SURPRISE ELECTION RESULTS IN THE MALDIVES
By Cherolyn Amery
Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the Maldives’ presidential election [on 23 September] in a surprise defeat of President Abdulla Yameen. Mr Yameen, who has been accused of crushing dissent in the archipelago, admitted defeat, saying he accepted the result. The Maldives is a key battleground in the rivalry between China and India. The US and India have welcomed Mr Solih’s win. Mr Yameen had drawn the Maldives closer to China, which has stepped up its presence in the Indian Ocean in recent years. Many opposition politicians in the Maldives have been jailed under Mr Yameen, and the US and European Union had threatened sanctions before the vote if the democratic situation did not improve. (BBC News)
Hope from a surprise result
The over-arching response to the results of these elections appears to be one of shock. The Maldives have been operating as a democracy for a decade after 30 years of dictatorship rule, but the presidency of outgoing leader Abdulla Yameen has been characterised by a shift towards authoritarian rule, and many expected that he would ensure that these elections went in his favour.
Mr Yameen – who imposed a state of emergency earlier this year in order to annul a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the release of nine ‘dissidents’ – has been accused of human rights abuses and corruption. According to Azim Zahir, in an op-ed for Aljazeera, Mr Yameen “gradually took control of various institutions … and made them subservient to his political agenda, all the while talking about democracy, rule of law, and development”. Zahir also said that all of Mr Yameen’s major political rivals were imprisoned (on varying charges) or exiled, and he implemented a wide crackdown on dissent, which generated much public anger. Mohamed Junayd (Reuters) reported that there were also concerns about the increase in hardline religious attitudes during Mr Yameen’s presidency.
Aljazeera described the recent elections as a “referendum on democracy”, and the supporters of President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih are hopeful that he will be able to turn things around. Mr Solih has been parliamentary leader of the Maldives Democratic Party since 2011, and in his role as a senior politician, has been calling for democratic reform for years. After the election, he said the following: “This is a moment of happiness. This is a moment of hope. This is a moment of history. We will establish a just and free society in the Maldives.”
There are, however, various challenges lying ahead for the new leader. As well as dealing with issues of governmental corruption, Mr Solih ran as the joint candidate for an alliance of opposition parties and now needs to ensure that those parties work together. According to Zahir, the coalition was united by their common enemy – Mr Yameen – but the parties are known to be quick to abandon alliances in order to protect their own self-interests.
The Maldives – made up of 26 coral atolls and 1,192 islands – is home to less than half a million people and is known as a popular destination for luxury holidays. It would therefore not seem to have much significance or importance on the international geopolitical stage. However, the US and India have expressed concern about developments in recent years, and, as mentioned above, both welcomed the election results.
The island nation, lying 523 kilometres southwest of the southern tip of India, has traditionally fallen into India’s ‘sphere of influence’. After gaining independence from the UK in 1966, the Maldives developed strong bilateral relations with India, which included close strategic, military and economic cooperation. During Mr Yameen’s presidency, however, he moved his country’s allegiances closer to China and Saudi Arabia. He welcomed Chinese funding for major infrastructure projects and signed a free trade agreement with Beijing. In recent years, most of the tourists visiting the Maldives have been from China.
International analysts see China’s interest in the Maldives as “part of Beijing’s push to gain strategic influence and carve out new trading routes in the Indian Ocean and beyond” (BBC News). Reuters refers to China’s “String of Pearls” strategy, which involves “developing a network of friendly ports in the region from Sri Lanka to Pakistan”, which would enable China to extend their military reach – something that concerns both India and the West.
India and China have long been regional rivals, so India will be hoping that Mr Solih will shift the Maldives’ affiliations back towards India. After the election results were announced, India’s foreign ministry stated: “India looks forward to working closely with the Maldives in further deepening our partnership.”
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Unbeknown to many of the tourists who visit the Maldives, there is an ongoing struggle for minority Christians in the Muslim island nation. Former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom stated that only Islam should be allowed in the Maldives, and the lack of tolerance towards Christians continues today. Public practice of the Christian faith is prohibited, and Christian missionaries have been expelled from the country. Maldivians who convert from Islam reportedly lose their citizenship. According to Open Doors’ World Watch List, which ranks countries according to the level of persecution of Christians, the Maldives is 13th from the top of the list.
There is a hope that a new presidency could bring new freedoms in this regard, but this is something that time will tell. It is also hoped that if the Maldives renews their relationship with India, Maldivians who travel there might have more access to the Gospel. Christianity in India is still a minority religion, but the Gospel is able to be shared far more freely there than in the Maldives. Whatever the outcome of the new season of leadership, it is certain that God is working out His plan for the growth of His Kingdom, in the Maldives as well.
- For the new president of the Maldives to work for the good of the country
- For Maldivians to encounter the Gospel through stronger ties with India
- For the restrictions on Christians in the Maldives to be eased