Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Originally Published 2018-09-28 06:59:15 Published on Sep 28, 2018
India should be pleased with the Maldives choosing democracy over dictatorship. But it should not imagine that China's powerful influence will pale in Male anytime soon.
The Maldives votes for freedom - but Delhi can't rejoice yet

The global democratic order could not have asked for more. The Maldives’s surprising electoral outcome that was widely speculated to be rigged in favour of the incumbent regime has come as a breath of fresh air for the tottering liberal democratic order.

In an unprecedented move, Maldives’ voters on Sunday night ended President Abdulla Gayoom Yameen’s five-year controversial tenure. The winner is the united opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Sunday’s election, which was closely watched by key South Asian neighbours and the international community, was made into a sort of referendum on democracy versus authoritarianism. With the incumbent president quickly conceding defeat and assuring a smooth transfer of power in November, the Maldives’s fragile democracy can hope for a new lease of life.

Sunday’s election holds significance for a number of reasons.

First, the incumbent president had invested everything at his disposal — from repressing democratic institutions such as the electoral commission and judiciary, restricting media freedom, selectively targeting the country’s vibrant civil society to conducting police raids on opposition headquarters before the day of elections — to hold on to power. It must be recalled the election was conducted in the background of an extraordinary situation in which President Yameen had recently declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of two judges to force the Bench to its earlier order that was against his government apart from imprisoning his half-brother and former president Maumoon Gayoom.

Second, the presidential poll saw a complete polarisation of the country’s political space: Yameen versus the rest.

After former president Mohamed Nasheed pulled out of the race as the country’s poll body barred him from contesting, the entire opposition, including arch-rival the Islamist Adhaalath Party, backed the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s contestant Solih.

Third, the election witnessed the massive use of money and muscle power — largely sourced from generous Chinese support. It needs to be mentioned that Yameen’s five-year tenure saw the tiny island abandoning its long-time pro-India approach to a pro-China policy. Not only have Chinese companies invested in big ways in major tourism projects, the island nation has taken further its embrace with the dragon by signing a free trade agreement.

With China owning 70 per cent of the country's debt, the Maldives is now into serious debt trap.

Finally, the election witnessed the unprecedented resurgence of civil society that has lately come under heavy attacks from the incumbent government. Human rights activists, journalists and political watchdogs have done everything to expose Yameen’s authoritarian measures to turn the country into an autocracy. A more notable development was the extraordinary mobilisation of voters — with a record 90 per cent voting — that braved restrictions and state coercion to boot out the regime.

A Tumultuous Road Ahead

The president elect who is expected to take office in mid-November now has his task cut out. He has to wield a long and arduous battle to get a real grip over the civil and military administration that have proven loyalty for Yameen. Apparently, many officials of the election commission were openly cheering  for Yameen. Thus, Solih has to salvage the country’s democratic institutions, especially the judiciary and election commission that have turned complete rubber stamps for the current regime.

The second and most difficult challenge that Solih would face is keeping coalition partners together. The fact is the united opposition is an unholy coalition that includes two fierce rivals, Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed, both former presidents as well as two unlikely parties, the Adhaalath Party, a pro-Islam religious party with its radical agenda, and the Jumhooree Party, run by a business tycoon, Qasim Ibrahim. Ironically, the same combination helped Yameen defeat Nasheed in the 2013 polls.

The third and most difficult task is managing the country’s relations with two Asian giants — India and China.

With 70 per cent debt exposure to China and several big ticket projects underway from the same country, Solih will struggle to fulfill his promise of cutting down Chinese influence.

India's Role

The Maldives’s election outcome is seen as a second shot at democracy, the first being the 2008 election that saw a young, rookie political activist Mohamed Nasheed easily defeating the long-time dictator Abdul Gayoom. India, the region’s biggest democratic powerhouse and the Maldives’s closest ally, gets its second big opportunity to shepherd the island nation’s democratic journey. At the moment, India maintains excellent rapport with opposition parties and enjoys wide approval among Maldivian society for its positive role, particularly in the last one year that witnessed a 45-day emergency in February and widespread repression by the incumbent government. India did the right thing by not succumbing to a growing chorus of security and strategic community for military intervention during the national emergency — that would have handed Yameen a clear anti-India card to exploit.

Delhi seems to have learned a lesson from its bitter experience during the undeclared blockade in Nepal which caused much damage to its goodwill among the Nepalese population.

Sunday’s outcome should not prompt Delhi to read it as a verdict against China either.

The Sri Lankan experience should remind India that given its economic and strategic heft, China will continue to be an influential player in the region, including in the Maldives. Rather than getting obsessive about keeping China out of this strategic archipelago of the Indian Ocean, India should work with other powers, particularly the United States (US) and European Union to ensure that the Maldives’ transition to democracy remains on smooth course. It should be emphasised that all through his authoritarian turn, Yameen was strongly countered and exposed by the combination of India, the US and EU. The US had come closer to levying economic sanctions. Therefore, the election outcome offers a rare opportunity for India to work in tandem with the US and EU to help the Maldives navigate its democratic transition.

In short, as rightly pointed out by a noted analyst, “India needs to aid Maldives’s democratic transition, not just get overzealous about its strategic and security interests”.

This commentary originally appeared in DailyO.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

Read More +