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A new Maldives


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Democracy watchers the world over rejoiced this week when the Maldives’ Elections Commission declared a resounding election victory for the opposition candidate, defeating President Yameen who was often seen as an authoritarian leader. 

During his years in power Yameen threw opposition leaders in jail, pushed the country towards China and encouraged the practice of a more extreme form of religion. His repression tactics on civil society, media and the judiciary were starkly reminiscent of Sri Lanka’s own struggles in the past and like in 2015 it would appear that voters have given Maldives an unexpected chance to restore democracy and direct its future onto a new path

The opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, won more than 58% of the ballots cast in an election that saw almost a 90% turnout among eligible voters, underscoring the depth of the public need to effect change. 

But in a country with a brief but painful history of derailed democracy, the silence by President Abdulla Yameen, stretching for hours after Sunday night, had left many worried. The Supreme Court annulled a previous presidential election, and Yameen has put pressure on the Judiciary to jail opponents in the past. Maldives was also at the centre of a controversial transition of power several years ago when former President Mohammad Nasheed was unceremoniously sacked from office in what he later termed a coup.

Yameen finally conceded defeat Monday afternoon at a news conference But Solih’s win will likely have limited impact. The similarities between the latest Maldives political change and the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s political fortunes post-2015 could result in some common lessons.

For starters the change in presidency will probably not roll back Chinese influence. India and the United States have been unable to match China’s spending across South Asia as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which Beijing says will secure commercial interests but which sceptics say will also expand its global military, trading and investment footprint.

Solih has signalled that he will try to hedge between global powers and restore the warm ties the country once shared with India, which has watched China’s rise in the region with concern. In the past, the opposition leader has promised to strengthen relations with neighbouring countries to preserve security in the Indian Ocean and this is likely to continue. Maldives depends extensively on China for both tourists and investment and is likely to continue to work to balance ties with both India and China. A policy that has been taken by Sri Lanka as well. 

Substantial policy announcements are yet to be made but like his predecessor Nasheed the president-elect may find maintaining relations with the defence establishment and the entrenched political and economic establishment tough going if he wants to push through greater accountability, transparency and independence. All crucial elements of strengthening democracy. Yameen has also had serious corruption allegations levelled against him and investigations into them is likely to prove contentious. 

Given the many challenges before him Solih has a weighty task ahead of him to develop Maldives and improve its democracy. Many will be hoping that this opportunity will result in genuine change that the rest of South Asia can draw inspiration from.


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