Nasheed’s return: China too deeply entrenched in the Maldives now

Both Nasheed and Solih have stated they would be revisiting Chinese projects, but it’s unlikely that any major Chinese project’d be scrapped

Anand Kumar

The multi-party democracy that was ushered in the Maldives in 2008 had suffered a setback in February 2012 when the first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed was removed from power in a rebellion of police and the armed forces. Since then the democracy in the Maldives has been struggling for its survival. The presidential election that was held on 23 September this year has given the democracy in the country another chance to strengthen itself. However the question still remains whether the domestic politics of the Maldives and the interests of external players because of the strategic location of the Maldives would allow this to happen.

For the time being, the democracy in the Maldives seems to have overcome its major hurdles. Many people did not expect that the presidential elections conducted under the regime of incumbent president Abdulla Yameen would be free and fair. A number of reports had appeared in the run-up to these elections suggesting that Yameen was trying to manipulate them by influencing Election Commission and was even doctoring the voters' list. It seems the gap between Yameen and the joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was so huge that despite these attempts he could not alter the election results. Solih got an emphatic win and polled 58 percent of the votes. Yameen made a last-ditch effort to annul the democratic choice made by the Maldivian people by complaining to the Election Commission and even the Supreme Court of the Maldives. These attempts to throttle democracy, however, failed as international pressure increased on Yameen to honour the verdict of the people.

Now the Maldives is set for a political transition and the new government headed by president-elect Mohamed Solih would take charge on 17 November 2018. Maldives has already started preparing for this political change as a number of important leaders including former president Abdul Gayoom who were put behind bars during the autocratic regime of Yameen have been freed. Even the former president Nasheed who was jailed on false charges of terrorism for arresting a former criminal court judge has been allowed to return. The Supreme Court intimated the law enforcement authorities in the Maldives not to arrest Nasheed as long as his appeal against conviction is pending before it.

The defeat of Yameen in the presidential elections in the Maldives has only created some strategic space for India. Now it remains to be seen whether India would be able to capitalize on this opportunity.

This has allowed Nasheed to return to the country to a hero’s welcome. Nasheed is actually the main opposition figure but he could not contest against Yameen as he was not permitted by the EC. This situation had forced the joint opposition to put up a lesser known candidate Mohamed Solih. However, now after his return to the Maldives, Nasheed is expected to play an active role in the Maldivian politics. But there is no clarity about its nature so far.

It is believed that under the new dispensation Maldivian foreign policy would considerably change. Nasheed when in power used to talk about India first policy. Even former president Abdul Gayoom has recently said that events of last few years would not deviate the Maldives from its India first policy. Thus it can be expected that the Maldives under the new regime would come closer to India. This, however, does not mean that China would lose all its influence.

The Chinese are too deeply entrenched in the Maldives to be ousted from the Maldives any time soon. Maldives has taken huge debt from China. Under Yameen Maldives signed a free trade agreement with China. This has allowed China to become its largest trading partner. Maldives has also endorsed Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and is an important player to further this pet project of Chinese president Xi Jinping. Under the Belt and Road Initiative Chinese have implemented a number of infrastructure projects of questionable utility. This has raised the debt level of the Maldives. Today the sovereign debt of the Maldives is about $1.3 billion which is about 40 percent of its GDP. Maldives is one of the eight countries which are seen as vulnerable to debt trap because of their participation in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Both Nasheed and Solih have stated that they would be revisiting Chinese projects, but it is unlikely that any major Chinese projects would be scrapped. As has happened in the case of Sri Lanka, it would be difficult for the Maldivians to shake off the control of China. Top leaders like former president Abdul Gayoom already seem guarded in their statements against China. China has also stated that it does not expect the new government to do anything that would affect the conducive environment for the Chinese investments.

The defeat of Yameen in the presidential elections in the Maldives has only created some strategic space for India. Now it remains to be seen whether India would be able to capitalize on this opportunity.

The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the swearing-in ceremony of Solih on October 17, confirmed by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on Friday, would mark a fresh start to India’s relations with the Maldives.

(The author is the Chair of Indian Studies at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania).

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