Surprise defeat for pro-China Maldivian strongman Yameen, but India shouldn’t celebrate yet

Surprise defeat for pro-China Maldivian strongman Yameen, but India shouldn’t celebrate yet

Rajeev Sharma,
Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen leaves after giving a statement at President office in Male, Maldives. Photo: Reuters

The just concluded presidential elections in Maldives have handed a surprise defeat to the pro-China president Yameen Abdul Gayoom and victory to joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohammed Solih or Ibu, thus making Maldives the fourth state in South Asia where incumbents have been voted out this year – Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan (first round). However, India would do well to hold its horses in celebrating the surprise defeat of the Maldivian strongman Yameen, who as per the Maldivian system, is required to transfer power to President-elect Solih only on 17 November, 2018. The result also doesn’t mean that China walks into sunset as far as its influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago is concerned.

But more on these twin points a little later. First, let’s have a quick recap of the election result and the relevant developments that have ensued. Here are the highlights.

■ Maldives Elections Commission announced preliminary results of Sunday’s presidential election:

  1. Abdulla Yameen – 96,132 votes
  2. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih – 134,616 votes

Total valid votes: 230,748

Total invalid votes: 3129

Turnout: 89.2%

■ President Yameen, who did reasonably well and put up a strong fight by garnering 96 thousand votes or just about 38 thousand votes less than the winner, was gracious enough to concede defeat and congratulate Solih. Sample the following tweet by his spokesman Ibrahim H. Shihab

■ India promptly issued a statement congratulating Solih, lauding the victory of democratic forces and expressing the hope that Maldives’ Elections Commission would announce the final results officially at the earliest. Here is the statement by the Ministry of External Affairs: “We welcome the successful completion of the third presidential election process in the Maldives which, according to preliminary information, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has won. We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest…This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law.”

Now the crucial question is whether Yameen is hiding an ace under his sleeve, whether the joint opposition is in for a “Many a slip between the cup and the lip” kind of situation, and whether President Yameen would actually transfer power to President-elect Solih on November 17? On this issue I spoke to two prominent leaders of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the largest party in the joint opposition umbrella: Ahmed Naseem, former foreign minister and a cousin of MDP supremo and former president Mohammed Nasheed, and Ibrahim Shareef, a sitting member of Maldivian parliament called the Majlis. Incidentally, in Maldives an MP is more powerful than a minister and gets higher pay and perks.

Naseem said there was no question of any hanky-panky now and he didn’t expect any hurdles in smooth transition from one government to another. “After all, we are living on Planet Earth!”, Naseem quipped.

Shareef concurred and said he too did not see any problems in peaceful transfer of power. “It’s very difficult for anyone to defy the electoral verdict,” he said.

Now let’s get back to the twin points mentioned at the outset: why India shouldn’t celebrate just as yet the defeat of pro-China Maldivian strongman President Yameen and whether this result will see the Chinese influence waning in Maldives.

Of course, Yameen has been a thorn in the Indian flesh for over three years and particularly in past one year he did everything that pleased China and rankled India no end. For past one year, the Indian ambassador in Maldives Akhilesh Mishra has been virtually like a caged parrot with his activities severely curtailed and access to the government functionaries, including parliamentarians and ministers denied. On the other hand, the Chinese ambassador in Maldives has had a free run and given a red carpet welcome wherever he chooses to go in the country. The Yameen government had earlier this year asked India to take back its military helicopters which New Delhi had gifted to Male, a move which was seen by New Delhi as coming at the behest of China. However, India has till now refused to take back its helicopters, lying idle. The India-Maldives tensions had started simmering in 2015 shortly after the Yameen government had slapped sedition charges on Nasheed and thrown him in jail. As a result, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi had cancelled his scheduled bilateral visit to Maldives in 2015. In fact, Maldives happens to be the only neighbouring country which PM Modi hasn’t visited in his 52-month-long tenure so far.

However, since Yameen remains president till November 17, albeit now virtually a lame duck, India has to wait till the transfer of power which is still a good 50 days away. Then there is another very compelling reason why India will have to deal Maldives with kid gloves. Maldives is scheduled to have parliamentary elections in May 2019, around the same time when India too would have concluded its own parliamentary elections. Yameen may be down but definitely not out.

Yameen’s next goal would be to try to win the Majlis elections and force the new government on the back pedal. This has happened earlier too when Nasheed won Maldives’ first ever democratic presidential elections in October 2008, defeating the then strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled Maldives for thirty years. However, a few months later Gayoom’s party DRP won the parliamentary elections, thus eroding Nasheed’s powers. The MDP will have to ensure that it doesn’t allow repeat of the 2009 situation a decade later. That’s why India too has to exercise utmost patience and not see Maldives as a trophy in its lap.

Finally, a word about the China factor. Yes, the presidential election results are a setback to China. But then the results also show that neither Yameen nor China tried to rig the polls. In any case, in a small country like Maldives with a population of just four hundred thousand and a voter base of just 264,000 all political parties know who has voted for whom and rigging is very difficult.

The Chinese influence may not rise in Maldives with the speed it has in past couple of years but it won’t significantly dwindle either. Yes, the new government will not take new loans from China over and above the current ones to the tune of 400 million dollars, quite a high amount considering that the Maldivian GDP is only four billion dollars. For new development projects, Maldives can turn to India and will. India can very well afford to give loans and grants of a few hundred million dollars.

Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi based strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha.