Maldives votes out pro-China President in election surprise

Mr Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party in an exuberant moment during campaigning in the Maldives' presidential election last week. The opposition candidate on Sunday won the election and the current president has conceded defeat a
Mr Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party in an exuberant moment during campaigning in the Maldives' presidential election last week. The opposition candidate on Sunday won the election and the current president has conceded defeat and promised to hand over power when his term in office ends on Nov 17.PHOTO: REUTERS

Anti-China opposition candidate pulls off victory in island nation caught between Delhi and Beijing

NEW DELHI • The Maldives, a tiny island nation caught between India and China, has elected an opposition candidate as its next president, a surprise result after years of authoritarian rule.

In the tropical tourist destination south-west of India with around 400,000 people, opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih declared victory in Sunday's election after years of government suppression and the jailing of political opponents.

The United States and India congratulated Mr Solih on his win - and urged the Maldives government of President Abdulla Yameen to recognise the election result.

Mr Yameen yesterday conceded defeat in a televised address to his country and promised to hand over power when his term in office ends on Nov 17, ending speculation about whether he would try to hold on to power.

"Earlier today, I met with Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who the Maldivian electorate has chosen to be their next president. I have congratulated him," Mr Yameen said.

Independent news website Mihaaru.com showed Mr Solih with 58.4 per cent of the vote compared to Mr Yameen's 41.6 per cent. Voter turnout was nearly 90 per cent, the website said.

Mr Solih's victory in the Maldives, which has a gross domestic product of just US$4.6 billion (S$6.3 billion), could have geopolitical significance.

Like Sri Lanka, where a state-owned Chinese firm now owns and operates a sensitive port, the Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and has served as a battleground for India and China as both seek influence in South Asia.

Like Sri Lanka, where a state-owned Chinese firm now owns and operates a sensitive port, the Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and has served as a battleground for India and China as both seek influence in South Asia.

Mr Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party has taken an anti-China stance.

Exiled former Maldives president and party founder Mohamed Nasheed previously told Reuters that China has pulled his country into a "debt trap" and that a future opposition-led government would renegotiate Chinese loans. Mr Nasheed said China had provided more than US$2.5 billion in loans to the island nation.

In recent years, Mr Yameen - who declared a state of emergency earlier this year and has jailed political opponents and judges - has courted investment from China, as well as Saudi Arabia, since coming to power in 2013.

New Delhi, concerned about Beijing's growing economic presence in South Asia, has been unusually vocal as the situation in the Maldives deteriorated.

Ahead of the election, one outspoken member of India's ruling party, Mr Subramanian Swamy, even suggested that India invade the Maldives if the election was rigged. India's Foreign Ministry later distanced itself from those comments.

"We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest," said India's Foreign Ministry.

"This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law."

Dr Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank's India office, said the "China balancing game will continue in the Maldives and other countries in the region" in the longer term.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2018, with the headline 'Maldives votes out pro-China President in election surprise'. Print Edition | Subscribe