As the campaigning for the upcoming presidential election in the Maldives gains momentum, the long-standing geopolitical rivalry between India and China is emerging as a critical factor shaping the political landscape of the island nation.
Former President Abdulla Yameen, who was sentenced in 2022 to 11 years in prison on charges of money laundering and bribery, is once again advocating for an "India Out" approach, contrasting with the pro-India sentiments of the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
With the Maldives known for its picturesque island resorts, both India and China are vying for influence in this strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago.
Abdulla Yameen, who was known for his close ties with China during his presidency, is trying to revive his political fortunes by pushing his anti-India message to his supporters in the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
During Yameen's presidency, relations between the Maldives and India became strained due to his pro-China stance and his crackdown on the opposition. In the lead up to the 2018 presidential elections, India took a strong stance against Yameen's crackdown on the opposition.
At one point, there were reports that India was considering the possibility of a military intervention to remove Yameen from power if the political crisis in the Maldives escalated.
After the 2018 election, Maldives faced a political crisis with President Abdulla Yameen refusing to accept the results.
India, along with other countries, called for the respect of democratic processes, and the new President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who was supported by India, assumed office in November 2018.
Solih's victory was attributed, in part, to his criticism of Yameen's tilt toward China and his multibillion-dollar projects funded by Beijing.
However, the roles have reversed since, with India gaining a stronger foothold over the past four years through defense agreements and substantial financial assistance for infrastructure projects.
The "India Out" movement, championed by Yameen and his supporters, argues that the Indian military presence in the country is illegal and that bilateral security agreements with India are unconstitutional. Yameen's message has resonated with his supporters across the Maldives, but his candidacy remains uncertain due to legal challenges.
Cirrently in jail, Yameen has until August 2023 to overturn his conviction to be able to file his nomination and contest the election.
The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) is considering nominating Yameen even if he is in jail and seeking a Supreme Court ruling on his eligibility.
However, the Elections Commission may object to such a move.
Despite the obstacles, a fracture in the ruling party has emboldened Yameen. The Democrats, a new party led by former President Mohamed Nasheed, has emerged from within the Maldivian Democratic Party( MDP).
The geopolitical irony
Nasheed has engaged in coalition talks with the PPM to field a common candidate against Solih. This unexpected alliance highlights the need for political parties to form coalitions to secure victory in the Maldivian elections, where the winning candidate must secure 50% plus one vote.
The Nasheed-Yameen alliance, despite their previous differences, showcases the complex dynamics of Maldivian politics.
Nasheed, who has been vocal against China's presence in the Maldives and has expressed strong pro-India views, recognizes the importance of coalitions with the pro-China PPM in winning the elections.
Yameen, on the other hand, has in the past that his party would terminate all agreements with India if elected.
While some experts contend that an alliance between Nasheed and Yameen would not align with India's interests, others suggest that Yameen's reliance on partnering with a prominent pro-India political faction could potentially compel him to moderate his anti-India and pro-China stance, ultimately serving India's interests.
The prominence of India's position in the election discourse does not come as a surprise, given its significant economic partnership with the Maldives.
India is one of the country's largest trading partners, providing crucial investments, aid, and concessional loans.
The race for the presidency in the Maldives remains undecided, with the majority of voters still undecided according to a recent opinion poll.
While 15 percent support President Solih and 6 percent back Nasheed, the two pro-India leaders, approximately 10 percent are in favor of Yameen.
President Solih, despite facing criticism from breakaway factions within his ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, appears undeterred as he launches his reelection campaign. His promises to voters range from coastal protection to harbor development, appealing to the interests of an island nation.
The Maldives is slated to hold its presidential elections in September 2023. The outcome of the election will not only shape the political landscape of the Maldives but also have significant implications for the India-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean region.
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