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Victory for ‘India Out’? What ‘pro-China’ Muizzu’s win in Maldives means for island nation & Delhi

Mohamed Muizzu, from People’s National Congress-Progressive Party of Maldives coalition, won around 54% votes in presidential polls against 46% for ‘India-friendly’ incumbent Ibrahim Solih.

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New Delhi: The people of Maldives have chosen “pro-China” leader Mohamed Muizzu to lead the nation against “India-friendly” incumbent Ibrahim Solih in a presidential vote.

The results of the election were declared Saturday, with Muizzu from the People’s National Congress-Progressive Party of Maldives (PNC-PPM) coalition winning around 54 percent votes against 46 per cent for the Maldivian Democratic Party’s Solih, who conceded defeat late Saturday.

Muizzu, the mayor of capital Malé till now, was a surprise candidate in the election. He will be sworn in as president on 17 November.

Following the election results, Solih congratulated Muizzu on his victory in a post on the social media platform X: “Congratulations to president-elect Muizzu. I also congratulate the people who have set a peaceful democratic example.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sent his wishes to Muizzu. “Congratulations and greetings to Mohamed Muizzu on being elected as President of the Maldives,” he said on X Sunday.

“India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean region,” he added.

Modi’s first foreign visit after being elected to a second term as PM was to the Maldives on 8-9 June 2019.

It is believed that Muizzu’s election to the top post in the Maldives, a 100 percent Muslim nation, may have repercussions for the island nation’s ties with India.

Muizzu is part of the pro-China camp and was a minister of housing and infrastructure during the Abdulla Yameen administration (2013-2018), under which the Maldives borrowed heavily from China for construction projects.

Yameen was ousted by Solih who, along with his party, held a firm “India-first” policy – turning the 2023 presidential election into a referendum on Maldives’ foreign policy orientation.

ThePrint explains Malé’s ties with New Delhi as well as Beijing, and why Solih is believed to have lost the election.

Also Read: Churning in Maldives raises Delhi’s stakes in Indian Ocean. Why Modi should rule the waves

China and India jockey for influence

During the Yameen administration, ties between New Delhi and Malé soured. Yameen’s proximity with China, crackdown on democratic dissent, and anti-India rhetoric to fuel nationalist sentiments were some of the reasons behind the souring of relations, according to an October 2022 report by Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based think tank.

Following Yameen’s election in 2013, interactions between Beijing and Malé increased, with president Xi Jinping of China visiting the Maldives in 2014.

Maldives subsequently joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, under which Beijing offers investment to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade and its reach across continents.

The two countries signed a free trade agreement and held negotiations for the establishment of a Joint Ocean Observation Centre, giving China greater access to the region, according to the ORF report.

In exchange, China offered Maldives loans and grants for mega-infrastructure projects, including the Sinamalé bridge project, connecting the island of Malé to the airport island Hulumale and another island.

The ORF report noted that, by 2018, Chinese funding to the island nation touched $1.5 billion, with only $600 million in government borrowings and $900 million as sovereign guarantees

In 2018, Yameen asked India — which had earlier gifted two helicopters to the Maldives along with training personnel — to remove the helicopters and all military personnel from the country.

However, Solih, who won the 2018 elections, reversed course on Yameen’s policies, with a renewed focus on collaboration with India.

According to the ORF report, during the Solih years, India offered $1.4 billion assistance to Malé in December 2018, and provided a line of credit for $800 million a few months later. India also agreed to develop and maintain a naval facility and participated in over 45 development projects across the country.

In October 2020, the opposition parties PPM and PNC officially launched the ‘India Out’ campaign.

The campaign promoted the narrative that the sovereignty of the Maldives was being sold to India. It also focused on the removal of unarmed Indian troops — mostly observers, technicians and pilots — who were present on the island on the request of the Maldivian government to help train the Maldivian defence forces, said the ORF report.

Reasons behind Solih’s loss 

Speaking to ThePrint, Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, associate fellow with the ORF’s strategic studies programme, said a combination of reasons led to Solih’s loss, including anti-incumbency, his fight with former president Mohamed Nasheed, lack of development, a weak anti-corruption campaign and, to an extent, the ‘India Out’ campaign.

“The ‘India Out’ campaign launched in 2020 was a PPM-led operation that petered out by 2021. What it did, however, was solidify the votes of the PPM-PNC coalition,” he said.

He added that “the common themes in Maldivian politics are Islamic conservatism and nationalism”.

According to a report published by the US Department of State in 2022, being Muslim is a requirement for citizenship in the Maldives and being a Sunni Muslim is a necessity to hold public office, including that of president.

“The PNC-PPM leaned heavily on this. There were fake messages floating around on how ‘Hindu nationalist’ India was exporting its culture to Maldives, harming the Islamic fabric of the country,” said Shivamurthy.

This, he explained, led to the Yoga Day clashes in June 2022, when a group of men disrupted a yoga event organised by the Indian High Commission in Malé.

Furthermore, messages and news channels in the Maldives highlighted India’s “Hindutva” credentials, describing various incidents of violence faced by minorities in India, Shivamurthy said.

While the anti-India rhetoric added a few votes to Muizzu’s coalition, Shivamurthy said the split between Nasheed and Solih subtracted the incumbent’s.

Nasheed, president of the Maldives from 2008-2012, fell out with Solih and formed his own party, the Democrats, earlier this year. The party ran with the campaign “Anyone but Ibu (Solih)”, further denting Solih’s path to victory.

According to Shivamurthy, it is too soon to comment on what Muizzu’s victory means for New Delhi and Malé ties, but said there would be a definite China tilt in the island nation’s foreign policy, given domestic considerations.

“Muizzu’s backers are the PNC-PPM coalition that has a firm anti-India stance. This would require Muizzu to toe a pro-China line, but how this would look is still not clear. Muizzu himself never took a public position in calling out India in the manner that Yameen did previously,” he pointed out.

“While Muizzu would be careful to not antagonise India, this result is not the best scenario for India,” he added.

Yameen is currently serving an 11-year prison term for corruption and money-laundering. In August this year, the Supreme Court of the Maldives barred him from contesting the 2023 elections, leading the PNC-PPM to select Muizzu at the last minute as a proxy candidate for Yameen. 

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also Read: Maldives is a test case for India’s strategic economic quest, and for Trump’s Indo-Pacific idea


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