The Maldives will hold its third multiparty presidential election on September 23 amid grave concerns over rights abuses in the country.
President Yameen Abdul Gayoom (Abdulla Yameen) has consolidated his power since winning the 2013 presidential election by a narrow margin of 6,000 votes.
His government’s crackdown on political opponents, independent state institutions and the press has alarmed local rights groups.
“There is a need to reorient ourselves and take stock of what we have lost,” Ahmed Tholal, a former member of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told The Associated Press. “There is a need to ask ourselves if we are willing to allow the hard work of democratizing the country to go waste,” he added.
President Yameen has jailed two former presidents, including his half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his former vice president, two Supreme Court judges, two former defense ministers and scores of other government critics.
Rights groups criticize the trial of former president Mohamed Nasheed, who in 2015 was sentenced to 13 years in prison. The vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, was arrested in 2015 after what the government called a failed assassination attempt on Yameen. Adeeb is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence on terrorism and corruption charges.
In February of this year, the Maldives government ordered law enforcement agencies to disregard any move by the country’s Supreme Court to arrest or impeach President Yameen for not obeying its ruling to release jailed opposition leaders.
Aiman Rasheed, a spokesman for Transparency Maldives, said that Sunday’s vote is “a referendum on authoritarianism versus freedom.”
Read more: Maldives political crisis: ‘worst in its modern history’
Opposition parties – many of them Yameen’s former political partners – formed an alliance in exile with the aim of ousting the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) from power.
Despite differences, opposition forces managed to field a single candidate – Ibrahim Mohamed Solih – to challenge Yameen in the Sunday vote.
Despite indications that Solih, who has the backing of exiled former president Nasheed, could defeat Yameen, the outcome of the election is still hard to predict.
Yameen’s supporters are hopeful the president will be re-elected on the basis of his performance. They say that the country’s economy and institutions have grown under Yameen. Government spokesman Ibrahim Hussain Shihab said Yameen’s administration has always sought to “maintain the rule of law.”
But the economic growth during Yameen’s tenure is partly due to aid and investment from China, which, under Yameen, has managed to oust India as the Maldives’ main backer.
Beijing considers the Maldives an important route in its “Belt and Road” initiative that, apart from its other projects, also aims to connect the Indian Ocean to Central Asia.
Nasheed warned the upcoming election could be the Maldives’ last chance to liberate itself from Chinese influence.
“We believe that the Chinese government has an interest in maintaining the authoritarian rule of President Yameen,” he said Friday at a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he’s living in exile.
In an interview with DW in March, Nasheed accused China of economic exploitation.
“Beijing is encouraging dictatorship in the Maldives and secretly promoting unsolicited contracts. These contracts are not transparent at all; there is no bidding process, no tenders. There is no democratic oversight,” he said.
Nasheed, who cannot participate in the September 23 polls due to his conviction, believes India needs to step up its role to counter Chinese influence on the Maldives.
“India is responsible for providing security in the Indian Ocean and also to the Maldives. We are in a very precarious situation at the moment. What is happening is that China is giving out high-interest loans to our country. By 2020, we have to pay off almost 40 percent of the government revenue to pay back the debt. If we are unable to do so, China would ask for equity and in the process we will have to give up our country’s sovereignty. So we are falling into a death trap,” Nasheed told DW, adding that India, being the historical provider of safety and security to the Maldives, has a reason to be concerned about the situation.
Read more: India ‘disturbed’ by Maldives’ political crisis
Until Yameen came to power, the Maldives had remained in the Indian sphere of influence ever since both countries gained independence from British rule in 1947.
The recent inauguration of the China-funded Sinamale Friendship Bridge has become the latest cause of friction between Beijing and New Delhi. The $200 million (€170 million) bridge will link capital Male to an airport-island.
Yameen said the bridge marks the “dawn of a new era for the Maldives.”
India still has options
An Indian foreign ministry source told DW that New Delhi’s policy for the Maldives does not depend on Beijing’s relations with the island nation. “We are confident about the strength and enduring nature of our relationship with the Maldives,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
Despite China’s increasing clout, India still enjoys a considerable influence on the Maldives. Unlike India, China does not have a military presence in the Maldives. Indians are the second-largest expatriate community in the Maldives. Also, India has a geographical proximity with the Maldives, which is located just 400 kilometers southwest of India’s Malabar coast.
“The Sunday election is crucial for both Yameen and India,” Harsh Pant, head of the strategies studies program at the Observer Research Foundation, told DW, adding that the India-Maldives ties have taken a hit because of Yameen’s policies.
“At the moment, the space for India in the Maldives is limited. But New Delhi can still emphasize the fact that that the Indian Ocean is an area where India plays a much bigger operational and logistical role than China. So, there are certain red lines that President Yameen must not cross,” said Pant.
Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institute India, believes the election is likely to “raise more questions about Yameen’s legitimacy” as Maldives ruler.
“President Yameen is overseeing an authoritarian government. For many years, he has financial support from China and Saudi Arabia, and has also tied up with organized criminal groups,” Jaishankar told DW, adding that India’s carrot and stick policy with Yameen has not yielded the desired results.