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Maldives poll: Opposition too playing balancing-act on China?

With only weeks left for the 23 September presidential elections, the MDP-Joint Opposition (JO) has started playing the post-poll ‘balancing act’ as much as China as on Saudi Arabia. However, candidate Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih’s pledges, also covering Maldives restoring ties with Qatar and Iran, and returning to the British Commonwealth, impinges on his election victory, to begin with.

To the extent Solih has begun talking about post-poll ties of the nation, the MDP-JO’s democracy campaign through the past years may have taken a back-seat. Likewise, the Election Commission’s decision to let his candidacy stay on, unlike what was anticipated by sections of the MDP-JO, has also sort of made the ‘democracy campaign’ less relevant than it was when first launched under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, now imprisoned by half-brother incumbent Abdulla Yameen, a decade ago, in 2008.

It was possibly thus that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first-time personal observations on the continual bilateral/multilateral ‘democracy discourse’ on Maldives went almost unnoticed in Maldives than in the anti-Yameen Opposition media. So did the commentary in China’s Global Times that Maldives ‘wanted to shed excessive Indian influence’. These are both positions that would be vindicated one way or the other by the election results, but carry little to no weight at this stage in the campaign-war that is slowly but surely heating up.

Conducive environment

Political developments in the Maldives “have been a matter of considerable international concern”, Prime Minister Modi told The Times of India newspaper in one of his rare, emailed media interviews, last fortnight. “We hope that (the) Maldives Government will ensure early resumption of the political process and allow democratic institutions, including the judiciary to function independently in a fair and transparent manner,” he said further. “This will create (a) conducive environment for the presidential elections,” PM Modi said, reiterating the oft-repeated Indian position on Maldivian elections in recent months.

If PM Modi’s personal observations came when Maldives was already on election-mode, where the pro-democracy political Opposition too was increasingly focussing on issues of daily concern for the common man, so did the Global Times’s unsolicited comments. Referring to the reiterated Maldivian call for India to take back two gifted military helicopters along with their crew, the commentary said that this reflected the country’s “increasing desire to rid itself of the excessive Indian influence”. 

Cat out of the bag

The Global Times said it was wrong for India to assume that China had influenced the Maldivian decision in this regard, claiming that Beijing “does not interfere in any country’s internal affairs”. Conversely, the newspaper claimed that the Indian move was a part of the Indo-Pacific ‘Quad bloc’ efforts of India, Australia, Japan and the US, to “contain” China. It did not elaborate.

Possibly holding unsolicited brief also for Maldives and Ahmed Mohammed, the nation’s India Ambassador who reiterated the call for the recall of the helicopters, as if commissioned by them both, the Global Times said, “New Delhi has long regarded the South Asian island-nation as its backyard and sphere of influence, with a strong desire to tighten its grip on the capital city of Male and exclude other countries” influence…As an independent sovereign country, the island-republic increasingly desires to rid itself of excessive Indian influence and maximise its interests by developing diplomatic ties with all major powers.”

The cat was out of the bag when the Global Times went on to talk about the helicopter issue, as if it had access to the Maldivian thinking on the subject – and exclusively so. “The request for the withdrawal of the helicopters and personnel is an embodiment of such a desire and sends an important message to all major powers in the Indo-Pacific region,” the commentary said.

In arguing two parallel cases at the same time, one for China and another for Maldives, or at least the incumbent Yameen leadership in Male, the Global Times seems to have resorted to the old tactic of ‘mixing the metaphors’.

Continuing/restoring ties

It is in this context, the MDP-JO candidate Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ibu’ Solih’s early campaign commitment that if elected President, his leadership would (continue) to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia and China, need to be viewed and understood. In the same vein, Solih also declared that an MDP-JO Government would restore diplomatic ties with Iran and Qatar, unilaterally broken by the Yameen presidency, as if to please Saudi Arabia, if not at Riyadh’s ‘behest’. An MDP-JO administration would also seek to return to the Commonwealth, from which again Yameen pulled out unilaterally, when initiatives on the ‘democracy front’ heated up to a point of no-return.

Under Yameen’s care, China has funded the prestigious and politically-visible ‘Sini-male Friendship Bridge’, connecting capital Male and airport-island Hulhule. China is also into other large-scale ‘development funding’ in the Indian Ocean archipelago, and is also expected to take up the second-phase housing project on Hulumale’, Male’s, reclaimed suburban-island.

