Maldives gets new president: Ibrahim Mohamed Solih gives India a good opportunity to mend bilateral relations

Voters are a smarter lot that most venal politicians think. After a period of emergency, jailing of opposition leaders, and muzzling of a liberal press, the voting public in the Maldives have ousted President Abdulla Yameen with a huge majority. The prevailing hope is that the change to lawmaker Ibrahim Mohamed Solih will bring some stability into a country that depends so heavily on tourism to keep its home fires burning.

 Maldives gets new president: Ibrahim Mohamed Solih gives India a good opportunity to mend bilateral relations

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. AP

Initial reports suggest a more than 80 percent turn out across the country, indicating the depth of resentment against the sitting president. Messages of congratulations from major countries including the United States and India among others have already begun to pour in preventing Yameen from executing any attempt to roll back the people's verdict. After all, it was only in June that the Election Commission declared former president Mohamed Nasheed ineligible to run for president, despite his winning the primaries with 43,922 of the 44,011 votes cast. In August, the presidential spokesman was attempting to muddy the waters by warning of a plot to unseat the president. And just prior to polling, The Hindu reported a police raid on Opposition headquarters which raised fears that the polls would be rigged. In the event, that raid probably strengthened voters resolve to be out of the sorry mess that the Maldives has been ever since political instability began in 2015, with Nasheed was convicted of terrorism charges in what most saw as a mock-up trial, and dissenting political leaders and Supreme Court judges were thrown into jail.

Even as the country celebrates the win, the fact remains that the victor, Ibrahim Mohammad Solih is a consensus candidate of the joint opposition, which includes the MDP, the Jumhooree Party, the Adhaalat Party and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s own faction of the Progressive Party. There were months of bickering and invective between these rather unlikely partners, and the end result was the selection of Solih, a reformer and a close friend of Nasheed for the last four decades. Solih has been known for propagating a multiparty system since 2001. He was a Council member when the MDP (Maldivian Democratic Party) was formed in 2003 and was in the part forefront when the multiparty system was accepted. According to those who know him, Solih is a low key operator and someone who can defuse any crisis with his invariably calm demeanour. He’s going to need that particular quality a lot in the coming days.

The Opposition is, after all, anything but united, though they have stood shoulder to shoulder against president Yameen. But being against someone can only provide so much glue. The fact that leaders are linked to one another in a confusing mix of often competitive relationships only makes matters worse. Yameen, for instance, is the half-brother of Gayoom. That didn’t prevent the latter from consigning him to the prison, even though he owed much to the former strongman. Gayoom’s own son Faris is a presidential hopeful, but without the political base that the MDP leader has. That led to Gayoom cosying up to Nasheed during his years in exile, particularly after he himself was targeted by the enterprising Yameen. Solih’s wife is the first cousin to Nasheed which makes him a relative. In other connections, Jumhooree Party’s Gasim Ibrahim owes his rise to the patronage of Gayoom’s brother-in-law.

The agendas of the joint opposition are also likely to clash. Gasim (or Qasim) Ibrahim, head of the Jumhooree Party is Maldives very own log cabin to White House story. Starting his life in dire poverty, he is now known as the richest man in the Maldives. He owns the Villa Group, with schools, colleges and tourist resorts to his name. The party published a manifesto only in July. As the media point out, that manifesto is at odds with that of the MDP. For instance, the MDP wants a parliamentary system of government, while the JP prefers the existing system.

Luckily for Maldives neighbours, the manifesto also promises to “Not give up any strategic investment of the state or main gateways of the country in a manner that disrupts Maldivian sovereignty. Such important assets should always remain under the full power of the government”. He also promises to re-join the Commonwealth, which Yameen had left in a huff. Then there is the small matter of a reported $40 million which was loaned to the Villa Group when Gasim was the finance minister between 2005-08. Now reports are that his empire is in severe financial straits. He may need bailing out by his comrades in arms. He and others like him which includes such businessmen as Ahmed ‘Sun’ Siyam, Mohamed Umar Manik and Hussain Afeef, own at least 26 resorts between them -- among other businesses. With the huge staff they quite literally command, they provide voters on demand. Not the best way to start a government that is already in debt.

Then there is the Adhaalat Party’s Sheikh Imran Abdullah who was also jailed on charges of terrorism after he made a speech against Yameen. Worse, he was later transferred to a unit that housed murderers and inmates convicted of serious crimes. Yameen certainly didn’t hold back his punches. His party’s manifesto is strong on religion (12 points) and good governance (9 points). This is the junior party, but will likely have a stronger clout since it may emerge as the swing factor between the larger components of the government.

There is no doubt that the inspiration and influence behind the new government will be Nasheed, who has of late been appealing to India and the US to intervene in his troubled country. He has also accused China of ‘colonising” his country, a charge that has some basis given the figures thrown up by different studies. One by the Centre for Global Development and another by Gateway House underlines that massive Maldivian debt to China — estimated at $1.5 billion — is endangering democracy. Certainly, Yameen had become increasingly dictatorial after his cosying up to Beijing.

Having burnt his fingers, Nasheed, however, is likely to want to ease out on Chinese investments. That’s not going to be easy. First, the Chinese firms are already well entrenched in the islands with some 17 projects, with the airport and “Friendship Bridge” probably being the largest. Second, the country is already in a severe debt crisis that according to the International Monetary Fund is about 120 percent of the GDP. If the Maldives has to give up on its Chinese addiction, someone has to come up with the dibs. It may be time to polish up the GMR nameplate again, even as friends and well-wishers hand out the plate to help the Maldives. As for India, take care that bureaucratic norms don’t delay getting a firm foot into the archipelago. The Maldives is not known for sustained democratic exercises. The present favourable situation could change at any time.

Updated Date: Sep 25, 2018 07:39:26 IST