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Published on Sep 20, 2018
Maldives polls: Sea-bridge from China, ‘cut-out culture’ from India

Source Image: Dying Regime

File photo of protests in Maldives

With the 23 September presidential polls in Maldives fast approaching, opponents of incumbent Abdulla Yameen are no more talking about his finding ‘devious ways’ to delay or cancel the polls. Nearer home and overseas, they are instead watchful about the ‘dubious to ‘rob’ (!) the election from the Joint Opposition’s (JO) Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih of the more popular Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

A lot of it depends on the poll percentage, which was high at over 90 in the two multi-party democracy polls of 2008 and 2013. MDP Opposition back-benchers, now as then, are speculating that the incumbent has a few tricks that they are unable to divide, to keep the ‘anti-incumbency’ middle class, middle-aged voters away from the polling stations.

According some, paying up voters on the poll-eve, for them to ‘temporarily surrender’ of their identity documents is one such trick. This way, they claim that the Yameen camp can ensure that those ‘suspect votes’ do not get cast.  Similar claims had been made before the presidential polls on earlier occasions, but the high turn-out proved such claims wrong.

Campaign managers of Ibu, who is a reasonable substitute for jailed-and-self-exiled former MDP President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, have also claimed from day one how the Election Commission (EC), the Judiciary and other ‘constitutional institutions’ like the media and anti-graft watch-dogs have all become Yameen’s ‘hand-maidens’. They point to the previous 2013 elections, where the Supreme Court’s repeated interventions purportedly helped Yameen win the presidency, though only in the second round. Jailed-and self-exiled Jumhooree Party’s (JP) billionaire-boss Gasim Ibrahim, who made both the court cases and Yameen’s victory possible, is now with the MDP in the JO. JP’s Faisal Naseem has been named Ibu’s running-mate, but no one is talking any more about the other two alliance-partners.

Incidentally, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, jailed and hospitalised intermittently, reportedly for vertigo and age-related ailments. Religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) leader, Sheikh Imran is serving out a long jail-term on ‘terrorism charges’. Both Nasheed and Gasim escaped the ordeal a following overseas travel on ‘jail leave’ for medical treatment.

‘Cocktail coalition’

On the ground, the Yameen presidency claims credit for development projects, purportedly aimed at creating jobs for locals, with funding from China and Saudi Arabia. Team Yameen also hopes to whip up ‘Islamic nationalist’ sentiments that are possibly divorced from religious fundamentalism, by constantly citing ‘sovereignty’ issues and ‘foreign interference’. It is not clear if Ibu’s counter-commitments of new jobs and island-wise development projects would carry the same conviction with the 40-50 percent young voters as that of incumbent Yameen.

Overall, Ibu has the ‘democracy votes’ of 2008 mostly in his pocket. But his much-delayed election manifesto has glossed over or deliberately ignored ‘democracy issues’ that may impact on the stability of the coalition, post-poll, thus disturbing the ‘democracy constituency’, without possible loss of votes.

Ibu’s ‘miss list’ includes party boss Nasheed’s idea of fresh polls after 18 months, after transforming the present presidential system into a parliamentary scheme. The JP, the second largest partner in the JO, was the first to oppose such ideas, when made, and clarified publicly that they had not even discussed any of them, leave alone arriving at a consensus.

From day one, Yameen has been dubbing the JO as a ‘cocktail coalition’. On issues of the kind, the Ibu manifesto refers to the four-party JO agreement signed by their leaders, but is ‘not transparent’ about the contents of that accord. However, it unlikely to impact on the voter-share directly though it does re-flags post-poll political instability of the kind that had rocked the nation before Yameen became President.

Bridge, too far?

In an ironic yet dubious coincidence, the Yameen camp put up a huge cut-out, reminiscent of the neighbouring Indian political skyline, when he arrived to inaugurate the China-funded sea-bridge connecting capital Male and airport island, Hulhule’. Originally named ‘Maldives-China Friendship Bridge’, the $ 200-m, 1.4-km Bridge has since been rechristened as ‘Sinamale Bridge’ and was ready one month ahead of the presidential polls, as was scheduled when work commenced (only) three years ago, in 2015.

Though invited, Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra, according to reports in the Times of India, boycotted the bridge-inaugural, in what could be seen as a public display of the existing cold vibes in bilateral relations more than already. Envoys from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh reportedly walked away after the Maldivian security forces asked them to walk a distance to the venue while allowing the Chinese envoy to drive up to the point.

The Ibu campaign promptly declared that the sea-bridge would drive the nation into an avoidable debt-trap, and claimed massive corruption by Yameen.  Citing independent, international estimates from day one, the MDP has been claiming that China had over-charged Maldives in the matter.

A section of the social media also equated the cut-out to ‘idol worship’ prohibited by Islam. They pointed to the Yameen Government ordering the removal of non-religious under-water sculptures in a resort, recently. However, religious NGOs that had made an issue of SAARC member-nations putting up customary souvenir installations at the southern Addu venue and leading up to President Nasheed’s exit in 2011-12, are conspicuously silent now. 

Speculation is rife over the ways a non-Yameen leadership, if elected, could repay the huge China loan, or find ‘other ways’ in this regard. Under near-similar circumstances, the ‘international community’ (read: West) witnessed a ‘friendly’ post-poll Sri Lankan Government settling for a ‘debt-equity swap’ on the controversial Hambantota Port project.

The nation’s new rulers since 2015 had vowed to cancel China’s ‘Colombo Port City project’ before polls. Once in power, they settled with China on certain cosmetic trimming to satisfy the Indian neighbour’s security concerns, which were/are still real. Over the past three-plus years, the Government has also invited fresh Chinese debts and accepted massive housing grants, in the name of ‘development’.

Sovereignty issue

The Yameen leadership has been referring to foreign powers ‘interfering in the internal affairs’ of the country, before the poll-mood set in, but has also kept it at the official-level, without the President making any mention, in public. In a dated yet recent incident of the kind, Maldivian envoy Ahmed Mohamed, in an interview to News 18, dismissed as ‘figment of imagination’ India’s ruling BJP parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy’s controversial tweet for New Delhi making a ‘military intervention’ if Yameen were to get re-elected through fraudulent means.

Like some early Indian official references of the kind, Swamy had mentioned the safety and security of Indian expat workers. However, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was prompt in distancing New Delhi from Swamy’s tweet, in turn sent out after his meeting with MDP’s Nasheed in Colombo.

India is also keenly watching the Maldivian poll scene before possibly deciding on Yameen dispensation’s repeated withdrawal-directive for the two ‘gift’ helicopters and their 50-strong support-crew. The Indian gift-proposal and also the computerised linkage of Maldives’ off-shore security with the Indian grid were initiated when Nasheed was in power.

Purportedly unperturbed by India’s early insistence on democratic, inclusive and transparent political administration and polls, Yameen has gone a step further since, in ‘international diplomacy’ (?) Even as his Foreign Ministry joined issue with the US threatening sanctions against Maldivian individuals and entities linked to his presidency, Yameen has since shot off a message to President Donald Trump, condoling death and destruction wrecked by ‘Hurricane Florence’ in North Carolina.

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Author

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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