17.10.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

New president elected in the Maldives: what this means for the region

The word “Maldives”, for most readers will probably, firstly, mean “heaven on earth” (primarily a tourist one) and, secondly, lead to a question of perplexity: why does it appear at all (“in our crazy time”) in the publication, which discusses various aspects of the escalating situation in the geopolitical region, where the focus of the current stage of the “Big World Game” is shifting to?

Nevertheless, this dwarf state with a total population of half a million people living on a group of coral islands that stretch from north to south in the Indian Ocean for 800 km, periodically finds itself in the field of special attention from the leading participants of the aforementioned game. Mainly because of the extremely important geographical position that the Maldives occupies in its space. It is worth pointing out the mere fact that the territory of this country actually “cuts along” the most important route of international trade connecting the Persian Gulf zone and the east coast of Africa with three of the five main economies of the world, which are China, India and Japan.

It is through this route that this latter receives about 90% of the consumed hydrocarbons, which remain (and will remain for the foreseeable future, despite all the attempts of “green movement” freaks) the ’life blood’ of modern economy. Essentially for this reason, in the foreign policy of Japan, returning (after the defeat in World War II) to the table of the global political game as one of its significant participants, the southwest vector is designated as a priority with increasing clarity.

Following it, Japan more and more clearly states its presence (including military) in Southeast Asia in general and the South China Sea in particular, and in the Indian Ocean, in the zones of the Gulf and Africa. By the way, Japan also moved in the same direction (and for approximately the same reasons) during World War II.

For China, the importance of the same vector is due to similar reasons, to which it should be added that one of the main components of the global Chinese Belt and Road Initiative project is being implemented in accordance with it, which contains both land (passing through Pakistan) and sea branches. It is this second one that is most vulnerable to (possible) “unfriendly influence” on the part of Beijing’s main geopolitical opponent, namely Washington, which has (so far) obvious superiority in naval potential. The blocking (again, hypothetical) by the US Navy of China’s access to the specified main sea route may have the most nefarious consequences for the Chinese economy, which continues to depend almost critically on the smooth functioning of export-import flows (despite long-standing declarations of its reorientation to the domestic market).

This is the main reason for the increasing naval activity of the People’s Republic of China in international waters, whose key component is to provide places for both permanent and temporary basing of Chinese Navy ships in coastal and island states of the Indian Ocean. Of these latter, Sri Lanka is most often mentioned and, specifically, the port of Hambantota, located at the southern tip of this island-state. It should be noted that the above-mentioned trade route runs at a distance of one hundred kilometers from this port. However, Beijing is credited with an increased interest (of similar nature) in other island states of the Indian Ocean area, including the Maldives.

Which cannot but cause concern on the part of another state from the above-mentioned trio, that is, India. Its rapidly growing foreign policy ambitions (quite justified, in our opinion) are sometimes summed up in the meme “The Indian Ocean should be Indian.” In other words, India claims its own prevailing position in the waters of the eponymous ocean. These ambitions are being understood in Washington, which seems ready to hand over to New Delhi the position of “overseer of the situation” in the Indian Ocean.

But even now, that is, before the actual (and so far hypothetical) adoption of this “position”, New Delhi finds itself in a state of escalating competition with Beijing for influence on the island states of the Indian Ocean. And along with Sri Lanka, the Maldives has been the subject of rivalry between Asian giants over the past two decades. It becomes particularly acute during presidential elections (Maldives is a presidential republic), when local political groups having directly opposite foreign policy vectors fight for the highest state position.

By the time of the beginning of the recent electoral-presidential cycle, which fell in the autumn of this year, the leadership of the Maldives, led by the president (now the previous one) Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, adhered rather to the pro-Indian vector. The evidence and guarantee of latter is the presence (rather symbolic however) in the Maldives of a contingent of Indian troops numbering 75 soldiers with two light helicopters. This fact turned out to be at the center of the pre-election struggle of the two candidates for the next presidential term.

One of them was the abovementioned Solih, the second was the mayor of the country’s capital Male, Mohammed Muizzu, representing the People’s National Progress, one of the minority parties. In the first round, held on September 9, Solih received 39% of the votes, Muizzu 46% with an almost 80% turnout. In the second round, which took place three weeks later, Muizzu finally overcame the necessary 50% barrier, receiving 54% of the votes.

Thus the 45-year-old Muizzu, having studied in the UK (at the universities of London and Yorkshire) and having headed, since May 2021, the mayor’s office of the country’s capital, will assume the presidential office on November 17 and will lead the country for the next five years. Even during the election campaign, Muizzu said that his first act in his new position would be to demand that the Government of India withdraw its military contingent from the Maldives. Mainly in this regard, he was characterized in the media as “pro-Chinese minded”. But only the future will show how the new leadership of this dwarf state (again, extremely important from the standpoint of the regional political game) will really act.

As for New Delhi’s reaction to the results of the Maldivian presidential election, the spokesperson of the country’s Foreign Ministry expressed hope during a regular press conference that the previously-established cooperation “between neighboring countries” would continue further on a wide range of issues.

It’s worth paying attention to the apparent “illogicality” of the results of the recent presidential election in the Maldives from the standpoint of the alignment of the main political forces, which was outlined during the 2019 elections to the Majlis, the country’s parliament. Back then the Democratic Party, to which the previous president belongs, obtained the overwhelming majority (65 seats) in the 87-seat parliament. While the current winner of the presidential race represents, again, one of the minority parties, which has only three parliamentary mandates. Perhaps, while serving as mayor of the capital, Muizzu proved himself as what is called a “good business executive”, which is the main positive trait in the eyes of any inhabitant of any country when the question arises about choosing the “chef”. And no matter what the candidate’s political preferences are.

However, the actual balance of forces will be assessed in less than a year, when the next parliamentary elections will be held in the Maldives. In the meantime, the newly elected president will coexist with a barely friendly parliament.

Finally, we note that the request to remove foreign troops from the territory of the country (which is generally speaking, quite natural) should hardly be interpreted too “expansively”. It should not be forgotten that it is not a superpower that is discussed here (to put it mildly), which cannot afford to “shift the helm” too sharply in the current very turbulent global political sea. Moreover, about a third of the Maldives’ national income is due to the smooth functioning of tourism, which is totally incompatible with any political turbulence. Both in the domestic and foreign policy domains.

However, in this, it seems, completely crazy world, everything is possible. So one is left to see what will happen next around this tourist “heaven on earth”.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

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