Diplomacy Politics

Maldives election paves way for China deals investigations

COLOMBO — A landslide parliamentary victory for the party of Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has strengthened his hand to investigate corruption during his pro-China predecessor’s term when the new session of the 87-seat legislature opens in May. The revelations are expected to test the ties between the strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago and China, its largest lender.

Solih wasted little time in driving home his anti-corruption message following the results of the April 6 election, where his Maldivian Democratic Party secured a record 65 seats. “The presidential commissions I established will hopefully start functioning at a better pace with the new parliament,” Solih told a crowd of raucous MDP supporters celebrating the electoral triumph.

“This is more bad news for China,” an MDP insider told the Nikkei Asian Review. “It is the second political defeat Beijing has suffered after investing millions of dollars to back a thug like [former President Abdulla] Yameen. It is worse because China did not openly reach out to Solih’s camp for this election.”

Last September, Solih campaigned on an anti-corruption platform to defeat Yameen, the incumbent, in a shock election outcome at the presidential polls. Yameen, who ruled the Maldives with an iron fist from 2013 to 2018, had depended on Chinese loans and financial assistance under the Belt and Road Initiative to consolidate his authority.

Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives had rallied behind his pro-China tilt to rush through the China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement to deepen Beijing’s foothold in a stretch of the Indian Ocean long regarded as the backyard of India, the South Asian regional power. Complaints by Yameen’s critics of kickbacks dogged the tilt by the Maldives toward China during his regime.

But Solih’s attempt to investigate corruption through a presidential commission he appointed soon after beginning his term last November was stalled in the parliament early this year. Objections were raised by an influential parliamentarian, Qasim Ibrahim, leader of the former main opposition Jumhooree Party.

Voters on the necklace of islands famous for high-end tourist resorts were in a different mood. They turned against the Jumhooree Party and Yameen’s PPM, giving them only five seats each in the Majlis, as the parliament is called. Qasim closed ranks with Yameen for last Saturday’s election, and campaigned on themes accusing Solih and the MDP of being in “India’s pocket.”

The drubbing allows the MDP to bask in a political landmark: Since the Maldives held its first multiparty elections in 2008, it will form the country’s first government without a coalition partner. The party’s strength in the new parliament — with more than a two-thirds majority — will also fortify it from threats of coups instigated by disgruntled coalition partners.

The super majority that the MDP secured “significantly increases the chances of the new government successfully addressing large-scale corruption carried out during President Yameen’s government,” said a political insider in Male, the Maldivian capital. “The Sinamale Bridge must definitely be scrutinized more closely.”

The $120 million Sinamale Bridge, which was opened to great fanfare last August, is one of the most visible symbols of Chinese infrastructure projects in the Maldives. The opening of the bridge, also called the Chinese-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which links the island of Male to a nearby island with the airport, was timed for Yameen to woo voters ahead of last September’s presidential election.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed, a Solih ally and front-runner to become the prime minister in the new MDP government, has led the charge to dig up the Chinese money trail linked to the bridge. His supporters have raised similar questions on alleged kickbacks that Yameen and his allies received from the $1.5 billion in Chinese loans for infrastructure projects.

According to some estimates, the $3.6 billion Maldivian economy could owe China as much as $3.2 billion in loans, double the value of Chinese loans on the official books. The loans were for upgrades to the country’s international airport, developing ports and housing projects, in addition to the bridge.

Yameen has consistently denied charges of kickbacks and accusations that he has sunk the country of 400,000 people, South Asia’s smallest nation, into a debt trap.

China is weighing in to protect its economic and strategic interests. “The Maldivians’ dream of living in contentment is just around the corner,” Zhang Lizhong, China’s ambassador to the Maldives, said in a late March address as the country was heading toward the polls.

“It can be said that the ‘Belt and Road’ cooperation between China and Maldives reflects the core principle of consultation and cooperation for shared beliefs,” he added. “What it has brought is an apple pie and development opportunity rather than the so-called ‘debt-trap’ or even geopolitical game tool.”

The envoy’s view is expected to compel the Solih administration to be more cautious in its anti-corruption drive.

“The government of the Maldives will seek to renegotiate with the Chinese in instances where it is evident that the Maldives has been given an overpriced deal as part of a rotten deal,” said a source following the anti-corruption inquiries.

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