Days after an election that was widely viewed as a proxy contest between China and India for influence in the Indian Ocean republic of Maldives, the popularly ousted pro-Beijing incumbent is maneuvering to retain power through a dubious legal challenge.
On September 26, President Abdulla Yameen’s legal advisor submitted a petition to the Maldive High Court to annul the election on the vague and broad notion the vote was “flawed.” Opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a known ally of India, won 58.3% of the vote, widely outpacing Yameen’s 41.7% at the September 23 election.
Yameen, who initially conceded defeat, has reportedly instructed police officers loyal to him to provide intelligence reports backing up his legal advisor’s claim that the election was flawed or rigged.
A spokesman for the security forces, on the other hand, has said they will respect the election result because “the beloved people of the Maldives have made their decision known in an election and the army will uphold that decision.”
The showdown has big strategic stakes. China has the most to lose if the pro-India Solih takes power on November 17, when the formal transfer of presidential power is scheduled to take place.
China, which has invested millions of dollars in various projects in the Maldives since Yameen became president in 2013, is playing its cards carefully from behind the scenes so as not to appear provocative, according to security analysts in the region.
The Maldives, strategically located to the southwest of India in the Indian Ocean, plays a pivotal role in China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). That includes a strategic vantage point from which to monitor and protect vital shipping lanes for its fuel and other imports from the Middle East.
Some of those BRI-related projects could be suspended or cancelled with the transition to a more pro-India administration, some analysts suggest.
On September 25, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang lashed out against former president Mohammed Nasheed, who from self-exile in Sri Lanka has backed Solih while strongly criticizing the viability of Chinese projects in the Maldives.
Nasheed has said many of them lack transparency and were not conceived or implemented in accordance with “democratic procedures.” He had earlier accused China of being “busy buying up the Maldives.”
Geng pilloried Nasheed for his “irresponsible remarks”, saying in less than diplomatic terms that China cannot be “smeared by certain individuals.”
It is not the first time Yameen has challenged an election result he didn’t like. In the first round of the 2013 presidential election, Yameen was soundly defeated by then-candidate Nasheed by a 45%-25% margin. At that time, Yameen forced a second round of voting which resulted in him winning 51.4% to Nasheed’s 48.6%.
In 2015, Nasheed was convicted under an anti-terrorism law for having arrested a judge while he was president. Amnesty International described the trial as “politically motivated.” Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, but was allowed to leave for Britain in 2016, where he was granted asylum.
With the security forces now apparently backing Solih, it is doubtful whether Yameen would be able to pull off a similar electoral manipulation this time. But his regime is known for its brutal treatment of opponents and it now seems he will not give up power without a fight.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a rights lobby group, said in a statement after the election that Yameen’s appeal to have the election annulled was “particularly ironic.” “In the weeks before the election, ruling party officials attempted to change vote-counting procedures to ensure that Yameen would win,” HRW said.
Much now depends on how major regional powers react. Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru-based think tank, suggested in a September 25 article that “New Delhi must be prepared to intervene forcefully to ensure that the democratic verdict is upheld…India should not shy from using force, if necessary.”
There is historical precedent for New Delhi to send boots on the ground. India last intervened militarily in the Maldives in 1988 to quell a coup attempt by a local businessman who had enlisted the support of Tamil Tigers militants from Sri Lanka.
But times have changed and any future Indian military intervention would likely provoke a strong response from China considering its recent substantial investments and rising geo-strategic interests in the Maldives.
Even if Yameen peacefully steps down, it will not be easy to suspend or cancel the many China-backed projects Nasheed has described as Beijing’s bid at “buying up the Maldives.”
Those include infrastructure projects to upgrade and maintain economically important airports and ports, housing estate projects, and the lease of islands to Chinese companies for tourism development. As Pai points out, “it is unclear if the Maldivian government has the sheer capacity required to renegotiate them all.”
The semi-official Chinese tabloid Global Times stated in a September 25 commentary that “China doesn’t interfere in Maldives’ internal affairs and bilateral collaboration serves the national interest of the Indian Ocean nation. That said, whoever takes the presidency, China-Maldives friendly ties will remain.”
The editorial added that the Yameen government “chose to cooperate with China in the interest of Maldives’ development and to create tangible benefits for the people.”
Yameen’s critics have accused his government of massive corruption and rights abuses, the latter characterized by sharp restrictions on free expression and the arrest of activists and opposition leaders on widely seen as trumped up charges.
Those perceived abuses were no doubt a factor in Yameen’s defeat at the polls. What is less clear is how that repression may have silenced grass roots dissent against China’s fast-growing commercial and strategic interests in the country.
With or without a smooth transition of power, China’s geo-strategic priorities for the Maldives will not change. But with a pro-Indian president in charge, the great power struggle for influence over the island nation will likely become sharper and more polarized.