Maldives Presidential Election 2023: Growing External Interference?

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The 2023 President elections in Maldives are being held against the backdrop of China and India vying for strategic dominance of the area. The Maldives grew closer to China under the previous government, led by the PPM’s Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, by participating in the BRI, pursuing megaprojects such as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, and aiming to enter into a free trade deal with China. In contrast, the current Solih administration is committed to India, pursuing an ‘India First’ foreign strategy that compliments India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ approach.  Neither China nor India has been watching the election results with bated breath. Both have been actively interacting with the Maldives in the run-up to the event. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit the Maldives as part of his Indian Ocean tour in January 2022. Meanwhile, India has vigorously promoted its current infrastructure projects in the Maldives, notably the flagship Greater Malé Connectivity Project, which aims to connect all of the islands in the Greater Malé area. Furthermore, India has been increasing and expanding high-profile visits to the Maldives, with Defense Minister Rajnath Singh recently visiting and exploring ways to strengthen regional bilateral cooperation.

Swings in the Maldives’ Foreign Policy

The most recent Maldivian election, held in September 2018, was largely regarded as a win for India and a loss for China. Under Yameen, the Maldives, a Muslim nation of 550,000 inhabitants, proclaimed a change in foreign policy toward China, abandoning its longstanding “India-first” strategy. Yameen’s administration went on to receive more than $1 billion in loans from Beijing to fund massive infrastructure projects such as houses for Male’s land-scarce population and a first-of-its-kind bridge connecting the crowded capital to surrounding suburb and airport islands. Despite the country’s unprecedented economic growth, Maldivians turned against Yameen for a broad crackdown on dissent, which included the imprisonment of nearly all opposition leaders, the prosecution of journalists, and a massive 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. Solih on the flip side, beat Yameen in 2018 with pledges of good government, “zero tolerance for corruption,” and justice for the murders of the journalist and blogger. During his tenure, he has firmly reintroduced the Maldives into India’s circle, getting a $250 million grant when the COVID-19 outbreak caused border closures and shut down the country’s rich tourism economy. New Delhi has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Maldivian economy, including a $400 million initiative to construct a second bridge in the Male district.

Whoever wins might have a significant impact on the war for influence in the Maldives between India and China, both of which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure projects in the popular Indian Ocean tourist destination. The consequences of the Maldives’ internal politics and foreign policy have compelled Indo-Pacific countries such as India, the United States, and Australia to increase their involvement. Following the election of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s administration in 2018, the country supported the ‘India-First’ policy and re-entered the Commonwealth. His re-election would also benefit India’s ‘quad’ partners: Japan, the US, and Australia, all of which are essentially focused on restraining China’s maritime ambitions across the Indo-Pacific. If Muizzu, who sees himself as a continuation of the Yameen government, takes over, the Maldives would certainly shift back toward Beijing.

Geopolitical influences

In recent years, the Maldives has been in the headlines as a significant center of geopolitical jostling in the Indian Ocean. Because of its pivotal location in the Indian Ocean, with key maritime lanes of communication passing across its borders, the Maldives has earned strategic importance belying its modest size. These facts no longer escape the attention of larger and more powerful actors eager to consolidate their competing regional interests. India dominates the area, with the Maldives falling under its de facto sphere of influence. New Delhi saw Yameen’s shift toward Beijing as severely damaging India’s security as well as for Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Maldives sits on major maritime lanes in the Indian Ocean and is courted by external rivals, most notably India and China. China’s interest arises from the Maldives’ strategic maritime location next to routes utilized for China’s energy supply and the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Former President Abdulla Yameen’s government’s intention to ally with China and withdraw the Maldives from Commonwealth membership garnered substantial attention in this regard between 2013 and 2018. However, because of his government’s tight ties with Delhi, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is likely to maintain Indo-Pacific relationships.  In addition to India, Solih mended critically damaged ties with the West, particularly the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, all of which led to worldwide condemnation of Yameen’s rights violations.

The political context in the Maldives provides the potential for Indo-Pacific allies such as India, the United States, and Australia to strengthen development and security alliances that will boost collaboration in governance, education, health, climate change, and maritime security. In an effort to counter Chinese influence, London, Washington, and Canberra have all increased their contact with Male, sending envoys there for the first time. Other Indo-Pacific countries, primarily the United States, strengthened their ties with the Maldives by signing a defense cooperation pact in 2020. Concerns persist that the island country may forsake the rules-based system if Solih loses the election, especially if the Yameen-led Progressive Party of Maldives wins. The latter might have serious consequences for the Maldives’ ties with India and China, and therefore for Indo-Pacific relationships. Interestingly, amid the geopolitical struggle, there is fear that Solih’s patronage politics have gone unreported or have been largely overlooked by the international world, which has put pressure on him in the Maldives’s embracing democratic reforms in the past.

What is at Stake?

While local dynamics play out, the election has far-reaching international repercussions.  It appears to be a top priority for several international observers.  This prudence reflects New Delhi’s concerns about China’s potential objectives, particularly the suspicion that China may be using its economic clout to trap India’s neighbors in ‘debt traps,’ gaining leverage to create a ‘string of pearls’ of military bases around the Indian subcontinent. The contentious lease of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port to Beijing is frequently highlighted as an example. By the end of 2021, the Maldives had accumulated debts equal to 26 percent of the GDP of both India and China. By the end of 2022, the national debt would have reached 113 percent of the country’s GDP.

This time, there is a determined attempt to focus the Indian military presence in the Maldives in order to put Ibu Solih on the defensive against the use of a debt trap. The mayor, who is running as the candidate of Yameen’s Progressive Party-led coalition and has promised to withdraw Indian military soldiers stationed in the Maldives, has the potential to restore the country to the authoritarianism that existed under the prior president. As Maldivians prepare to head to the second round in September 2023, foreign policy considerations might not be foremost on their minds. Yet they should be aware that their choices in this election will carry reverberations far beyond the country’s borders; they will have direct implications for the Indian Ocean region’s balance of power. Not only regional countries but also extra-regional countries will be watching closely – but with their agendas in mind.

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Southeast Asia Journal [Link]