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EFSAS Commentary

President Solih and Speaker Nasheed need to work in unison to preserve the fragile democracy in the Maldives


The Maldives, the strategically important archipelago of some 1200 islands stretching from north to south in the central Indian Ocean, has for the past 3 years been enjoying a rare sustained period of democracy in a history dominated in recent decades by authoritarian rule. After Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s election as President in 2018, it was the former President Mohamed Nasheed, in many ways the architect of modern democracy in the Maldives and its most prominent flag bearer even today, who took the party that he had co-founded in 2003, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), to a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections a year later. The two childhood friends have overseen the functioning of the democratically elected government ever since, even though irritants had crept into the political equation between them right from the outset. Perhaps that was inevitable given the circumstances in which Solih was catapulted to power on the back of Nasheed’s name and reputation, and the return of Nasheed from exile was accompanied by an expectation, since belied, that Solih would be more amenable to the former President’s views and plans. Nasheed’s contributions to the Maldives, to the MDP, and indeed to democracy in the country have been huge, and there could have been some justification behind his expectation that Solih, even as President, would give him due credit, and a commensurate role in governance.

In any event, what is important at this stage is that both Solih and Nasheed, as custodians of the hard-earned but still brittle democracy in the country, recognize the challenge that Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) leader Abdulla Yameen, with the full backing of a predatory China, is presenting to their tenuous vision for the country. Unless the two MDP leaders get down to urgently re-setting their strained political relationship, towards which end regional powers such as India and global champions of democracy such as the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) can and should play important contributory roles, the results that next year’s presidential election could throw up may not be to their liking.   

Also a former President whose term from 2013 to 2018 was characterized by widespread human rights violations, arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents and Supreme Court judges, and suppression of freedom of speech and expression, Abdulla Yameen has consistently displayed a strong pro-China tilt. He also encouraged political Islamization, and could get away with his authoritarian and provocative activities on the back of China’s support. After losing power in 2018, Yameen was sentenced to five years in jail and fined $5 million in 2019 for embezzling $1 million in State funds, allegedly acquired through the lease of resort development rights. He was shifted to house arrest in 2020 and freed months later after irregularities in the case were found. Since his release, Yameen has assumed leadership of an ‘India Out’ campaign that he had orchestrated with reported Chinese backing. Touring islands across the archipelago in support of his campaign, Yameen has galvanized it and drawn large crowds at rallies. Dr. Gulbin Sultana of India’s Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses believes that the campaign has morphed from a civil society movement to a political movement. She also feels that “The India Out campaign has become more politically active because now they have a leader, a strong face, in Yameen”.

Yameen is alleging that New Delhi has developed a major military presence in the archipelago, a claim that the ruling MDP strongly denies. Nasheed termed Yameen’s claims as “untrue”, a “threat to national security” and to the nation’s “independence”, that could “destroy the relationship with India”. Defense Minister Mariya Didi told Reuters that India's military presence in the Maldives was limited to the operation and maintenance of three search-and-rescue and surveillance aircraft used by the Maldives’ defense forces, as well as a medical team at a military hospital. “There is no additional foreign military presence in Maldives”, she asserted. Economic Affairs Minister Fayyaz Ismail explained how Yameen’s campaign posed a “threat to the food security” of the nation. “Our food security depends a lot on imports from India”, the minister said and listed rice, flour, sugar, chicken, eggs, potatoes, onions, and lentils as amongst the basic foodstuffs consumed by Maldivians in substantial quantities and supplied by India. So were certain quantities of sand and gravel for construction work, which are in short supply the world over. Rozaina Adam, a MDP Member of Parliament, opined that Yameen could do anything to come to power, including creating a rift between the peoples of the Maldives and India.

As the Jakarta Post put it, Yameen has long played a major role in the islands’ fractious politics. He helped oust the country’s first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, in 2012, taking power in an election a year later. During his term, he made the Maldives a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a program the US sees as a way to trap smaller countries into debt. Wearing a diamond-encrusted watch on his right wrist, Yameen was quoted as saying, “Let's be frank with this. Europe or the US, they don’t hand out parcels of money for development. It’s only China that does that”. When asked whether he intended to contest the Presidential elections next year despite the several corruption cases against him, Yameen responded, “I have returned. I don’t think I ever left and I don’t think people left me either”.

