Maldives election: President Ibrahim Solih's thumping victory a positive for India, but dark clouds hover in distance
The result of the recent election in the Maldives is likely to make a lot of politicians green with envy. From all accounts, it's a landslide win for President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)
Everything therefore looks very hunky dory for the president, as well as former president Mohamed Nasheed — now elected as an MP from Malé
Following the fracas with China last year, and threats of intervention, New Delhi has stepped up smartly to not only provide budgetary support, but also sign agreements directed at assisting Maldives to support itself once again
India must keep up the engagement and assistance well into the next government, and not let its attention be diverted — which has happened often enough in the past
The result of the recent election in the Maldives is likely to make a lot of politicians green with envy. From all accounts, it's a landslide win for President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Claiming around 60 of 87 seats in the Majlis or Parliament completely negates the need to stitch together yet another coalition, and the wheeling and dealing that it entails. It's also an unprecedented experience for a political party in the Maldives' evolving experiment in democracy. No party has ever been able to cross even 50 percent of the vote so far in a parliamentary election.
Everything therefore looks very hunky dory for the president, as well as former president Mohamed Nasheed — now elected as an MP from Malé. Nasheed's triumph is particularly poignant. As the first democratically-elected president, and the founder of the MDP, he was forced to live in exile and barred from contesting for presidency by a supine court under the previous government headed by Abdullah Yameen.
His newly-formed Peoples National Congress has been mauled badly. That's hardly surprising. There was very little Yameen did not do to alarm and frighten much of an otherwise peaceful population. What may also have tilted the balance strongly against Yameen would have been the loss of income from tourism — the mainstay of Maldivian lives — which dwindled to virtually nothing as political instability worsened under his "rule". Money, or in this case the loss of it, talks every time.
While Solih and Nasheed can now heave a sigh of relief, there are storm clouds ahead.
The first of these is the question of propitiating coalition partners, who were after all responsible for bringing Solih to presidency last year. The MDP's decision to go it alone in the present parliamentary election has been seen as a betrayal of the trust placed in the quiet and dignified president. The Jamhooree Party (JP) of Gasim Ibrahim then decided to ally with Yameen's PNC and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in a seat adjustment exercise together — a decision they are probably now bitterly regretting. The JP won five seats after fielding 41 candidates in a performance that was probably worse than that of Yameen's party.
Earlier, Gasim had also used his position as Speaker to scuttle the tabling of the Presidential Commission Bill aimed at recovering billions of stolen assets and investigating unsolved murders. Had that bill been passed into law, Yameen's future would have been dangerous in the extreme. Gasim had also been demanding the release of Yameen from detention, all this despite the fact that he owes his imprisonment and that of his son to the very same former president. But then that's politics.
While Solih has repeatedly said that the coalition will remain intact, the reality is that the relationship has now changed with no doubts as to who now holds the whip. There were already indications that members of the JP were still supporting Solih. Ironically, those included Gasim's wife, who is the present transport minister. Families are split in this election, with former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's son on the side of the PPM. But with the MDP's dominant position, unruly elements are likely to get in line.
Moreover, the shift to a Westminster system promised by the MDP and the proven ability of Solih to bring together recalcitrant elements on a common platform, is likely to ensure that Maldivians — sorely beset by political infighting — can look forward to a period of calm and positive shifts in governance. Reform should ideally include removal of repressive laws, giving judiciary its due constitutional place, and setting right all the institutions that underpin democracy.
All of the above is also related to the second challenge, which is primarily the issue of Chinese investment in Maldives that has turned into a debt trap. The actual numbers are somewhat feisty. Nasheed was quoted in a Reuters report, that the Chinese ambassador Jhang Lizong handed over an invoice for $3.2 billion. Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House has estimated that three large Chinese projects come to around $1.5 billion, which is about 40 percent of the Maldivian GDP. China also holds leases on seven of the archipelago's islands, and has spread money into housing, tourism and other sectors. The most surprising is the Free Trade Agreement with Malé — which was rushed through Parliament in about an hour — which essentially allows China to use the Maldives as a base for re-export into India. The new government may easily scrap the FTA, provided India is willing to assist Malé in getting out of the debt trap into which it has fallen.
For once, India has risen to the occasion. Following the fracas with China last year, and threats of intervention, New Delhi has stepped up smartly to not only provide budgetary support, but also sign agreements directed at assisting Maldives to support itself once again. Much of this is evident in the joint statement issued after the visit of Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj last month. The key statement in that document was that "India stands ready to fully support the Government of Maldives in its socioeconomic development".
That's the sort of thing Maldivian leaders like to hear. Especially when it is accompanied with a commitment of $1.5 billion as part of a financial assistance package. In return, Malé will sign on to India's growing maritime surveillance and security plans for the Indian Ocean. With Solih and his party now solidly in place, Indian purse strings are likely to be open even more, regardless of which government comes to power in Delhi.
While India can justifiably celebrate the victory of Solih and the establishment of a stable government so close to Indian shores, the reality is that the Chinese yoke cannot be dispelled so easily, given the sheer extent of Chinese presence and influence. For Beijing, this is only a temporary setback, and before long it will again try to rope in members of the government, and more dangerously, high-level army elements. The politicisation of the army is something Malé has to quietly and tactfully deal with, and quickly.
Meanwhile however, Maldives will find itself in a pretty position of being pursued by both Beijing and New Delhi. For India, that means keeping up the engagement and assistance well into the next government, and not let its attention be diverted — which has happened often enough in the past. Chinese machinations on the archipelago will hopefully keep India 'engaged'. Malé knows that only too well.
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