Maldives’ Presidential Election Was Not a Referendum on India or China 

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Maldives’ Presidential Election Was Not a Referendum on India or China 

Local political maneuvering and pressing domestic issues – not geopolitics – drove most Maldivians’ voting decisions.

Maldives’ Presidential Election Was Not a Referendum on India or China 

Maldives’ main opposition candidate, Mohamed Muizzu, casts his vote in Malé, Maldives, Sept. 30, 2023. Muizzu won the election to become the president-elect.

Credit: AP Photo

The political landscape of the Maldives has dramatically shifted following the recent runoff round of the presidential election held on September 30, which witnessed the defeat of the incumbent government led by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Mohamed Muizzu, mayor of Malé, and a member of the People’s National Congress (PNC) – in coalition with the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) – emerged victorious.

Much of the opposition’s campaign centered on an “India Out” movement calling for the removal of alleged Indian military personnel from Maldives. Although this campaign was an important part of the opposition’s strategy, international reporting has not only taken this movement at face value but has also simplistically focused on it to the exclusion of other issues. Multiple analysts have framed the election as a contest for influence between India and China. Such coverage follows a recurrent pattern, contrasting the “India First” foreign policy of the Solih administration with the robust ties with Beijing pursued by the previous PPM-led administration, under former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

This reductionist viewpoint is evident in the uniformity of international headlines such as “Pro-China Muizzu Wins the Maldives’ Presidential Vote” or some variant thereof. Yet such reporting is problematic. It glosses over the foreign policy constraints facing Maldives, which can ill afford to alienate either India or China. Furthermore, it diminishes the agency of Maldivians by glossing over the complexities of the country’s political dynamics, which are driven more by local political maneuvering than by the influence of Beijing or New Delhi. Finally, the overemphasis on the India-China angle has resulted in limited coverage of the country’s pressing domestic issues, including the future trajectory of its young democracy.

Is the Past Prologue?

Of course, the wider setting of the China-India maritime rivalry and the behavior of past PPM administrations cannot be ignored. Since 2008, China has expanded its Indian Ocean presence to secure maritime energy routes and advance its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India, meanwhile, aims to preserve its immediate sphere of influence and remains alarmed by the growing commercial dependence of its neighbors on Beijing. Indian policymakers are particularly anxious about the prospect of China leveraging “debt traps” to seize strategic assets and construct a metaphorical “String of Pearls” around India, with Sri Lanka seen as the prime example (a narrative that is itself problematic).

India’s concerns in this regard extend to Maldives. Following the overthrow of Maldives’ first democratically elected administration led by Mohamed Nasheed in 2012, his successor, Waheed Hassan Manik, initiated stronger ties with China and terminated a project with the Indian conglomerate GMR, which had been contracted to build Maldives’ main international airport in Hulhule. This followed a sustained campaign that presented GMR as a threat to Maldivian sovereignty.

Waheed’s successor, Yameen, elected president in 2013, embraced China’s BRI and attempted to hastily pass a free trade agreement (FTA) with Beijing through parliament. Toward the tail end Yameen’s term, relations with India deteriorated. He protested what he perceived as New Delhi’s growing interference in Maldives’ domestic affairs, and attempted to remove aircraft leased by India used for search and rescue (SAR) operations, along with the Indian personnel stationed to operate them.

The 2018 election brought relief to New Delhi as the Solih administration assumed power. Solih recommitted to an India First foreign policy to compliment Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Neighborhood First policy. Solih also turned to India to finance major infrastructure projects like the Greater Malé Connectivity Project, intended to infrastructurally link all the islands in the capital region. The FTA with China was put on hold.

New Delhi’s apprehensions resurfaced as Yameen staked his political comeback on an “India Out” movement, criticizing the Solih government’s alleged overdependence on India and amenability to hosting an Indian military presence. Although Yameen was ultimately disqualified from competing in the 2023 presidential race due to a money-laundering conviction, identical concerns persist about Muizzu, who was chosen from the PNC faction of the PNC-PPM coalition as an alternative to Yameen.

Rhetoric and Reality 

While the above context is important, it is essential to note that the foreign policies of Maldivian administrations are more nuanced than surface appearances. Despite campaign rhetoric, successive governments have consistently emphasized the importance of good relations with India, the country’s largest and most powerful neighbor, as well as with China, an economic powerhouse that remains an indispensable commercial partner.

