India will find it difficult to match Chinese influence in the Maldives
Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, President turned tinpot dictator of the Maldives, finally accepted defeat in presidential elections held on 23 September, 2018. Yameen, who must demit office on November 17, has said he would quit and handover power peacefully to Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who won the election.
Solih, the combined opposition candidate, secured 58 percent of the vote while Yameen polled 41 percent. There was apprehension that Yameen, who had earlier imposed an emergency and leaned excessively towards China, would not allow free and fair elections. Police raided the Solih’s campaign headquarters just a day before elections and the European Union and United Nations refused to send observers. Yameen denied visas to journalists, especially from India, and international observers.
Yameen had assumed dictatorial powers and convicted the former President and Vice President for terrorism and jailed former ruler Abdul Maumoon Gayoom (his half-brother), Supreme Court judges and a former police commissioner. The voter registration process was doubtful and several opposition leaders had to flee the country. The US and EU threatened that if elections were rigged, sanctions would be imposed. So there was widespread apprehension that the polls would be rigged and Solih denied not allowed to win.
After the results emerged, India wasted no time welcoming the result and congratulating Solih on his victory. The Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement on September 24 said, “We welcome the successful completion of the third Presidential election process in the Maldives which, according to preliminary information, Mr. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has won. We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest”. The press release further called the election result “the triumph of democratic forces”.
The MEA, increasingly worried over the rising influence of China and Saudi Arabia on the Maldives, issued the statement before the election commission formally announced the results. Sri Lanka, United States and United Kingdom also issued congratulatory statement on the basis of provisional results to pressurise Yameen to not dare to negate the election outcome. The US press statement, while congratulating Solih, also contained a veiled threat to Yameen.
Dictators always try to exploit the religious sentiments of people. In the same way, Yameen weakened democratic institutions and started radicalising the country. Gulf monarchies particularly provided generous assistance to construct mosques and madrassas to enhance Islamic education and Wahabi influence.
The per capita recruitment to Islamic State (IS) was highest from Maldives. When these hardened terrorists returned from Iraq and Syria, the government did not taken any action against them. Islamic fundamentalist outfits found protection from government and harassed the media, civil society and persons of other faiths with impunity.
The Maldives election result has strengthened democracy in Asia where democratic institutions like a free press, independent judiciary and free and fair elections are diminishing in many countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Thailand. It is easy for China to increase its influence in undemocratic regimes.
India was concerned about rising Chinese influence in the archipelago nation as China is trying to build a military base in a southern atoll and control crucial sea-routes. Reports claim that China has built a joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo, from where China can control important sea routes, the South China Sea and other inhabited and uninhabited islands. The observation station can accommodate submarines.
There was immense pressure on the Indian government from former President Mohamed Nasheed and some foreign countries to take military action, but New Delhi declined and opted to wait and watch.
Although Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party has won the elections, India must tread carefully as Beijing has successfully struck deep roots which will be difficult for the new government to uproot. Although Solih has promised to “reassess” all projects, China is involved in several major projects, including the $830 million renovation of the airport and a $400 million Bridge to link the airport with capital Male. Chinese loans make up roughly 70 percent of the country’s total debt and Male has to repay $92 million a year.
India cannot match China’s surplus cash reserves, so Beijing will go all out to entice Solih. Since India does not have such deep pockets and a vital issue of maritime security in the Indian Ocean is involved, New Delhi could seek assistance from Japan, United States and European Union.