The Democratic Republic of the Maldives has scheduled a general election for 23 September. It is expected to re-affirm the authoritarian rule of Abdulla Yameen and undermine many democratic norms that the country has built since holding its first multiparty election in 2008.
A delegation of European officials, including Members of the European Parliament (MEP), met with Maldivian Democratic Party members last month to discuss the undemocratic trends that have been witnessed in the archipelago of late. The delegation stated that attacks on democratic principles, combined with the country’s close ties to radical Islamist groups, have brought the security of European tourists, business and investors into question. After the government enacted unconstitutional laws that criminalised freedom of political opinion, a state of emergency was imposed in February. This led to the arrest of political opponents, human rights activists, journalists, Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Yameen’s political predecessor Maumoon Adbul Gayoom.
These events caused international concern, with the United Nations’ human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, accusing Yameen of destroying democracy. The Maldivian crackdown on dissent is seen as a violation of free and fair elections, with the European Union announcing its plan to impose sanctions, ranging from travel bans to freezing assets if the Yameen Administration does not allow parliament and the judiciary to function normally and independently.
Strategically, the Maldives provides a vital link between China and Europe, and could play a key role in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Nearly one-third of Chinese maritime commerce passes through Indian Ocean shipping routes. Beijing could use the strategic position of the Maldives to increase its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, which would enable it to: watch over those routes; protect its energy imports from the Middle East and Africa; and balance India’s influence in the region. China’s objective of establishing Indo-Pacific regional dominance, has led to active development in the Maldives. A report by the Centre for Global Development stated that the largest Chinese investment projects include: a US$830 million ($1.1 billion) upgrade to Malé’s international airport, which was originally granted to an Indian organisation and is on an island adjacent to the capital; and a US$200 million ($273 million) bridge that will link the airport island with the capital.
Chinese investment accounts for 70 per cent of the total Maldivian debt and annual repayments will reach US$92 million ($125 million), which amounts to ten per cent of the entire budget. The debt has raised suspicions that China is setting debt traps, with a concealed goal of controlling infrastructure when repayments are not met. That tactic was employed in Sri Lanka, where control of Hambantota Port was formally relinquished to China after Colombo failed to make debt repayments. The Maldives and China were drawn closer after the signing of a 1,000-page free trade agreement, after only an hour of discussion in Parliament. Describing China’s growing influence in the Maldives, former Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem voiced concerns that the situation has the potential to undermine democracy, security and stability in the entire Indian Ocean region.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced concern over India’s increasing isolation in the region, with the Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan all participating in China’s maritime initiatives. India is unable to match the development funding that China promises to provide. Chinese warships have visited Malé, while the Maldivian Government declined an invitation to participate in military exercises with the Indian navy earlier this year. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China will not interfere with the internal affairs of the Maldives. He said China supports the Maldivian Government resolving its own issues. That statement is not likely to reassure India, which is certain that the threats to Maldivian democracy are unlikely to be resolved internally.
Despite the dominant power of the Yameen Administration, there has been evidence of solidarity among the four Maldivian opposition parties. They have formed a coalition and selected veteran politician Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, as the party’s common candidate. Their efforts, however, are hindered by Yameen obstructing coalition campaigning by banning political advertisements, rallies and public meetings, in addition to controlling all major television networks.
MEP Thomas Zdechovsky has stated that the international community will not stand by and accept the result of an unfair election. He said that Europe and its member states will work with the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan to uphold democracy and the democratic process, with the threat of sanctions already announced.
Australia has stated that an election that does not include an opposition will not be recognised and is urging the government to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Maldivians. The international community has been called upon to seriously look at what conditions are like for the ordinary Maldivian living under an increasingly oppressive government. If Yameen is victorious in the upcoming election, China is likely to further increase its hold on the Maldives, fracturing the longstanding Maldives-India relationship that is supportive of democratic principles.
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