a military front against India.
While there may be setbacks for China with a leader who ran on a strong anti-China platform, despite China's disgraceful neocolonialism, the Maldives cannot afford to cut China lose completely, as Beijing has what New Delhi does not have: the economic capacity to deliver what Maldives needs. Despite the goodwill that India may enjoy, India's track record in establishing infrastructure and connectivity networks has not been the best, and thus they lack the capability to offset China.
Sizeable anti-India sentiment during Yameen's tenure will certainly be gone, yet Solih could be forced to not only find a balance between the two great rivals—India and China, but economic and strategic interests too.
Despite their backing of pro-China President Yameen, China congratulated the Maldives on holding smooth presidential elections and Mr Solih on his victory, calling for greater cooperation between the two countries. However, a day after the heartfelt congratulations from China, Beijing lashed out at opposition leaders, especially Nasheed for 'questioning the commercial viability of Chinese projects in the Maldives lacking in transparency and democratic procedures', saying that cooperation between the two countries 'cannot be smeared by certain individuals'. And as always, China ended with ominous suggestions that something bad would happen, saying they would 'oppose if certain people harm China's interests'.
Last Sunday's election have the potential to effect changes internally and externally. On October 1st, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his son were released from jail, raising hopes that other high profile political prisoners could soon have their convictions overturned, and the possibility of exiled former President Nasheed returning to Malé for the inauguration in November. Externally, this could be significant. To ensure peace, security and stability in the entire Indian Ocean neighbourhood, the new government will want to renegotiate the projects that China is engaged in because of the debt trap that Maldives has been pulled into.
India, which has traditionally played an influential role in Maldives, was effectively sidelined under Yameen, but with Solih's election, will surely do what it can to back up his claim to power through a peaceful and stable transition.
While there may be some cancellations and renegotiations of China-funded projects by the newly elected government, China's increasing influence in the Maldives is unlikely to cede anytime soon as India, while they might not like it, simply does not have the capacity. Moreover, India's credibility has been hit because of their unwillingness to act despite repeated pleas from the opposition parties to militarily intervene to free political prisoners during the February 2018 political crisis. India faces a challenging dilemma and will need to find a way to overcome these difficulties.