On September 21, Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, told a press conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he is living in exile, that he expects his opposition coalition to win the presidential election on Sunday. It still won’t be easy, he added, because President Abdulla Yameen will likely do everything to stay in power – vote rigging, gang violence, even intervention by the police and the army.
Nasheed had asked for the Indian military’s help to resolve the Maldives’ political crisis after Yameen imposed a state of emergency early this year. On Friday, though, he claimed the opposition intended to overcome the political turmoil through its own efforts. “Do you know why I am not asking any country to be physically involved in the Maldives?” he asked, without naming India. “Because no country has the imagination to do it. Perhaps they do not have the capacity to do it.”
Coming from a long-time champion of stronger India-Maldives ties, this is a scathing indictment of Delhi’s fumbling foreign policy. Relations between the two countries have reached rock bottom in the past three years even as China has gained a foothold in the region through trade deals and infrastructure projects. The “cold war” in the Indian Ocean has affected around 30,000 Indian expatriates as the Maldives has stopped issuing and renewing their work and dependent visas since earlier this year.
A second term for Yameen could mark the death of the Maldives’ decades-old India-first foreign policy. Rising Islamic fundamentalism in the island nation would mean additional worries for India’s internal security. Most importantly, for all its grand talk of making India a global superpower, the Narendra Modi government would have undermined India’s traditional status as a regional superpower.
This presidential election is unusual for several reasons. Yameen has succeeded in declaring all those candidates who contested in 2013 as constitutionally ineligible. Forced into a corner, the democrat Maldivian Democratic Party, the republican Jumhooree Party as well as the religious Adhaalath Party have joined forces against Yameen. This “cocktail coalition” is led by Ibu Solih, a veteran lawmaker from the Maldivian Democratic Party. His deputy is Faisal Naseem, a fresh-faced MP from the Jumhooree Party. Neither is an obvious choice for the top job and both are widely understood to be stand-ins for their more charismatic leaders-in-exile – Nasheed and the tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, once the “richest man in the Maldives”.
They face a daunting task. For months, the opposition, civil society and many international watchdogs have criticised the country’s election commission for voter list manipulation, inadequate ballot boxes and giving the ruling party access to classified information. The police too have doubled down on the opposition, taking off campaign posters, refusing permission for rallies and arresting activists. In response, the European Union and the United States have threatened targeted sanctions against the government.
But Yameen has scoffed at his critics and accused the West of imperialism and interference. His electoral pitch rests mainly on his claims of bringing about “revolutionary” development. He is insolent about forging diplomatic ties with China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan at the cost of Indian interests. “In the 21st century, the Maldives will not sit back and wait for people to come and give aid to them,” said Mohamed Shainee, the fisheries minister and close confidant of the president. “We will knock on the door of whoever is willing to give us aid and be our development partner. We had requested India first, but found it difficult.”
Shainee claimed he was confident about Yameen’s electoral prospects. The ruling party, he said, will win 70% votes.
That Yameen has survived a full term despite the laundry list of corruption charges against him indicates the abject failure of the Maldives’ experiment with democracy. He transferred or removed dozens of MPs and ministers, had two judges dragged out of the Supreme Court and arrested and two vice presidents sacked and arrested. He sent the army to disrupt ongoing sessions of Parliament, installed his loyalists in the country’s independent institutions, and imposed two states of emergency.
The opposition has repeatedly beseeched India for help over the years, to no avail. When the Indian foreign ministry started issuing statements expressing “dismay” and “concern” at the political turmoil in recent months, even the Chinese state media responded with condescension and threats. Meanwhile, the Yameen government has used their backing by non-Muslim countries as evidence of the opposition parties’ agenda of diluting the Maldives’s Islamic identity. To demonstrate his own commitment to the religious order, he directed the police on Friday to destroy “anti-Islamic” sculptures in an underwater art gallery. That Yameen himself is accused of practising sorcery to win elections, considered an anti-Islamic practice, has not held him back.
More worryingly for India, a senior Indian official said the Maldives has been in denial about China’s increasing presence in the country, and what it means. “They are ignoring widespread concerns among Maldivians, as well as international researchers and scholars, about the potentially serious implications of rapidly growing, unsustainable foreign debt towards exorbitantly priced projects being implemented without any transparency and institutionalised scrutiny, or checks and balances,” the official said. “Also, all traditional partners and friends of Maldives are concerned about functioning of democratic and other independent institutions, including judiciary.”
India has been mum about what role it might play in the event of Yameen continuing for another term. Nasheed has claimed he will continue to fight and even contest the parliamentary polls scheduled to be held in six months. “The way you build a democracy is not by running away from it,” he said at the press conference. “It is by going at it every day and not giving up.”