09/08/2023, 18.21
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Maldives election: voters at a crossroad between India first and India out

by Alessandra De Poli

Just as the world focuses on the G20 summit New Delhi tomorrow, Maldivians vote in a crucial presidential election. Traditionally pro-India, the country’s diplomatic relations began to shift in 2013 with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the election of President Abdulla Yameen who ruled in an authoritarian fashion. The current president, Ibrahim Solih, is confident of winning in the first round, but experts believe a run-off cannot be ruled out.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Maldivians are going to the polls tomorrow to pick a new president. The election campaign has been dominated by those who stand for "India first" and those who want "India out".

As the world is set on this weekend’s G20 summit in New Delhi, without Chinese President Xi Jinping, this Indian Ocean paradise – seemingly far away from the world’s troubles – has become a arena for the rising Sino-Indian rivalry.

Since independence in 1965, India has been closely tied to the Maldives, first under the authoritarian rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom from 1978 to 2008 (during which Indian assistance thwarted a coup attempt in 1988), and then under the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed.

Things began to unravel in 2013 when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a global infrastructure development strategy, and Abdulla Yameen was elected president for the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Last year, the latter was convicted on corruption and money-laundering charges and is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence.

In his term of office, Yameen favoured Chinese infrastructure projects (including the construction of a new airstrip at the capital's airport and a bridge connecting the capital to a nearby island), signed a trade agreement with China, and asked Beijing for large loans, placing the country at risk of a debt trap.

In 2018, the debt stood at US$ 1.5 billion, a significant amount for a country whose GDP is under US$ 9 billion.

Accused of muzzling dissent and silencing the press (during his term of office two well-known journalists were murdered), Yameen himself escaped an attempted coup blamed on his vice president who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The election in 2018 of Ibrahim Solih was therefore welcomed as a return to democracy. His party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was founded in exile during the authoritarian rule of President Gayoom.

Solih immediately pulled out of trade agreements with China, opting for an "India first" policy and asked New Delhi for its support, but he too increased the country’s foreign debt.

In 2020, Indian tourists overtook Chinese and European holiday makers. And during the pandemic, the Maldives became a playground for “vaccine diplomacy", with both India and China supplying vaccines for free.

In the past few years, India's approach to the Maldives has been geared towards concrete action to impact Maldivians’ lives, providing public lighting, playgrounds, hospitals, and infrastructural links.

New Delhi now has plans for more projects aimed at reducing youth unemployment, which stood at 5.3 per cent in 2019.

However, Solih's presidency has been tarnished by charges of nepotism and corruption, creating a rift with Mohamed Nasheed, the speaker of parliament and another founding member of the MDP.

Nasheed, who is also highly critical of China’s presence in Maldives, led a breakaway faction in the MDP, setting up a new party, the Democrats, last May.

Its candidate in tomorrow’s election, Ilyas Labeeb, is the youngest of the eight candidates in the race at 44, this in a country where 57 per cent of the population is aged 18 to 44.

Meanwhile, the PPM, instead of Yameen, will run with Mohamed Muizzu, a former mayor of Malé. Although he too is pro-China, he has avoided openly criticising India in the election campaign.

Political analysts believe that vote, will be a two-way race between the MDP and the PPM.

MDP officials say that they are confident of winning in a single round (ehburunn). However, many observers believe that a runoff cannot be ruled out, since the electorate is highly fragmented, increasing the chances that no single candidate will get more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Before he went to prison, Yameen backed the "India Out" strategy, criticising the lack of transparency of the agreements with the Indian government and India’s military presence, and helped by popular dissatisfaction with Solih’s tax hikes.

Last year, the government responded with a presidential decree banning “campaigns that incite hatred against various countries under different slogans.”

It is unclear whether this will have a lasting effect even in the event of a Solih victory. Recently, to win over voters in the capital, the current administration granted thousands of plots of land to residents of an overcrowded city like Malé, hit by a housing crisis.

Experts note that, for the first time since 2008, Maldives elections are taking place in a far less tense atmosphere than in the past; in fact, none of the opposition candidates face judicial retaliation.

Meanwhile, international observers report a significant rise in corruption within the ruling MDP. For its part, The Democrats party, founded by Nasheed and led by Labeed, has indicated that it is open to working with the PPM in case of victory, an absolute novelty for the island country.


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