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Maldives’ Rigged Presidential Election: India Needs a New Approach

The Quint

The Maldives is all set to hold another deeply-rigged Presidential election on 23 September to ensure the return of President Abdullah Yameen to power for another term.

The European Union and the United Nations have decided not to send election observers as Maldives has failed to “create the necessary atmosphere and trust for inclusive, credible and transparent presidential elections.” Yet, there is little international action against the dictatorship of President Yameen.

India’s Loss in IOR is China’s Gain

India appears to be at a loss despite serious implications. Firstly, the election consolidates India’s striking loss of influence in the Maldives to China and Saudi Arabia, with serious implications for the maritime security in the Indian Ocean. The fallout will impact not just India but equally the United States, European Union, Japan and Australia which are the key stakeholders of the maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

Secondly, the Maldives’ longstanding political crisis will continue. President Yameen will not be legitimate but he will lead and continue to destroy what is left of the Maldives’ democratic institutions and norms.

Thirdly, with Yameen’s connivance, the elections will consolidate the tightening grip of the religious extremists over the Maldives.

The elections in the Maldives underline the extent of Indian foreign policy failure in the South Asian sub-region. China, which had no diplomatic representation before 2012, is now the Maldives’ closest ally. It is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that every time India goes up against China in the neighbourhood, it loses leverage. Combined with China’s powerful position in Pakistan and its gains in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal, India has lost significant leverage in the region.

Despotic Rulers Use Religion as a Political Tool

The re-election of President Yameen on 23 September will have longer-term consequences for India. Given that the atolls of Maldives are sparsely populated, there is unlikely to be any country-wide democratic uprising against Yameen’s regime. the capital Malé, with a population of 150,000, has been the epicenter of the major democratic uprisings but the Maldives security forces appear capable of thwarting any challenge. All major opposition leaders are either in jail, under house arrest or in exile.

Indeed, the possibility of the Maldives being ruled for an indefinite period by President Yameen with China’s support just like Kim Jung Un of North Korea appears to be the new reality.

Despotic rulers often use religion to garner popular support and prolong their rule. The Maldives was once a bastion of religious moderation. Today, religion is the political football of every election. All major parties try to outbid each other to demonstrate their conservative Islamic credentials. Electoral issues are reduced to candidate’s ability to portray as being the most Islamic, even though the country has far more pressing concerns than promoting faith.

These electoral maneuverings reflect a more deeply-rooted problem. Beginning with ex-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, religion has been used as a political tool for nation-building, and Islamisation has been a visible process.

Terrorism Can Flourish Where Good Governance Is Absent

This process continued under the then President Mohammed Nasheed. The coalition government of Nasheed gave the tiny Islamist Adhaalath Party control over the Ministry of Religion. Given state control over mosques, in practice, this meant the Adhaalath Party was able to disseminate Islamist politics across the Maldives. The Adhaalath Party then expanded its influence into education. It issued fatwas banning music, dancing, and dictated how women should dress and behave.

Islamisation has deepened further under President Abdullah Yameen.

The Islamists have pressed for and won significant changes to laws and regulations that solidified their authority over religious practice. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States continue to provide generous support for building mosques and religious education. President Yameen rewarded the Saudis by supporting its war in Yemen and severing diplomatic ties with Qatar.

If today Maldivian life is dominated by politicised Islam, its future is haunted by the spectre of radical and violent Islamist groups which have become the mainstream.

Maldives has so far provided the highest per capita recruitments to the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but none of these ISIS recruits has been taken into custody on return. Terrorism can only flourish where governments are absent, enabling or ignoring the problem. That the religious extremist groups in the Maldives have been harassing and attacking media outlets, civil society groups and individuals with impunity proves that the Maldives is doing all three.

Quiet Diplomacy No Longer a Viable Option for India

The Maldives has taken ostensible counter-terror measures and enacted a new anti-terror legislation in October 2015.

However, counter-terrorism in the Maldives has been turned into counter-democracy initiative as the list of political opponents convicted or being detained under counter-terror laws grows.

Those convicted of terrorism include former President Mohammed Nasheed and former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, while those who have been charged with terrorism include the longest-serving President and former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, Justice Ali Hameed, four lawmakers including Gayoom’s son, Faris Maumoon and a former police commissioner.

Quiet diplomacy or bilateral solution is no longer a viable option for India as President Yameen sees India inimical to his survival. India needs a new strategy. In response to the rigged elections, India should impose a travel ban and an asset freeze as the EU has done.

Given the long history between the Maldives and India, the impact will be substantial.

Further, considering the maritime security in the Indian Ocean, India ought to see more value in a common position with the United States, European Union, Japan and Australia.

However, India’s South Bloc is still not keen on a multilateral approach to deal with the neighbours, despite the current strategy of acting alone not working.

India needs to bear in mind that whenever it sought to act alone whether in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, it has found itself being portrayed as the neo-colonial power. Unless India changes its strategy, it is most likely to find its influence in South Asia substantially reduced if not isolated. Maldives is indeed the test case for India’s multilateral approach to effectively deal with the neighbourhood.

(Suhas Chakma is Director, Rights & Risks Analysis Group (RRAG). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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