The name “Maldives” in its foremost occurrence immediately leads us visualising pristine white-sand beaches, turquoise blue oceans and lavish resorts. Popular amongst travellers as an exotic holiday destination, this Indian Ocean island nation has very recently hit the international headlines as an instance of the triumph of democracy. Additionally, the Maldives’ geographic location is a critical confluence of competition between China and India, the two Asian giants. Therefore, the internal political dynamics of the country, which is set to welcome a fresh leader, is believed to have consequences on the overall regional geopolitical setting.
On September 23, the results of the presidential elections indicated a clear-cut victory for Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the joint opposition candidate, who received nearly 58.3% of the votes. The Maldivian Democratic Party, the Jumhooree Party and the Adhaalath Party – three political parties had joined hands together to form an opposition alliance. The incumbent president, Abdulla Yameen (a representative of the Progressive Party of Maldives), a fortnight after losing with roughly 38,484 lesser votes, tried to challenge the election results by filing a petition in the Supreme Court requesting invalidation of the polls. As per the Maldives Election Commission, the overall voter turnout in the election was around 89.22%. The country’s apex court, on October 21, upheld the results and rejected Yameen’s plea, thus unblocking the path of transfer of power to president-elect “Ibu” Solih. The power transition is scheduled to be held on November 17, and the new president will assume office for a five-year term.
Democracy is comparatively new to the Maldivian population. The Maldives had gained independence from British colonial monarchy in 1965 and was declared a presidential republic in 1968, with Ibrahim Nasir as the president. Following that, the archipelagic nation witnessed 30 long years of dictatorship under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008). It is only in the 21st century that democratisation happened, with the first multi-party election being held in 2008 and Mohamed Nasheed as the first democratically elected president of the country. The Maldivian presidency endured a handful of forceful transitions shortly after the advent of democracy, probably on account of being a novice in the new political system. Nasheed was reportedly forced to resign from his office in 2012 as a result of a coup by the then opposition. Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who was the Vice President, experienced a short-lived tenure as the president succeeding Nasheed. Next, a fresh round of elections was held in 2013, which are believed to be “highly contested”, leading to Abdulla Yameen winning and taking over the presidency.
The government of Maldives under the leadership of Yameen soon revealed authoritarian traits with frequent arrests of several opponents and critics, a clampdown on dissension, thereby corroding democratic values as well as corruption across the country. This year, in February, the already-simmering crisis further worsened with domestic turmoil hitting hard in the Maldives. President Yameen had defied a ruling by the Supreme Court which ordered for the release of nine opposition leaders and also reinstating 12 legislators; he instead ordered for the arrest of two judges including the Chief Justice, several other activists and opposition leaders. Moreover, among the arrested was ex-President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is Yameen’s half-brother. A 45-days state emergency prevailed till March 22.
Although it is a tiny archipelago of coral atolls, the Maldives is of immense strategic importance because of its location across the shipping lanes starting from the Middle East up to the Far East, through South Asia. An Indian naval base is situated at the Lakshadweep islands, India’s southernmost tip, which is at a mere distance of 70 nautical miles from the northernmost point of the Maldives. Off late, there is an increasing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, and particularly in the Maldives, which has led to considerable unease within the leadership in New Delhi. Yameen’s tenure saw the Maldives growing closer to China through the financing of large infrastructure projects by Beijing under the aegis of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The outgoing Maldivian president had borrowed exorbitant debts from China, which established an embassy in the capital Malé in as recent as 2011.
India, being a close neighbour as well as a traditions-old economic and security partner, has had an influence in the Maldives. In 1988, at the request of the then government under President Gayoom, Operation Cactus was launched by India in an attempt to suppress the mercenary forces who sought to overthrow the ruling government. However, given the present regional security dynamics that is marked by the presence of other international players, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in addition to China, India preferred not to take concrete steps towards sending troops in the Maldives during the recent February crisis. The increased Chinese presence within the Maldives can be highlighted as a major reason for India being pushed away, especially with the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Malé growing at a great pace under Yameen.
Now that a new leader would soon be sworn-in, the road ahead is critical for the Maldives. The new leadership has to carefully balance between the two principal regional players, as well as work hard to restore the fragile democratic institutions internally. For a country which has been struggling to build up a strong democratic framework since its independence, it will need the support of other robust democracies nearer home or elsewhere. Needless to say, the government’s activities under the new president will be monitored very closely by both the Chinese and Indian leadership that might have a substantial impact on the overall geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region.
Meera Srinivasan, “Maldives judiciary upholds poll result,” The Hindu, October 21, 2018, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/yameens-defeat-in-maldives-election-upheld-by-supreme-court/article25279398.ece
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Maldives shock election: China’s loss and India’s win?” Observer Research Foundation, October 21, 2018, available at https://www.orfonline.org/research/maldives-shock-election-china-loss-india-win/
Ankit Panda, “A Belated Election Crisis? Maldives’ Outgoing President Challenges September 2018 Election Results,” The Diplomat, October 16, 2018, available at https://thediplomat.com/2018/10/a-belated-election-crisis-maldives-outgoing-president-challenges-september-2018-election-results/
Bruce Riedel, “Maldives democracy prevails for now,” Brookings, September 27, 2018, available at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/09/27/maldives-democracy-prevails-for-now/
Ankit Panda, “Maldives Voters Grant Decisive Victory to Opposition Candidate in Blow to Pro-China Leader,” The Diplomat, September 24, 2018, available at https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/maldives-voters-grant-decisive-victory-to-opposition-candidate-in-blow-to-pro-china-leader/