With Male always space-starved for housing, and hence is also the costliest capital city in South Asia, the electoral appeal of such projects cannot be wished away. Maybe aware of the financial commitments that a new government could not redeem to shake off China at will, Solih seems to be going soft on China since the campaign started, whatever be the political script, otherwise.

In the same vein, Solih also told the MDP-sympathetic Raajje TV that Saudi Arabia was a friendly nation and is an Islamic nation as Maldives. The clarification may have been required after Solih’s long-time friend and party boss, former President, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed derided Yameen’s running-mate, Islamic scholar, Dr Mohammed Shaheem Ali Saeed, for purported leanings to the Saudis. This did not seem to have gone down well with a section of the nation’s population, including some staunch followers of the MDP and Nasheed, particularly women.

For one, Saudi Arabia is the guardian of Islam’s top two pilgrim-centres, namely, Mecca and Medina, and Muslims across the world, including Maldivians, save their last penny, to offer prayers there. Both under Yameen, and even earlier, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations in West Asia have been traditional beneficiaries of Maldivian development plans, going back to the days of President Ibrahmin Nasir in the seventies, and his successor, Gayoom, who ruled for 30 long years, until MDP’s Nasheed replaced him in Elections-2008. Here again, it is unclear if a MDP-JO administration would want to pull out of the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance, floated as a counter-terrorism coalition in December 2015.

Maldivian model?

Interestingly, under the Yameen command in Male, what was seen as being impossible in the past has become possible, but on parallel tracks. It is here that ‘religion’, and also anti-religion / anti-god, global communism have found common ground in the name of development-funding. Whether the ‘Maldivian model’ can get replicated in much of rest of South Asia is a question for the Indian behemoth in the region to ponder over.

As is known, four of the eight nations in the region, namely, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives, have Muslim (majority) populations. Most of South Asian nations are also linked to China through Beijing’s ‘Bridge and Road Initiative’ (BRI). Needless to point out each one of these nations in the region, barring India, is also in near-eternal demand for developmental-funding up to foreseeable future.

In this context, Solih’s pledge to restore ties with Qatar, Iran and the Commonwealth comes as a signal that a future Maldivian government under an MDP-JO leadership would follow a truly ‘independent’ foreign policy, even if it meant continuing the current ties with China and Saudi Arabia, in whatever ways and forms possible. He said that that Maldives was ‘straying further’ owing to Yameen’s foreign policy.

Ironically, while unveiling his foreign policy document 20 January 2014, only months after his return to power, Yameen had declared that his initiative was aimed at strengthening the nation’s economy, so as to make its foreign policy ‘independent’ of outside influences and interventions (read: India’s). If one were to go by the continuing experience of South Asian neighbour Sri Lanka, such initiatives without tall claims to ‘independent foreign policy’, the incumbent Government readily admits that China’s massive development funding of the Hambantota Port kind have led to a ‘debt-trap’.

It is in this context, Solih’s commitment on continuing with the China ties if elected needs to be understood. Like incumbent counterparts in Sri Lanka, he seems hopeful of distinguishing and distancing development aid, even if has already led to a debt-trap, from a future/futuristic foreign policy that is as much independent as it would be transparent.

Reversing decision

On specifics, Solih told Raajje TV that nations such as Qatar can play a key-role in developments across the country, such as in the education sector with the provision of scholarships, clearly indicating that those nations, for instance, could become limited substitutes for Saudi funding in these sectors. The youth of the country has lost these opportunities owing to strained bilateral ties under Yameen, he said.

Solih, however, did not explain how an administration under him would reverse the current Maldivian decision to snap Qatari ties, deriving from the Saudi claims that the latter supported terrorism. It was so also in the case of Iran, where the traditional Sunni-Shia divide in the Islamic world provided an added cause/justification, for Saudi Arabia for long, and for Maldives in the past couple of years under Yameen’s care.

Like Saudi Arabia and most other Islamic nations in West Asia,  Maldives is a Sunni-Islamic nation, though practising a local variant of ‘moderate Islam’ all along. Even the 2008 ‘democracy’ Constitution reiterated that only Sunni Muslims could become Maldivian citizens, and hence occupy every elected and nominated public office, starting with the presidency.

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