Maldives election seen as vote on ties with India
September 7, 2023 12:06 PM
Maldives leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih will seek re-election Saturday in a presidential vote also serving as a referendum on his pursuit of renewed ties with India, the archipelago's traditional benefactor.
Solih, 61, moved swiftly to repair relations with New Delhi after defeating his predecessor Abdulla Yameen, who banked on China for loans and diplomatic support.
Yameen was jailed for 11 years last December after a corruption conviction. He is not a candidate in Saturday's vote, but is backing a proxy.
During his autocratic tenure, Yameen borrowed heavily from China for construction projects, making the nation -- better known for its upscale beach tourism and celebrity travellers -- a hotbed of geopolitical rivalry.
Solih's administration has criticised Beijing's lending as a debt trap and worked to restore the Maldives' traditional diplomatic posture after taking office.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a guest at Solih's inauguration and welcomed back Indian Air Force helicopters that Yameen had ordered removed.
Solih also rejoined the Commonwealth, a bloc Yameen had quit in response to a threatened suspension over human rights issues during his time as president.
But India's outsized political and economic power in the Maldives has itself long been a source of dispute.
Yameen's party and other activist groups have regularly staged street protests demanding a reduction of India's influence in the Muslim nation, which is home to more than half a million people, a third of whom are foreign workers in its tourism industry.
Last year, an Islamist group stormed a football stadium in the capital Male to break up a public yoga session, with police firing tear gas to disperse the protesters.
International diplomacy would play a crucial role in the vote, former foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed told AFP.
Yameen's party is keeping up its "India Out" campaign, but his proxy Mohamed Muizzu, the mayor of the capital Male, has avoided risking his chances by openly criticising New Delhi.
"No one can be in power in Male after defying India," said Shaheed, who is now a professor of law at the University of Essex in Britain.
But a former Maldivian civil servant, who requested anonymity, said he believed China would regain its hold on the archipelago should Muizzu be elected.
- Three-cornered contest -
Solih was a substitute candidate from his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in 2018 when its exiled high-profile leader Mohamed Nasheed was barred from contesting.
Nasheed, a globally recognised climate activist, had helped Solih secure an unexpected landslide win in the last election.
But the pair fell out earlier this year after years of squabbling over political reforms, and after both sought to become the MDP's presidential nominee.
Although Nasheed is not standing in Saturday's election, he is backing Ilyas Labeeb, another candidate from an MDP breakaway faction known as The Democrats.
Solih remains the frontrunner at the weekend polls, in which nearly 283,000 Maldivians over the age of 18 are eligible to vote. According to the archipelago's constitution, every citizen must be a Sunni Muslim.
He needs just over half of the valid votes to avoid a run-off slated for the end of this month should the need arise.
He won 58.3 percent in the last election.
"We could see a three-cornered fight," a senior Maldivian journalist, who requested anonymity, told AFP by phone.
"Solih and Muizzu have very visible campaigns. The Democrats' Ilyas Labeeb is low key."
Analysts expect Solih to do well, but he could be in trouble if he fails to secure a majority in the first round.
A run-off election usually helps the underdog in the Maldives, which has a history of opposition parties successfully uniting against the leading candidate.