Maldives votes in parliamentary elections amid India-China rivalry

Vote is being keenly watched by India and China as they vie for influence in the island nation.

A voter casts her ballot in parliamentary elections in Maldives
A voter (right) prepares to cast her ballot during the parliamentary election in Male, the Maldives on April 21, 2024 [Mohamed Afrah/AFP]

Polls have closed in the Maldives, where voters have cast their ballots in a parliamentary election crucial for President Mohamed Muizzu, who has taken a pro-China stand and turned the archipelago nation away from longtime ally India since coming to power last September.

The vote on Sunday is being keenly watched by India and China as they vie for influence in the island country, which is known for its pristine beaches and luxury resorts and is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, through which global east-west shipping lanes pass.

About 284,000 people were eligible to vote in Sunday’s polls, and tentative results are expected later on the same day.

Six political parties and independent groups are fielding 368 candidates for 93 seats in the People’s Majilis, or parliament. Splits in all the main political groupings, including Muizzu’s People’s National Congress (PNC)-led ruling coalition and the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), are expected to make it hard for any single party to win an outright majority.

Ali Nasser Mohamed, Maldives ambassador to the United Nations, told Al Jazeera that the government is confident of securing at least 90 percent of the seats in the parliament.

“The election is being held at an important point and is an important juncture for the president … This election is less about geopolitical rivalry in the Indian Ocean … and is more about the future of Maldives and the people. It is about creative stability, prosperity and resilience in the Maldives,” he said.

Muizzu won last year’s presidential polls on promises to cut off Indian influence with his “India out” campaign. He was widely seen as a proxy candidate for former President Abdulla Yameen, who held power between 2013 and 2018 and whose 11-year jail term on bribery charges was overturned by a court last week.

The two men have fallen out since Muizzu took office, and Yameen has set up a rival party, the People’s National Front (PNF), ahead of Sunday’s polls.

“This is perhaps the most difficult election to predict given the high degree of factionalisation, including in the ruling coalition,” said Azim Zahir, a lecturer and research fellow in international relations and politics at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

The opposition MDP, which swept the last parliamentary election in 2019, was “very cohesive and hence got super majority,” Zahir noted. “Still, I think the ruling coalition and the MDP will get most seats,” he said.

On the eve of the election, Muizzu – who has accused his immediate predecessor Mohammed Ibrahim Solih of compromising national sovereignty by giving India too much influence – appealed to voters to grant his coalition a majority in parliament to protect the country’s independence.

“All those who love our nation must make sure the decision they make tomorrow is one to secure our nation’s future,” he said. “The ballot you cast tomorrow must be for national sovereignty and for the protection of our nation.”

The incumbent leader highlighted his government’s efforts to deport some 75 Indian military personnel who are stationed in the Maldives, saying his party needed a majority in parliament to see its campaign promise through.

The known activities of the Indian military personnel were operating two aircraft donated by India and assisting in the rescue of people stranded or faced with calamities at sea. Muizzu wants to have civilians take over those activities.

The opposition, meanwhile, has portrayed Sunday’s election as a choice between autocracy and democracy.

Solih, the former president, appealed to voters at the MDP’s final campaign rally on Saturday to vote for the opposition to hold the government accountable.

“Tomorrow’s vote is about safeguarding the democracy that we have all fought so hard to establish here,” he told supporters ahead of the elections.

The current parliament, dominated by Solih’s MDP, has sought to stymie Muizzu’s efforts to realign the archipelago’s foreign policy.

Relations between India and the Maldives have also deteriorated after Indian social media activists started a boycott campaign of Maldives tourism in January.

The move was in retaliation for three Maldivian deputy ministers making derogatory statements about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for raising the idea of promoting tourism in Lakshadweep, India’s string of islands similar to the Maldives.

According to recent Maldives government statistics, the number of Indian tourists has fallen, dropping that country from being the top source of foreign visitors to the sixth.

Muizzu visited China earlier this year and negotiated an increase in the number of tourists and inbound flights from China. His government has also awarded high-profile infrastructure contracts to Chinese state-owned companies.

In 2013, Maldives joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative meant to build ports and highways to expand trade – and China’s influence – across Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Maldives consists of about 1,200 coral islands and atolls and has a population of about 520,000.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies