Maldives heads to polls amid India-China rivalry, fears for democracy

Geopolitics raises stakes as pro-India incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih seeks re-election in Saturday’s presidential poll.

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih
Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is seeking re-election, but voters are frustrated by his government's failure to crack down on corruption [Courtesy of Mohamed Munshid]

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is pulling out all the stops to win re-election.

In the lead-up to Saturday’s polls, the 61-year-old has handed out deeds to plots of land that are yet to be reclaimed from shallow lagoons, promised a 40 percent wage hike for the country’s bloated public sector, and even waived all fees for parking violations accumulated over the past five years.

Yet, a victory for Solih, who has sought closer ties with India, appears far from certain.

The incumbent faces stiff competition from the pro-China mayor of the capital, Male, Mohamed Muizzu, in a crowded field of six other candidates, many of whom are likely to split the president’s voter base. Polling by the Baani Center for International Policy, a Maldivian think tank, showed Solih slightly ahead of Muizzu in a survey conducted in late August, but a majority of respondents – some 53 percent – said they remained undecided.

To win outright, a candidate will need more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

If not, a run-off will be held between the top two later in September.

Whoever emerges as victor could be key in deciding the battle for influence in the Maldives between India and China, which have each poured hundreds of millions of dollars into infrastructure projects in the popular Indian Ocean tourist destination.

But analysts said neither outcome bodes well for the country’s democracy.

“There’s little excitement to this election,” said Moosa Latheef, editor-in-chief at Dhauru, a Maldivian newspaper. “Many people do not feel as if they have options … They tell us that they’ve seen their hopes for a clean government dashed again, and say they do not like any of the candidates.”

The apparent apathy is a far cry from five years ago when Maldivians – outraged by rights abuses and corruption under then-President Abdulla Yameen – turned out in large numbers to hand Solih the presidency in a landslide.

Under Yameen, the Maldives – a Muslim nation of 550,000 people – had declared a foreign policy shift east towards China, eschewing its traditional “India-first” policy. Yameen’s government went on to obtain more than $1bn in loans from Beijing to finance huge infrastructure projects, including housing for residents of land-scarce Male and a first-of-its-kind bridge connecting the congested capital to nearby suburb and airport islands. Despite the unprecedented economic growth, Maldivians turned on Yameen over a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent that included the jailing of nearly all opposition leaders, prosecution of journalists and a huge corruption scandal, in which tens of millions of dollars were stolen from public coffers and used to bribe judges, legislators and members of watchdog institutions. The president’s turning of a blind eye to the growing presence of groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), even after the killing of a young journalist and a blogger, also added to the anger.

Solih, with the backing of an opposition coalition, defeated Yameen in 2018 on promises of good governance, “zero tolerance for corruption” and justice for the killings of the journalist and the blogger. In office, he has brought an end to state persecution of opponents, introduced a minimum wage policy, free university education, and invested in badly needed infrastructure in the Maldives’s remote and impoverished islands. He has also firmly returned the Maldives to India’s orbit, obtaining a grant of $250m when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of borders and shut down the nation’s lucrative tourism industry. New Delhi also put in hundreds of millions of dollars into the Maldivian economy, including a $400m project to build a second bridge in the Male region. According to the Baani think tank, by the end of 2021, Maldives had racked up equal amounts of debt to India and China, at 26 percent of GDP each. And by the end of 2022, the national debt stood at 113 percent of the country’s GDP.

In addition to India, Solih also repaired badly damaged ties with the West, including the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, all of which led global criticism of rights abuses under Yameen. And in a bid to check Chinese influence, London, Washington and Canberra have all stepped up engagement with Male, deploying envoys to the island nation for the first time.

However, many analysts said Solih’s record on governance has been poor.

“One of [Solih’s] key pledges was cracking down on corruption and addressing religious violence, but he has not done a good job on either of these fronts,” said Azim Zahir, a lecturer and research fellow in international relations and politics at the University of Western Australia in Perth

He noted that years into Solih’s rule, only Yameen has been held to account over corruption, with the criminal court sentencing the former president in December to 11 years in jail on a money laundering conviction. Meanwhile, the prosecutor general has quashed bribery charges – stemming from the same corruption scandal – against a member of Solih’s cabinet, in a decision slammed as politically motivated.

Critics have also accused the president of normalising corruption, including by using public resources to set in place a vast system of patronage. Transparency Maldives, an anticorruption group, said in a recent report that the government has used state-owned enterprises to hand out thousands of jobs in the country’s far-flung islands to ensure political loyalty. The same companies are also the biggest source of funding for media outlets in the Maldives, and according to several journalists who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, they have made their funding contingent on positive coverage of Solih.

The government has denied the claim.

“None of this bodes well for democracy. It means that, even if Maldives has competitive elections, they wouldn’t necessarily be fair as the electoral field will be skewed in favour of the incumbent,” said Zahir. “And if [Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party] is able to entrench the kind of patronage politics we are seeing, it could be in power for a long time.”

But a win for Solih’s main opponent, Muizzu, could be worse, said Zahir.

The mayor, who is contesting the election as the candidate of Yameen’s Progressive Party-led coalition and who has pledged to expel Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives, could return the country to the authoritarianism seen under the former president.

“If [Muizzu’s] coalition comes to power, there is some risk that democracy itself could be in peril plus tensions between New Delhi and Male would undoubtedly climb,” said Zahir.

Amid the geopolitical rivalry, there is concern that the patronage politics under Solih have gone unnoticed or largely been ignored by the international community, whose pressure has proven key in the Maldives’s embracing democratic reforms in the past.

“We’ve seen a massive rise in international presence in the Maldives over the past few years. But the tragic part about all of this is that this presence isn’t really in the best interest of the people of the Maldives,” said Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister and professor of international human rights law at the University of Essex in the UK.

“Anyone that opposes China and supports India is good for them. Many are quite oblivious to or unconcerned about the undemocratic underbelly to [Solih’s] government.”

What also worried Shaheed was that Solih’s extravagant campaign pledges, as well as that of other candidates, would add to the Maldives’s fiscal woes – especially with debt repayments to China due in 2026.

“They’ve all made promises that far exceed the country’s economic capacity to deliver. And none of the candidates have a viable plan to meet the country’s debt obligations,” Shaheed said.

If the Maldives does default, “there could be huge instability,” he added.

“And the people waiting in the wings to benefit from this, the vultures, will be the Islamists. This is a bit of a nightmare scenario, but there is currently nothing in place by the incumbent government or the donor community to prevent the country from going bust. And if the so-called secular parties fail, it will no longer be about India and China. It will be the mullahs and the rest.”

Source: Al Jazeera