There is no end to speculation in the international community about how the elections will be held in Bangladesh, whether the elections will be held on time in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This is a recent feature of the much-talked-about vote in the South Asian region. The Maldives vote was also of great interest from Washington, Beijing, New Delhi to Moscow. The reader already knows the result of that vote. But the conversation did not stop there. The question of many, is this vote but the Maldives pulled from one circle of geopolitics to another circle?
That ‘Great War’ is just the beginning
On July 28 this year, Prothom Alo referred to the Maldives election as a ‘mahasamar’. Now it has to be said that the war does not stop with the elections that ended on September 30, but another round has just started.
As many know, the newly elected President Mohamed Muijju or the defeated candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Salih are not the main politicians of Maldives. These two have come forward through various political accidents. Any bloody war creates new stars. The vote settlement between the two does not usher in a quiet chapter in domestic politics in the Maldives.
Former President Abdullah Yameen, one of the country’s two main politicians, is now imprisoned. And Mohammad Nasheed is preparing for new politics by forming a new party. Yamin’s goal now is to get out of jail. Nasheed aims to become the main opposition leader and stake his claim in any future changes. As a result, the election of September 30 only opened the curtain of a new era of politics in the Maldives.
Besides, this is also true, a new ‘Great War’ is starting in Maldives in terms of geopolitics. If Abdullah Yameen is jailed for being pro-China and Salih gets less votes due to bias towards India, the chapter does not end here. A lot of Chinese and Indian ‘investment’ has already taken place in the Maldives. More importantly, the Maldives, located in the middle of the ocean during the global cold war, needed China-India as well as the US.
The fact that the area of the country is not even 300 square kilometers and that there are only five lakh people, is not a matter anymore. Being important in the past required being rich in minerals or natural resources. They no longer seem important. Rather, geographical location is becoming a place of geopolitical importance. Maldives falls under this new standard.
Two Maldives, a ‘war’ of many kinds
Maldivian Muslims have little hand in their own country becoming ‘important’. There is no such authority. News agency AP called the Maldives election results on October 1 a ‘Sino-Indian referendum’. It is as if Maldivian voters are voting for China or India and not for their preferred candidate. But the scene is sad but true, Maldivian politicians cannot stay out of geopolitical algebra even if they don’t want to. Rather, geopolitics is making them insecure. Being pro-China has to go to jail, and being pro-India has to anger the voters. Again, it is difficult to be neutral without being a ‘pro’. As a result, the ‘war’ of Maldives will not end with one vote.
Even in South Asia there is no such ‘Maldives’. There are two Maldives inside the Maldives. A Maldives catered for tourists, there are many lovely ‘resort islands’. There are about 8,000 “guesthouses” for “visa-free” foreigners on those islands.
There are all the ‘facilities’ of international standards. If you look at those benefits, you can understand why Maldives is called ‘Paradise’. And around it there is another Maldives, whose islands are not magnificent. To tourists they are ‘local islands’. The farther the island is from Male, the higher the incidence of poverty and unemployment among the brown people there. 540 miles away from the capital, there are islands in the Maldives. Every day is a war for the residents there. There are also strict religious rules for them. Election is a one day festival for them. The international media is looking at that ‘festival’ as an ‘India-China’ referendum. That view is not entirely untrue.
But the upcoming battle is more intense for Abdullah Yameen. It started the day after the election.
they are four
Everyone knew that the political allies of former President Yameen had confirmed the victory of Mohamed Muijzu in the recently concluded polls for the release of their leader. Within 72 hours of the election results, some of their demands have been fulfilled. Yamin is no longer in prison. It is said that he will stay at home instead of prison. That is, now he is only ‘house arrest’. It was Salihi, who lost the presidential election, who commuted Yameen’s sentence. Needless to say, it might be thinking about its future consequences.
After Yamin, Mohammad Nasheed also has to fight. Although currently the Speaker of the Parliament, his dream is to become the President. It is almost certain that Nasheed will be the opponent of whoever wants to be the president in the next election. Those concerned about China’s influence in South Asia will also be under pressure to consider Nasheed as an ally. Because, as a politician, he is quite influential.
For Salih, who lost the election, the battle now is one of survival. After losing the election, he fell behind in politics for a long time. But there is another fight for him. Muijju can start filing lawsuits against him as president. This is the ‘political culture’ of South Asia.
Although Muijju is elected, it is still too late to take charge. But he is already in the driver’s seat of the country. Highly educated and with a reputation as the mayor of Mal, Muijju may not want to stay in Yameen’s shadow for long. As a result, Yamin’s personality conflict with him can also be seen.
For now, the politics of Maldives revolves around these four people, but what China and India think about the country is getting more attention from political commentators.
China-India is not giving up, there is no relief
The Indian media seemed to suffer the most from Muijju’s victory. Maybe it is the manifestation of the feeling of New Delhi. Although the country is 300 nautical miles away from the west coast of India (one nautical mile = 1.15 decimal miles), the ocean area is particularly important for the movement of New Delhi’s naval forces. Apart from that, Indian policy makers have no choice but to have their presence in the Maldives-adjacent area, as in the past. And without the expected control in Male, it is difficult to influence the surrounding seas.
India has helped the island nation’s rulers in the past in many ways to maintain influence in Male. When the 1988 coup against long-time dictator Mamun Abdul Gayoom was underway, India thwarted it by crossing 300 nautical miles. Abdullah Yamin is the son of Mamun Gayoom. And he is the originator of ‘Quit India’ movement in Maldives. This movement is more religious-populist than politico-economic, more than it has received publicity. Local people’s mistrust of Indians also fueled this movement.
The ‘Quit India’ movement has helped polarize public opinion in this election battle. Again, this movement had a hidden influence behind Yamin’s imprisonment. Yameen’s sentence brought some relief to New Delhi, but the fair vote in the Maldives on September 30 took it away. But Indian influence in Maldivian social life is not so tenuous that it will be completely extinguished by Muizzur’s victory. Muizzur’s victory is certainly not the end for New Delhi if Maldives is to be brought out of Yameen’s rule.
Muijju’s victory is not a huge relief for China either. They have learned well from the experiences of Sri Lanka and Nepal. Rajapakshera in Lanka and KP Sharma Oli’s UML team in Nepal were Beijing’s ‘reliable friends’. One side of those friends, many of the Rajapakshes had to leave the country. In Nepal, Oli’s UML party had to sit in the parliament in the opposition camp. As the ‘Cold War’ heats up, the calculation of vote politics in South Asia is getting messy.
If Muijju helps the Chinese in Male, he may want to balance with New Delhi in order to keep power undisturbed. There are many practical differences between being the leader of the opposition and being the president of the government. Like the Salih government, he may not prioritize India’s considerations in everything, but it is difficult to say for sure whether he will take such a sensitive decision as reducing India’s military influence in the Maldives. Although basically this question is the origin of the ‘Quit India’ movement.
During the agitation in November 2021, President Salihar’s administration called the Indian military ‘cooperation’ only an ‘initiative to enhance disaster response capability’. And Muijju has been saying before and after the election that the Maldivian people do not want to see foreign forces. The message is clear that public support is towards Muijju. But the extent of the trade and commerce of Maldives with New Delhi, even after that message, everything cannot be estimated.
In May, direct sea service from Tamil Nadu to Maldives started. This has greatly increased India-Maldives economic transactions. In 2020, Indian exports to Maldives were equal to $242 million. In 2022 it was touching $500 million. During the tenure of the current government, about eight projects were taken up with a loan of 800 million dollars of India. It is difficult to get out of such ‘bonds’ quickly.
Again foreign debt is a big burden for Maldives like Bangladesh-Pakistan-Sri Lanka. China-India as ‘friends’ have given a lot of loans. In 2020, Maldives owed more than $3 billion to China (BBC, 17 September 2020). A country with a GDP of 5 billion dollars, a debt of 3 billion dollars in just one country is very scary. Debt is piling up with India as well. Getting rid of these debts is now the real ‘war’ of Maldives.
Trade imbalance with debtors again is extreme. In 2022, Maldives was able to export only 6.42 million dollars of Indian goods against the import of 495 million dollars. That means 98-99 percent of mutual trade is done by India alone. The situation in China is even worse. During this period, China exported 451 million dollars worth of goods and took 56 thousand dollars worth of goods.
The question is, can Muijju change this situation? The country has little option but to boost the tourism sector. The share of Indian travelers in tourism has been increasing recently. Muijju should take this into account before blaming India for anything. However, outside of China-India, Muijju’s other alternative is the United States. The USA is now very interested in this smallest country in Asia.
Because, simply China. The United States was once concerned about the Maldives, then about climate change. Those concerns are now largely buried under geopolitics. The United States has been saying in many ways that the Maldives can get old ‘friends’ as an alternative if it wants. Among them, the Russians are also a major attraction of the Maldives tourism industry. The Maldives therefore has little chance of tilting in one direction, but must tilt.
This is the cyclical fate of politicians in South Asia.
Altaf Parvez is a researcher on history