Colombo, September 30: India has suffered a geopolitical setback in the Maldives. In the final phase of the Maldivian Presidential election held on Saturday, the pro-Indian incumbent Ibrahim Solih was defeated by his pro-China challenger Dr.Mohamed Muizzu.
But there is a silver lining: In his election speeches, Muizzu repeatedly promised to follow an independent and non-partisan foreign policy.
Be that as it may, the bottom line is that India will not have a monopoly of influence over the Maldives under Muizzu that it had during the Solih regime from 2018 onwards.
In the second and final round of polling, called the “runoff” Dr.Muizzu got 53.9% of the valid votes and Solih 46.2%. Having got more than 50% of the valid votes, Muizzu won.
Muizzu got a majority in 131 islands, 17 atolls & 4 cities and Solih won 64 Islands and one atoll, but did not win any city.
With Muizzu grabbing the Presidency, the question in many minds is whether India’s geopolitical rival, China, will benefit from his victory. Muizzu is seen as being friendly to China and Solih to India.
However, Muizzu has not explicitly said that his government will tilt away from India and towards China. His statements indicate that he will not tilt towards any power but follow an independent line seeking the cooperation of all.
He has promised to protect the sovereignty of the Maldives against intrusions by outside powers. And he has categorically stated that he will not allow the stationing of any foreign military in the Maldives.
This affects India adversely because India has deployed military helicopters in the Maldives, ostensibly to protect the widespread islands from smugglers and pirates.
But a section of Maldivians, including some with a pro-India past, are opposed to the Indian military presence, or any foreign military presence, no matter what the reason.
“When the helicopters were allowed by the previous Yameen government , the understanding was that Maldivians would be trained to pilot the choppers and the Indians would leave. But no Maldivians have been trained. It looks as if the Indians want to stay on,” said a political activist close to former President Mohamed Nasheed.
Nasheed, who was vocally pro-India and anti-China, is currently neutral.
The “India Out” movement initiated by Muizzu’s party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), is built around the presence of the Indian helicopters and their Indian crew. The Solih government was totally against the “”India Out” movement, condemning it as being antithetical to Maldivian interests.
India had backed Solih to the hilt from the time of his candidature in the 2018 elections. New Delhi had given his government generous development aid and even budgetary support.
While the Abdula Yameen government (of which Muizzu was part) took huge loans from China to carry out large projects such as the Sinamale Bridge connecting Male, Hulhule and Hulhumale, the Solih regime took most of its loans from India.
Indian funds are being used to build the Thilamale bridge project, which will connect the city with Villimale, Gulhi and Thilafushi. Indian aid was taken for spots facilities also.
However, according to Muizzu’s supporters, the Solih government squandered Indian funds. It failed to deliver on promises. In other words, India’s help had gone in vain.
Solih spoilt his chances further in the run-up to the elections by making, at the eleventh hour, a plethora of promises about welfare projects including grants of land. This these were of no avail.
Muizzu, on the other hand, appeared to be more credible. He had a good track record as a development administrator. A Ph.D in Civil Engineering from the University of Leeds, he had distinguished himself as the Housing Minister in the Abdulla Yameen government and subsequently as Mayor of the country’s capital, Male.
Muizzu gained prominence for his pivotal involvement in overseeing several significant infrastructure projects, most notably the iconic Sinamalé Bridge. This remarkable bridge served as a vital connection linking the capital city, Male, to the Velana International Airport on Hulhule and extending further to the planned new city of Hulhumale.
Throughout the period spanning 2013 to 2018, a multitude of infrastructure initiatives were successfully completed under his leadership, including the construction of numerous harbours, jetties, parks, mosques, public buildings, sporting facilities, and roads.
Muizzu on Foreign Policy
Here are some of Muizzu’s pronouncements on foreign policy made during the election campaign. These indicate the direction his government will take.
In August, he told a public meeting that he intends to “counteract threats to the Maldives’ independence from the policies of the Solih government.”
Speaking at a campaign event at Raa Ungoofaaru, Muizzu said that President Solih’s foreign policy had “compromised the Maldives’ national interest and its sovereignty.”
He further said that the protection of the country’s independence should get priority over development projects.
Muizzu assured that foreign troops would not be allowed to remain in the Maldives under his Presidency.
At another meeting, Muizzu said his foreign policy strategy would centre around “fostering strong and balanced relationships with friendly nations while preserving the Maldives’ interests.”
He charged that President Solih’s government was being influenced to the point that Maldives’ affairs were dictated by another country.
“The affairs of our country, have been arranged in such a way by the government of today, that it is impossible to do a single thing unless it is endorsed by a neighbouring country,” Muizzu charged.
However, Muizzu always took care not to name India or China or any other country for that matter in his speeches.
He expressed his commitment to avoiding discrimination against any nation. There would be “clear boundaries for diplomatic ties”, he stated. “We will not praise one country too much nor distance ourselves excessively from it,” Muizzu said.
His statements indicated that he would be even-handed vis-à-vis India and China and not pronouncedly pro-China.
Stating his fundamental principle, Muizzu said: “While the Maldives is a UN-recognised nation, the people of Maldives should have the full right to maintain their sovereignty and independence.”
“Whether the country is small, big, close or distant, if we don’t go beyond the limits set in our foreign policy, all countries will be equal for us.”
“We will not be leaning towards a particular country or leaning away from it.”
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