HomeNewsIn blow to India, pro-China candidate wins Maldives election

In blow to India, pro-China candidate wins Maldives election

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An opposition candidate widely seen as pro-China won a runoff election to be the next president of the Maldives, marking a significant loss for Indian influence in the archipelagic nation.

Mohamed Muizzu received 54 percent of the votes cast in Saturday’s election, the Elections Commission of the Maldives said on Sunday after almost all votes had been counted, compared with 46 percent for the incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

“Congratulations to president-elect Muizzu,” Solih wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, after conceding defeat on Sunday.

In a statement celebrating his win, Muizzu emphasized that the people of the Maldives should put aside their differences and work together. “With today’s result, we have got the opportunity to build the country’s future. The strength to ensure the freedom of Maldives,” he said.

The vote in Maldives highlighted a bitter divide between pro-India and pro-China camps in Asia’s smallest country. India and China hold sway in the island nation in the Indian Ocean, which has a little over 400,000 inhabitants spread across the archipelago and sits in a strategically important location for both trade and security.

The United States has also prioritized improving relations with the Maldives in recent years, and last month sent career diplomat Hugo Yue-Ho Yon to become the first resident ambassador there. The U.S. government previously maintained diplomatic relations through its embassy in Sri Lanka.

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The State Department congratulated Muizzu on his election win on Sunday. The United States “looks forward to deepening our partnership with Maldives and expanding our people-to-people ties,” spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated Muizzu. “India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship,” Modi wrote on X.

The incumbent, Solih, has been in power since 2018 and pushed for closer relations with New Delhi under an “India First” policy that included seeking new trade agreements and allowing India to operate a small military attachment on Maldives territory.

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Solih’s push was a shift from the policies of his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who led the country between 2013 and 2018. Yameen steered the country closer to Beijing, supporting major infrastructure projects with Chinese funding through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Advocacy groups accused Yameen of human rights abuses during his tenure, and after losing office in 2018, he was sent to prison on bribery and money laundering charges that his supporters claimed were politically motivated.

The 45-year-old Muizzu, a former construction minister and current mayor of the capital, Malé, was not an obvious choice for a presidential candidate — but he stepped in after a court ruled that Yameen could not run.

An ally of Yameen’s, he had helped oversee several major infrastructure projects, including a $200 million, Chinese-funded bridge that linked the capital with the Maldives’ main airport.

Muizzu campaigned on an “India Out” platform, arguing that the military presence in the Maldives undermined its sovereignty and pledging to expel all Indian military personnel. He also capitalized on widespread discontent with the country’s low economic performance and leaned into more nationalist rhetoric.

Muizzu won the first round of the presidential vote last month; a second runoff vote was held after no candidate received an absolute majority.

On Sunday, Yameen was transferred from prison to house arrest. Muizzu had pledged to release the former president should he win the election.

Muizzu’s victory drew sharp comments from Indian commentators. Brahma Chellaney, a former member of India’s national security advisory board and an outspoken critic of Beijing, wrote on X that it was an “important diplomatic setback for India in its own backyard” and was influenced by the “Islamist vote.”

Anti-Indian sentiment in the predominantly Muslim Maldives was linked to an attack on a New Delhi-sponsored yoga event in Malé last year. Some of the attackers carried flags of Muizzu’s Progressive Party of Maldives, as well as signs that said yoga was against the teachings of Islam, according to reports in Indian media.

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Indian influence in the Maldives has traditionally been strong, with New Delhi sending troops to the island in 1988 to thwart a coup attempt that would have ousted the dictator it was backing, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (Gayoom was eventually removed from power 30 years later, in 2008, after the country’s first democratic election).

In 2018, an Indian member of Parliament had publicly suggested that India should “invade” the Maldives if the elections were rigged, which the government swiftly disavowed.

In interviews with the Indian publication the Wire, allies of Muizzu said the president-elect was not seeking to disrupt relations with New Delhi and would likely make his first international visit to India, as other Maldives presidents have done.

“We should be able to continue to enjoy cordial relations with India or for that matter with any country without the need to have boots on the ground,” said Ahmed Mohamed, who served as Maldives’ ambassador to India during the Yameen government.

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