Opinion World

Democracy Strikes Back in the Maldives

The surprise defeat of the authoritarian Yameen is good for the Maldives — and for Indian interests.

On Sunday, a former civil servant stood on the cusp of being elected to a second term as the President of the Maldives. But the following day brought with it a new political reality for both him and the Maldives — the surprise election of opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih over incumbent President Abdulla Yameen.

Yameen’s presidency makes for an interesting case for study. Soon after assuming office, he veered off the path of democracy, and expanded his executive power to keep his opponents in check. During his time as President, the Maldives experienced further eroding of freedoms, the restriction of civil and political rights, and severe undermining of the judiciary, while he continued to engage in the rhetoric of development. With a vision that prioritised economic development over all else, Yameen spent the last five years running the country with an iron fist. Civil servants were made to attend his political rallies. Journalists with unfavourable views were booked under a defamation law. He systematically took control over various state institutions and made them subservient to his political agenda. Yameen had made his position clear – he going to take on anyone who challenged him, regardless of who they were.

It is well known that Yameen wanted to transform the Indian Ocean archipelago into Singapore – a vision that China and Saudi Arabia could to help realise. As he began to enjoy the favour of the two countries, Yameen’s attitude could best be described as that of a child who forgets his friends because he has been invited to eat at the adult’s table. Authoritarian, arrogant and facing the heat of widespread international criticism, Yameen compromised several traditional ties to foster a newfound friendship.

In 2016, the Commonwealth criticised the Yameen government for not upholding democratic freedoms, which eventually led to Yameen withdrawing from the organization. Decades of strong relations with India plummeted as Yameen’s Male courted Beijing and invited large investments under China’s mega-infrastructure project. Some members of the international community openly showed their disapproval. In July this year, the European Union threatened sanctions on Maldivian officials on grounds of “serious human rights violations” and “undermining the rule of law.” The Sri Lankan and Singaporean governments too took action by cutting off money supply to the government and severely restricting trade with the island nation. India, however, struggled with to form a coherent response as the Maldives continued to shift further towards authoritarianism.

In true Machiavellian fashion, Yameen had made several manoeuvres to consolidate power and ensure victory in the Presidential elections. Opposition leaders were either in exile or had been imprisoned citing broad counterterrorism laws, the judiciary was overruled, and critics, including supreme court judges, were jailed on the ground of defamation. He even installed a close ally to head the country’s election commission. Each move displayed a deep desire to hold onto power. With rumours of the elections being rigged, only a few were willing to predict his downfall. The election of Solih, thus, came as a surprise to many (pleasant for some, unpleasant for others).

The outcome of this election is critical in two ways. First, it will determine whether the Maldives can find its way back to the democratic path on which it had set foot a decade ago. Second, it will determine the magnitude of China’s presence in the island, and the impact of that on the region. As president, Solih will have to take on the colossal task of reforming state institutions, which are presently riddled with corruption. This will be the first step in transforming the political class to adhere to democratic norms and principles.

In the months to come, India and the United States will closely watch the president-elect’s posturing with China. While a reverse-swing is out of the question, it remains to be seen whether Solih will follow the lead of Myanmar and Malaysia, and renegotiate the deals the previous regime made with China. A shrinking Chinese footprint in the neighbourhood is ideal for India, and New Delhi should send a clear message indicating that it will stand by the democratically-elected leadership, and not shy away from providing assistance when asked.

For now, Maldivians have reasons to celebrate as their experiment with democracy continues.

About the author

Shibani Mehta

Shibani Mehta is a Programme Associate with the Strategic Studies Programme. A post-graduate of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS, NTU), her research areas include foreign policy and India's intelligence agencies.

Prior to joining Takshashila, Shibani did research on Hybrid Warfare as an intern with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. At Takshashila, she also manages the Graduate Certificate in Strategic Studies (GCSS) programme and enjoys writing about foreign policy by drawing parallels with popular films.