The Maldives is in the shadow of the rivalry between India and China

The Maldives is in the shadow of the rivalry between India and China

by AFP staff writers

Male, Maldives (AFP) April 21, 2024

The Maldives voted enthusiastically on Sunday in a parliamentary election aimed at testing President Mohamed Muizzu’s tilt toward China and away from regional superpower and traditional benefactor India.

Among the first to vote was 45-year-old Muizzu, who cast his vote at Tajuddin School in the capital Male and urged Maldivians to ensure a high turnout – which was expected to favor him .

“All citizens must come out and exercise their right to vote as soon as possible,” Muizzu told reporters after casting his vote in the capital Male, where he was mayor before winning the presidential election in September.

Election chief Fuad Thaufeeq said after polling stations closed that turnout had already reached 73 percent of the 284,663 voters with half an hour left to vote.

The results were expected early Monday.

The vote is seen as a crucial test for Muizzu’s plan to press ahead with closer economic cooperation with China, including building thousands of apartments on controversial reclaimed land.

The Maldives, a low-lying country with some 1,192 small coral islands spread some 800 kilometers (500 miles) across the equator, is one of the countries most vulnerable to sea level rise due to global warming.

Muizzu, a former construction minister, has pledged to reduce waves through ambitious land reclamation and building higher islands, a policy that environmentalists say could even increase flood risks.

The Maldives are known as a top luxury holiday destination thanks to their pristine white beaches and secluded resorts, but in recent years they have also become a geopolitical hotspot in the Indian Ocean.

The global east-west shipping routes pass through the national chain of 1,192 small coral islands, which stretch about 800 kilometers (500 miles) across the equator.

Muizzu won the presidential election last September as a proxy for pro-China ex-president Abdulla Yameen, who was released last week after a court overturned his 11-year prison sentence for corruption.

– Indian troops leave –

This month, as the parliamentary election campaign was in full swing, Muizzu awarded high-profile infrastructure contracts to Chinese state-owned enterprises.

His government is also in the process of sending home a garrison of 89 Indian troops flying reconnaissance aircraft donated by New Delhi to patrol the Maldives’ vast maritime borders.

The current parliament, dominated by the pro-India Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of Muizzu’s immediate predecessor Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has tried to thwart his efforts to realign the archipelago’s diplomacy.

“Geopolitics is playing a big role in the background as the parties campaign for votes in Sunday’s elections,” a senior Muizzu aide told AFP, asking not to be named.

“He came to power promising to send Indian troops back and he is working on that. Parliament has not cooperated with him since he came to power.”

Solih was also among those who voted early and expressed confidence that his party would emerge victorious.

“We hope that the MDP will be able to get a good majority by the end of today’s vote,” he said. “We saw this happen today and during the campaign.”

Since Muizzu came to power, lawmakers have blocked three of his cabinet nominees and rejected several of his spending proposals.

The splits in all major political parties, including Muizzu’s People’s National Congress (PNC), are expected to make it difficult for any party to win an outright majority.

But Muizzu’s prospects got a boost when his mentor Yameen was released from house arrest on Thursday.

A court in the capital Male ordered a retrial in the corruption and money laundering cases in which Yameen was sent to prison after he lost a re-election bid in 2018.

Yameen had also supported closer alignment with Beijing when in power, but his conviction left him unable to contest last year’s presidential election himself.

Instead, he nominated Muizzu as a proxy, and after leaving the Supreme Court, Yameen vowed to continue the anti-India campaign that helped his ally win.

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