For example, the Solih administration maintained amicable relations with Beijing, despite the MDP’s past criticisms of China’s growing financial leverage over Maldives while in opposition. Over the past five years China continued to back several key initiatives in Maldives, including upgrading Velana International Airport and continuing social housing projects in Hulhumale. Moreover, China recently completed a renovation of Maldives’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. Several high-level diplomatic exchanges, as well as the signing of multiple Memoranda of Understanding, proceeded under the MDP-led government.

Likewise, Yameen, despite his anti-India reputation, adhered to a formal “India First” foreign policy throughout his presidential tenure. He actively sought to mend the India-Maldives relationship, particularly after the strain caused by the GMR controversy. His inaugural state visit was to New Delhi, and he frequently reiterated that India is Maldives’ closest diplomatic partner. Furthermore, Yameen cautioned the Maldivian media to be respectful when reporting on India,  highlighting its role as both an emergency responder and a significant development partner for the Maldives. “[W]e must never criticize India or its leaders,” Yameen urged.

Yameen also signed the Defense Action Plan with India in 2016. Ironically, under this very framework the Solih administration continued to pursue several bilateral projects, including the contentious dockyard at Uthuru Thila Falhu, which the PPM-PNC claims to be an Indian military base.

Only toward the end of Yameen’s term did his rhetoric evince an explicitly anti-India sentiment. This followed India’s criticism of Yameen’s declaration of a state of emergency in February 2018 to reverse a Supreme Court order to release political prisoners. This sudden pivot to ultranationalism appeared more as a tactic to consolidate domestic support than an authentic foreign policy shift.

The “India Out” campaign, initially spearheaded by Yameen and propagated by the PPM-PNC coalition, seems to serve a similar agenda. After his electoral victory, recent statements from President-elect Muizzu indicate a possible softening of stance. Despite his continuing commitment to remove a supposed Indian military presence from the country, he has reaffirmed that his incoming administration will maintain an  “India First” policy. Importantly, a senior foreign affairs advisor to Muizzu, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, has publicly stated that India remains the dominant stakeholder in the Indian Ocean, a declaration that implicitly respects India’s regional sensitivities and contrasts with earlier campaign messaging.

Local Dynamics

Moreover, it is essential to recognize that despite the international media framing the election as a geopolitical tug-of-war between Beijing and Delhi, the concerns of Maldivian voters remain primarily domestic. These include an acute housing crisis in the overly centralized capital, stalled projects like the Greater Malé Connectivity Project, rampant corruption, a looming debt crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the tension between economic growth and environmental sustainability.

It is also primarily local themes, not external influences, that shape the Maldivian political landscape. The internal rift within the MDP, between former President Mohamed Nasheed and current President Solih, serves as a prime example. This rift, fueled by Nasheed’s push for a parliamentary system, among other policy differences with Solih, gave rise to a breakaway party, The Democrats, comprised of Nasheed’s loyalists. The MDP largely blames this new party for its recent electoral loss.

Adding to the country’s political fragmentation, the coalition that initially brought Solih to power in 2018 had disintegrated before this election, resulting in an unprecedented eight candidates contesting in the first round.

Likewise, amid the international focus on foreign policy implications, the dynamics between Yameen and Muizzu have also been largely overlooked. Yameen only reluctantly endorsed Muizzu after a Supreme Court ruling disqualified him due to a money-laundering conviction. His initial reaction was to call for an election boycott – a call that went mostly ignored. Yet, despite his incarceration, Yameen’s influence endures, especially after his recent transfer to house arrest. This sets the stage for potential future conflict between Muizzu and Yameen, akin to the rift between Solih and Nasheed.

These evolving political dynamics have emerged from the aspirations and actions of local political actors, not the machinations of New Delhi or Beijing. These domestic factors are also responsible for the state of the country’s democratic institutions and processes.

The recent presidential election, marking the country’s fourth democratic contest since its transition to democracy in 2008, was conducted in a largely peaceful and competitive manner. Solih’s graceful concession promises a smooth transition of power when Muizzu takes office in November – a significant milestone for a nation with a history of coups, delayed elections, and reversals in democratic governance. Nevertheless, concerns were raised during this election by both local and international observers, such as the government’s misuse of state resources to sway the vote, as well as media biases and disinformation campaigns.

To assess the overall implications of these dynamics, trends, and events, a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the Maldivian political landscape is required. Simplifying coverage of Maldives to a mere Beijing-versus-Delhi framework overlooks the critical role Maldivians play in shaping their own political destinies and fails to capture the complexity of the country’s evolving democratic landscape