Yameen’s primary backer is China. Since it established bilateral relations with the Maldives in 1972, China has gradually increased its investments in the Maldives and maintained working relations with successive Maldivian governments. As The Diplomat pointed out, the turning point in Sino-Maldivian relations came in 2013 after Yameen came to power. Coincidentally, this was also the year in which Xi Jinping became the Chinese President and launched the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) a few months later. The next year, Xi visited the Maldives and exhorted the country to join the Maritime Silk Road. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities constantly encouraged Chinese citizens and businesses alike to visit and invest in the Maldives. The Chinese have undertaken a range of projects such as the construction of roads and housing units, the expansion of the main international airport, the development of a power station, and the construction of a bridge to connect Malé with Hulhule, among other investments in tourism and agriculture. According to Nasheed, under the Yameen government the Maldives had accumulated a debt of nearly $3.1 billion. However, other Maldivian officials have placed it at a lower figure, somewhere between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion, which is nonetheless still a large amount for a country with a GDP of $4 billion.

The geostrategic location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to Diego Garcia meant that the US also came to recognize the strategic value of the archipelago. This recognition has been hastened in recent years by Beijing’s signaling of its intent and priorities in the Indian Ocean. In 2018, there were reports that the Chinese were planning to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo in northwestern Maldives, but the plan was later shelved. There had also been speculation about a possible Chinese naval base in the Maldives. Unsurprisingly, the US and the Maldives signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2020, the first that Malé has signed with any country other than India. Since Solih came to power in 2018 after defeating Yameen in that year’s presidential election, the present administration has gone back on some of the commitments made to the China.

Reports that appeared in publications such as The Print, meanwhile, have alleged that Yameen’s entire ‘India Out’ campaign has been sponsored by China. The reports claimed that small media websites are being funded to direct the political campaign, which clearly stands to benefit China in the long run if Yameen gains power again.

In this backdrop, the persistent differences between President Solih and Speaker Nasheed have the potential to lead to political instability in the Maldives by damaging the existing coalition that supports the Solih administration. Nasheed has publicly said that he said he can no longer work with the current government nor can he maintain a political relationship with Solih. Solih has publicly remained calm and unprovoked in the face of Nasheed’s criticism, but the tension between the two leaders is palpable. Nasheed has backed MDP MPs questioning the Solih government in Parliament on issues like signing important deals with foreign countries, the government’s inefficient handling of corruption, radicalism and violent extremism, failure to arrest the perpetrators of attacks on journalists and curbing terrorist activities. He is also dissatisfied with the investigation process of the serious attack against him on 6 May 2021 and the Government’s inaction in curbing radicalism and arresting the actual perpetrators. Nasheed has also suggested changing the Presidential form of government into a parliamentary one, with Nasheed as the Prime Minister and Solih as the largely ceremonial President. He has further hinted that he may contest the presidential polls in 2023 by facing off a party primary against incumbent Solih, if it came to that.

Many in the MDP believe that the party will not be able to win the 2023 Presidential elections with Solih as a Presidential candidate if no action is taken to prevent the weakening of the party. They feel that Nasheed’s initiatives, if not accepted by the party and followed up effectively, could weaken the MDP’s presidential claims, and also dilute his own political authority. They fear that there could also be larger consequences for the party and the nation if the MDP does not introspect soon, collectively. The MDP today has effectively, if not formally, already drifted into two factions, which is evident from how MDP MPs conduct themselves and work. After all, even if Nasheed presently may not be able to count on all the MDP MPs, the grassroots supporters of the party are largely with him. The power struggle within the MDP will, moreover, create confusion in the rank and file of the party, and that will only benefit Yameen and China.

For the sake of democracy in the Maldives and the security of the Indian Ocean region, it is imperative that countries such as India, the US, Japan, the UK, and Australia, all of which have stepped up engagement with the Maldives in recent years, impress upon both Solih and Nasheed, without favoritism towards either, that the future of their country may depend greatly upon how they can find ways to co-exist and flourish at the narrow top of the power pyramid.