Opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu secured a significant lead in the first round of the Maldivian presidential election on Saturday, in a result that has consequences for India-China geopolitical competition in the Indian Ocean region.

Observers say that Muizzu’s election, a distinct possibility, is not the best outcome for India in terms of maintaining its strategic influence over Malé. Muizzu is the candidate of the alliance led by former president Abdulla Yameen who is seen as leaning towards China.

However, they added that Muizzu may look to balance the island nation’s ties between Delhi and Beijing, and not be as confrontational with India as Yameen was.

Maldives’ strategic important

The Maldives is of strategic importance to both China and India. Dhananjay Tripathi, chairperson of the South Asian University’s international relations department, pointed out that two critical sea lines of communication pass close to the island nation.

David Brewster, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s National Security College, highlighted that the Maldives’ location is also militarily important. “It has the potential to be an ‘unsinkable’ aircraft carrier that could give the [Chinese] air force easy access for potential operations against India and South Asia, as well as the US base at Diego Garcia,” Brewster told Scroll in August. “It could also allow China to threaten the key trading routes across the northern Indian Ocean.”

Brewster, who specialises in Indian Ocean’s strategic affairs, said that access to the old British air and naval base in the Maldives’ Addu atoll could be a major strategic prize for China “that would alter the balance of power in the Indian Ocean”. This, he added, makes the Maldives “highly vulnerable to foreign interference”.

Yameen (right) inaugurating the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge in 2018. Credit: Mohamed Muizzu/Twitter

Muizzu leads

In the first round of polling on Saturday, Muizzu, the mayor of capital Malé, secured 46% of the votes. Incumbent president and Maldivian Democratic Party leader Ibrahim Solih stood second with 39% votes. As no candidate secured 50% votes, another round of polling will happen on September 30 between these two leading candidates.

Muizzu was fielded by an alliance comprising two Opposition parties: former president Yameen-led Progressive Party of Maldives and the People’s National Congress. Muizzu became Yameen’s proxy candidate after the Maldives’ Supreme Court ruled in August that Yameen, currently in jail after being convicted of corruption, cannot participate in the election.

It was when Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives government was in power between 2013 and 2018 that Beijing had gained considerable influence over Malé, leading observers to consider him as leaning towards China. “China had developed a very close partnership with Yameen when he was the president,” Tripathi had told Scroll in August. “China developed some critical infrastructure [in the Maldives] and the Belt and Road Initiative was signed during Yameen’s time.”

Most importantly, as an Opposition leader in recent years, Yameen’s party had led the India Out political campaign. “He has built his political image as an anti-India person and plays on some anti-India radical elements that exist in the country,” Tripathi said.

Like Yameen, Muizzu has campaigned promising to balance India’s influence. Muizzu has pledged that if he wins the presidency, he will expel Indian military personnel deployed in the Maldives, and balance the island nation’s trade that he believes is stacked in India’s favour.

Mixed outcome for India?

The distinct possibility of Muizzu becoming the president may be a mixed outcome for India, observers said.

Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, a South Asia researcher at Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, said that India is not in the best situation with Muizzu. “Muizzu has been advocating close relations with China. That fear has always been there,” Shivamurthy told Scroll. “[But] I wouldn’t say it’s the worst situation – that would have been Yameen coming out of jail.”

Referring to Muizzu’s pledge of expelling Indian military personnel, Azim Zahir, a Maldivian political scientist at the University of Western Australia, said that Delhi’s refusal to withdraw the personnel “will be an awkward row”.

Zahir added, “[Muizzu will also] forge a closer economic relationship with China compared to the current administration.”

Muizzu during the presidential election campaign. Credit: Mohamed Muizzu/Twitter

Yet, Zahir said that Muizzu is unlikely to substantively downgrade ties with India in other aspects such as economic, diplomatic and strategic relations. “It’s also unlikely that Muizzu would develop a security relationship with China to India’s disadvantage,” Zahir told Scroll. “I think he’d be more nuanced in his approach than Yameen’s more confrontational approach.”

Zahir explained that Muizzu’s position is not particularly anti-India. “He has said he’ll value India’s relationship, but he’d also likely renew closer ties with China,” Zahir added.

In a similar vein, Shivamurthy pointed out that the Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress alliance’s India Out campaign had now toned down as compared to when it was led by Yameen himself.

However, Shivamurthy highlighted that Delhi faces a larger problem of an anti-India trend in Maldivian politics. “Earlier, sovereignty and the use of anti-India or anti-China sentiments was very seasonal,” he said. “It only happened during the election time until 2018. After 2018, this has become a perennial issue in Maldivian politics ... I suspect this is because the Progressive Party of Maldives managing to get so many votes with the India Out campaign, despite Muizzu being new to national politics, has given a push to other political parties.”

The Nasheed factor

In contrast to the Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress the ruling Maldivian Democracy Party is seen as promoting a so-called India first foreign policy. The Maldivian Democracy Party, to which Solih belongs, was previously led by former president Mohamed Nasheed. “Nasheed has long taken an approach that geography makes Maldives inescapably look to India as its most important partner,” Brewster said.

The India-Maldives relations that had nosedived during Yameen’s term rebooted only after the Maldivian Democracy Party, then led by Nasheed and Solih, came to power in 2018. But Nasheed quit the Maldivian Democratic Party in June after months of internal strife with Solih and losing the party’s presidential primary election to the latter. He then joined The Democrats – a new party some of Maldivian Democracy Party’s rebel parliament members had launched.

Nasheed himself did not contest Saturday’s presidential polls, but his proxy candidate Ilyas Labeeb finished third with 7% votes. This is a substantial group of voters that Muizzu and Solih are courting for the second round. On Sunday, Frontline cited Nasheed as saying that he intends to support Muizzu in the second round. He emphasised that his presence could help moderate Muizzu’s anti-India position.

However, observers are unsure of Nasheed’s influence on Muizzu or if their coalition happens at all. “On the issue of the presence of Indian security or technical personnel in the Maldives, it’s unlikely that Muizzu would compromise,” Zahir said.

Shivamurthy said that much will depend on the coalition that is created. “The Democrats have overtaken the Jumhooree [party] as the number three party,” Shivamurthy said. “They have emerged as the new kingmakers. They have the flexibility to mould things the way they want to. But to what extent will they make these compromises is the biggest challenge.”

Shivamurthy added, “With 46% votes, the PPM-PNC may be confident of going all the way themselves. But they’re keeping their options open.”