This past Sunday, Maldives opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated President Abdulla Yameen in the country’s presidential election. This Monday, Yameen conceded. This outcome will have a significant impact on the country’s trajectory on a national and international level, as the Maldives was taking an autocratic turn with Yameen’s continued aggression towards criticizers and competitors. The nation is also a key player in the ongoing China- India power struggle, and Yameen’s approval of increased Chinese support and influence over the Indian Ocean was discernible. For these reasons, Solih’s win is a victory for India and the United States as well.
The Maldives was established as a democracy in 2008, following three decades of authoritarian rule under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Yameen was elected president in 2013, and asserted dominance in this role by arresting his various different political opponents. This included Muhammed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, mentioned earlier, who is Yameen’s half- brother. Yameen also forbid public rallies from occurring within the country, and only lifted this ban due to increased pressure from both internal and external sources. Earlier this month, a rally was held for the first time in three years. These restrictive measures exemplify anti-democratic sentiment, with Yameen infringing on citizens’ rights to express their dissent and disapproval with the presidential administration. Solih’s campaign manager, Mariya Ahmed Did, stated, “President Yameen was not given a mandate to trample all over Maldivian democracy and our Constitution, but that is what he has done these past five years.”
The international community will closely watch the transition from Yameen’s administration to Solih’s, as the latter’s campaign throughout the election was centered on democratic reform. However, there is still a significant amount of corruption present within the government, and a fragile judiciary system. While the victorious opposition force is full of anti-Yameen sentiment, there is a strong divide between individuals on what the next steps should be, and whether a fully democratic nation is ideal. Solih received 58% of the popular vote, with an 89% voter turnout.
Yameen’s defeat comes as a triumph for the United States and India specifically, two countries with a vested interest in the fate of the Maldives. Under Yameen’s presidency, Chinese influence increased significantly in the Maldives. The New York Times explained, “China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the Maldives, which critics, including the political opposition, warn amounts to “debt-trap diplomacy” that weighs down the recipient country with loans in order to secure a naval base as repayment.” As stated, many analysts believe that China will establish a naval base in the Maldives in response to the latter’s inability to repay its loans. This link between China and the Maldives is exactly the opposite of what India desires, as a stronger relationship between the Maldives and China can easily lead to decreased relations with India.
While it is unclear how the China- Maldives relationship will proceed during Solih’s presidency, his election campaign focused on a decreased Chinese presence in Myanmar, which is a good sign for India. Increased Chinese influence on the Indian Ocean nations would lead to an uneven balance of power between China and India, tipping the two nations’ power struggle in China’s favor. Without waiting for the official announcement of Solih’s victory, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs released in a statement, “In keeping with our ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy, we look forward to working closely with the Maldives in further deepening our partnership.”
While the United States also sees Solih’s win as strategically beneficial, it also considers the outcome as a victory for the Maldives’ democratic status. Prior to Solih’s victory, many believed that Yameen would sway the election in his favor, unlawfully rigging a democratic fair election. The U.S. State Department had released a statement earlier this month, stating that the elections “were of critical importance to the Maldives' future." While the United States got the outcome it wanted, the next few years under Solih’s leadership will determine whether the democratic status of the Maldives will improve, and how the country’s presence in the international community will develop.