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The Maldives’ New Government: Mission Impossible?

Just days after Maldivians poured into the streets of the Maldivian capital, Male, to celebrate the defeat of the archipelago’s autocratic President Abdulla Yameen in the September 23 presidential elections, the mood in the country turned somewhat somber. After initially conceding defeat to joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Yameen appeared to be preparing to subvert the election verdict to hold on to power.

Such fears gathered momentum with the Election Commission dragging its feet on announcing the final results. Besides, Yameen was reported to be planning to challenge the verdict in the Maldives’ High Court and had apparently instructed loyal police officers to prepare reports backing up his claim that the election was rigged in his opponent’s favor.

“People were understandably nervous, and on the edge, as to whether President Yameen would relinquish power without trying something through the courts [to negate the election result],” Dr. Farah Faisal, former Maldivian ambassador to the United Kingdom told The Diplomat.

Yameen has used the courts in the past to engineer elections to his advantage and to consolidate his grip over power. When he was defeated in the first round of the 2013 presidential election, for instance, he got the judiciary to repeatedly put off the final round of voting. Among other things, this gave him time to sew up a strong alliance that culminated in his victory.

However, Yameen’s attempts at challenging the verdict have lost momentum, at least for now, with the Election Commission officially confirming Solih’s victory on September 29.

“The margin by which Solih won is too big for it to be contested,” Mushfiq Mohamed, senior legal officer at the Maldivian Democracy Network, a nonpartisan human rights NGO in the Maldives, told The Diplomat. Going to the courts to contest the results would therefore be “a futile effort.”

Indeed, Solih won by a 16.8 percentage point margin in an election that saw an 89.2 percent voter turnout.

According to Abbas Faiz, who teaches human rights at Essex University and was formerly senior researcher on South Asia at Amnesty International, Yameen “has no option at present but to step down.” The military, “an important power broker in the Maldives recent history, now sees him as a threat or a liability,” Faiz explained. As president, Yameen jailed a former defense minister and foisted false criminal cases on senior and middle-ranking military officers and in doing so, he “mindlessly antagonized” the military, Faiz observed.

Soon after news of Yameen’s plans to challenge the result emerged, the military announced that it would “uphold the will of the people.”

Yameen was expected to win the presidential election. Not only had he systematically weakened the opposition, throwing his rivals into jail or forcing them into exile, but he also used the state apparatus to his advantage during the election campaign. The election was manipulated in his favor. Solih’s victory, therefore, was achieved against the odds and is no small achievement.

After being under authoritarian rule for three decades, the Maldives became a multiparty democracy only in 2008. But the Yameen regime robustly weakened the country’s nascent democracy by eroding democratic institutions. The media was silenced and human rights violated.

The new government, which is set to take office in November, has several challenging tasks ahead. The “most pressing” of these is the “reversal of some of the undemocratic practices that Yameen’s government entrenched in the country,” Faisal said. Besides, the new government will have to reverse the politicization of all the country’s independent oversight institutions, its judiciary, as well as state companies by the Yameen government.

According to Mohamed of the Maldivian Democracy Network, the new government’s main challenges include “reforming of the police and judiciary, countering violent extremism, and handling the ballooning debt to China.” Solih’s administration “must review and amend repressive laws” put in place by the Yameen government, which “enabled grand corruption and violation of human rights” during his rule. Importantly, the Maldives “needs its own truth and reconciliation mechanism to resolve decades of political violence and persecution,” according to Mohamed.

During Yameen’s rule, the Maldives’ relations with China expanded to unprecedented levels. Male signed a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing in December 2017 and a Memorandum of Understanding that brings it into the Maritime Silk Road, a key component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese companies were given contracts for several infrastructure projects in the Maldives, including the recently inaugurated Sinamale Bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island, and a 1,000-apartment housing project on Hulhumale, a suburb that Beijing built on reclaimed land.

The Yameen government disclosed little about the cost of these projects or the terms of the Chinese loans. However, according to the Center for Global Development, a Washington D.C. based think-tank, China’s loans to the Maldives could be around $1.3 billion – more than a quarter of the latter’s Gross Domestic Product.

Yameen’s abandoning of the Maldives’ traditional “India First” policy to enter into a tight embrace of China raised concern in India. Maldives is just 700 kilometers from India’s Lakshadweep Islands and New Delhi perceives China’s mounting presence and clout over the Maldives as a threat to its national security. Such perceptions strengthened when the Yameen government allowed three Chinese warships to dock at Male in August 2017 and soared when he declared a state of emergency in February this year. The emergency prompted some Indian analysts to even call for Indian military intervention in the Maldives.

In addition to China, Yameen also courted Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and parted ways with groupings like the Commonwealth.

The new government will have to “repair strained relations with India, Iran, the Gulf states, the European Union, and the Commonwealth,” Mohamed said.

India, which watched rather helplessly as the Maldives under Yameen slid toward authoritarianism and into China’s grip, has now “heartily” congratulated the victorious Solih. New Delhi has welcomed the “triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives.”

So will Maldives’ relations with India and China change with Yameen’s exit?

Within hours of his victory, Solih spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and publicly said that India was the Maldives’ “closest ally.” His swift outreach indicates that his government will seek improved relations with New Delhi. This bodes well for India-Maldives relations. However, will Sino-Maldivian relations deteriorate as a result?

In the run-up to the presidential election, former Maldivian President and leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (the party to which Solih belongs) Mohamed Nasheed said that deals with China would be renegotiated.

The Solih government is likely to find this is easier said than done.

Following the defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015, Sri Lanka’s new government found that cancelling or even renegotiating deals with China was not easy. Indeed, the new Sirisena government, which was unable to pay old loans to China, ended up handing over operation of the strategically located Hambantota port to the Chinese on a 99-year lease.

Similarly, the Maldives is unlikely to be able to wriggle free of China’s grip given the importance and value of the Maldives to the BRI, China’s economic security, and its Indian Ocean ambitions.

At best, New Delhi can expect the Solih government to be less hostile to India and more sensitive to its security concerns. It would be unrealistic on the part of India to expect the government to turn its back on China.

As Faisal pointed out, with India being the Maldives closest neighbor, the new government would revert to the Maldives’ long-held “India-First” policy. But it would also have “many international friends and the relationship with China is likely to remain warm,” she said, adding that the new government would seek to “stay clear of international rivalries.”

How successful is the Maldives’ new government likely to be in democratizing the country? Two factors are likely to undermine its efforts.

On the external front, Male’s continued reliance on Chinese funding will hinder Solih’s democracy plans. Analysts have been drawing attention to the link between participation in China’s BRI projects and growing authoritarianism in the member states. BRI infrastructure projects are coming under fire from local communities and governments are using coercive force to crush local resistance to these projects.

This is evident in the Maldives too. As Yameen’s embrace of China grew, the repression he unleashed on his opponents and critics worsened, Faiz pointed out.

The Solih government would find itself having to tread Yameen’s path of silencing critics if it continues to allow China to build costly infrastructure projects.

On the domestic front, the new government’s plans for democratization could be weakened from within. Solih and the MDP may be strongly committed but some of their allies in the coalition that defeated Yameen are neither democratic nor progressive in their outlook. They can be expected to block any attempt by the Solih government to democratize Maldives or rid it of religious conservatism.

Democratizing the Maldives will be a challenging task if not a mission impossible.

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