Saro Thiruppathy weighs in on what’s unfolding in the Maldives, Male’s close ties with Beijing and New Delhi’s exit from the archipelago

Approximately 284,000 Maldivian voters cast their vote in parliamentary elections on 21 April to select 93 representatives to the People’s Majlis under the ‘first past the post’ system. Prior to the elections, the number of seats in parliament was raised from 87 to 93.

Polls were conducted in an atmosphere of antipathy because many initiatives of the incumbent – President Mohamed Muizzu – were facing continuous obstacles put forth by the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Muizzu, who was previously the Mayor of Male, is the eighth president of the Maldives and has been in office since 2023.

The electorate voted clearly and awarded his People’s National Congress (PNC) a resounding victory with 66 seats (over 48% of the votes) in parliament. The MDP won only 12 seats with slightly over 30 percent of the votes cast.
Ironically, even though there were several minor political parties vying for the top post, it seems that in the Maldives too elections are limited to a two horse race. In the 2019 elections, the Maldivian Democratic Party won a similar landslide victory.

While the usual needs and wants of the electorate are elucidated at the polls, a clear mandate was granted to Muizzu to forge deeper ties with Beijing. In fact, it was not only a pro-China vote but also in support of his rallying ‘India Out’ call; and it rejected the principles of the pro India MDP.

INDIA OUT In 1988, former president Abdul Gayoom faced an attempted coup, which was supported by terrorists from the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in Sri Lanka.
India sent troops under ‘Operation Cactus’ to help Gayoom thwart the coup attempt – that contingent was later withdrawn.

Two previous attempted coups were not as serious as the 1988 putsch and India was convinced that its intervention was necessary to prevent any external powers from attempting to set up bases in the Maldives.
New Delhi has always been nervous about who lurks in the surrounding Indian Ocean, which it considers India’s backyard; it believes that unwelcome visitors can be harmful to the security of the subcontinent.

However, India stationed some 77 soldiers and 12 medical personnel from its security forces in the archipelago – ostensibly to assist the Maldives in accessing food, water, medicines and so on, and provide security and humanitarian assistance. New Delhi claims that the soldiers only provided security and humanitarian aid.
India also equipped Male with two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft. These were used by the Indian cadre to survey the surrounding ocean, and assist in medical emergencies and evacuation, as well as search and rescue operations.
But relations between the two countries haven’t been rosy for some time because the Maldivians felt that India was interfering in their domestic politics.

Muizzu campaigned claiming that New Delhi was influencing issues in the Maldives and is a threat to the nation’s sovereignty.
It was felt that India had overstayed its welcome and needed to leave.

And it was on the back of this India Out campaign that Muizzu came to power with over 46 percent of the votes in the first round and more than 54 percent in the second. His pro-India opponent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih received over 39 percent of votes in the first round and almost 46 percent in the second.

Muizzu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met on the sidelines of the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai last year, and agreed to review their ties and the presence of Indian troops in the archipelago.And by 10 May, New Delhi had withdrawn all its troops from the Maldives, as the latter’s government became cosier with Beijing.

CHINA FACTOR Instead of the customary maiden visit to New Delhi, Muizzu took flight to Beijing in January, following his election victory last year. In China, he signed 20 agreements with his Chinese counterpart for greater collaboration between the two nations.

Prior to his party’s election victory, plans for several Chinese projects in the Maldives – including an artificial island with tens of thousands of apartments, fish factories and a new airport – was stymied by the main opposition MDP and others.

Analysts expect to see the Maldives – which comprises 1,192 islands (and 26 atolls) that dot 800 kilometres of ocean, and lie across key international shipping lanes – gathered further into China’s warm embrace.
Shortly before the general elections, Muizzu awarded contracts to Chinese businesses to the tune of over US$ 250 million for the construction of fish processing factories. Income from fisheries is second only to tourism in the Maldives. Meanwhile, international lenders warned Muizzu about debt distress and cited Sri Lanka as an example of a cautionary tale.

Nevertheless, the show goes on – and it appears that the ultimate winner of the elections in the Maldives is China, as its position in the Indian Ocean grows ever stronger.