The Maldives was adjusting to a new political reality Monday after the surprise election of opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih over incumbent Abdulla Yameen, who had developed close ties with China during his five years in power.
The Maldives Foreign Ministry said Monday that Maldivian Democratic Party candidate Solih had won the majority of votes based on a provisional count, but that official results would be confirmed within one week.
Turnout was a staggering 89% as Maldivians on the island nation and offshore cast their votes in a controversial election that observers had warned was at risk of voter fraud.
In his first news conference since declaring victory Sunday, Solih said “this is a moment of happiness, this is a moment of hope, this is a moment of history.”
Solih, who is more commonly known by the nickname Ibu, said his priority is to unite the country after years of heavy-handed rule under Yameen, who is yet to concede defeat.
Hundreds of supporters in the Maldivian city of Addu waved yellow flags emblazoned with the scales of justice of Solih’s Democratic Party in celebration.
David Brewster, senior research fellow at the National Security College of the Australian National University, said that the election result was an “absolute shock,” given the indications that Yameen “had the result locked down tightly.”
Yameen came to power in 2013 in a disputed election that opponents say was rigged. Since then, he has been accused of eroding democracy, cracking down on dissent and jailing opposition leaders.
In 2016, the Maldives withdrew from the UK Commonwealth after the association of former British colonies threatened to suspend it for chipping away at democratic institutions.
The Indian Ocean island nation, a popular tourist destination and home to about 400,000 people, has been engulfed in a political crisis since Yameen defied a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that ordered the government to reinstate opposition MPs and release political prisoners.
“For many of us this has been a difficult journey,” Solih said Sunday. “A journey that has led to a prison cell or years in exile. It has been a journey which saw the complete politicization and breakdown of public institutions. But this has been a journey that has ended at the ballot box because the people willed it.”
Former Maldives president and opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, watching the election from Sri Lanka, said that the election win should be a turning point for the Indian Ocean nation.
“We want to see a smooth transition. We do not want to see President Yameen back to his old tricks. No more Supreme Courts, no more martial laws, no more emergency rule, no more suppression. We will again hopefully make a beautiful country.”
Nasheed, who became the country’s first democratically elected President in 2009 and achieved worldwide renown for highlighting the effect of global warming on the archipelago, was imprisoned in 2015 on terrorism charges that his supporters say were spurious.
The Maldives has long been considered a close regional ally within India, and the regional giant’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement on Solih’s victory, saying it “marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law.
“In keeping with our ‘Neighborhood First’ Policy, India looks forward to working closely with the Maldives in further deepening our partnership,” the statement said.
While ties remain close with its neighbor to the north, under Yameen Male had drawn closer to China, inviting investment under Beijing’s expansive “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative, and courting economic assistance from China and Saudi Arabia.
This had prompted concern in some corners, not least from Nasheed, who stated publicly that China is “buying up the Maldives” under Yameen’s rule.
The election of Solih could be seen as another sign that China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road infrastructure mega-project could be facing speed bumps. Recent elections in countries from Pakistan to Malaysia could upset plans to invest in infrastructure and cement its influence across the region, said David Brewster, of the Australian National University.
“Despite how much money China seems to be throwing around the region, (keeping regional influence) not that easy. They’re finding, if they rely on close relationships with authoritarian or strongman leaders they tend to find that those leaders get chucked out,” Brewster said.
Brewster added that under Solih there “will certainly be a shift” towards India.
“Nasheed has been a critic of Yameen’s closeness with China, you have to assume that new government will be much more mindful of Indian sensitivities and getting too close to China, but economic realities will be there as well.”
While the election’s outcome means the Maldives will revert back to an “India first” foreign policy, Azim Zahir, a researcher at the Center for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia. “It will also try to extend its relations with other countries, including China,” he said.
“Yameen compromised the relationship with India, and Solih will try to revert that relationship,” he says “(But) I don’t think the Maldives will have the capacity to (ignore any of these) powers.”
Speaking to reporters earlier this year, Nasheed claimed as much as 80% of the Maldives’ foreign debt was owed to China, raising the prospect that the nation, much like Sri Lanka, could eventually be forced to hand over key Chinese-backed infrastructure to help pay off its debts.
Though China has denied the accusations, such views have helped to stoke fears in India of potential encirclement by China, and that analysts say, is playing into India’s renewed push to consolidate regional alliances.
“India has a primary area in the northern Indian Ocean and the secondary is the Indo-Pacific region. We (India) have interests that we have to preserve,” Gurpreet Khurana, the executive director of India’s National Maritime Foundation, told CNN in February.
“With the Chinese going into the Indian Ocean in a big way, our strategic interests are expanding as well, and this is the only way India will be able to preserve itself.”
China’s trade deal with the Maldives government included investments in developing the international airport and a bridge, but the Maldives in return has taken on a significant number of controversial loan obligations.
Last July, Nasheed said the loan interest the Maldives pays to service its foreign debt to China is more than 20% of the country’s budget.
The Maldives are also hugely popular as a tourist destination, especially for Chinese visitors. Almost 1.4 million tourists from across the world visited the Maldives in 2017, according to government statistics, including hundreds of thousands from China.