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Opposition’s Mohamed Muizzu wins Maldives polls, faces challenging task of balancing ties between Delhi, Beijing ahead

– Anwarulhaq Baig

New Delhi, October 2, 2023: The people of the Maldives have voted for the opposition’s Mohamed Muizzu as their new president, defeating the incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in Saturday’s second-round run-off election.

Incumbent Solih conceded defeat and congratulated Muizzu shortly after the Elections Commission of the country announced, around Sunday midnight, that the 45-year-old opposition candidate had received 54.04 percent of the vote.  Over 85 percent of voters turned out on Saturday out of the total more than 282,000 registered electorates.

Ruling Maldivian Democratic Party leader Solih, who secured 45.96% of the votes, will remain in office as the caretaker president until his successor Muizzu takes the oath on November 17.  In the first round, which was held on September 9, no candidate secured the required over 50% of votes.

The presidential election was considered crucial for the country’s foreign policy and was seen as a referendum on its ties with India or China because incumbent Solih’s five-year term was marked by his pro-India policies.  In contrast, President-elect Muizzu’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), said to be an Islamic party, is known for its strong support for a significant influx of Chinese funding in the country’s infrastructures.

After winning the election in 2018, President Solih launched a probe against the leader of PPM and former President Abdulla Yameen on charges of corruption and money laundering. A mentor of Muizzu, Yameen is currently serving an 11-year prison term in the case, but his followers claim that the charges are politically motivated.  During Yameen’s tenure, the Indian Ocean archipelago became a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which raised strategic concerns for neighboring countries and other global powers. The BRI project is apparently meant to develop infrastructures by building railways, ports, and highways to facilitate trade across Asia, Africa, and Europe but, other major powers view it as a part of China’s broader geopolitical ambitions in the region.

Opposing presence of 75 Indian military personnel in the country, Muizzu’s party led a so-called ‘India Out’ political campaign in recent years. However, Defence minister Mariya Didi clarified that India’s military presence was limited to the operation and maintenance of three search-and-rescue aircraft used by Maldives’ defence forces, and a medical team.

Holding a PhD in civil engineering from the University of Leeds in the UK, Muizzu, who is the current mayor of the capital city, Male, started his political career as a minister of housing in 2012. Later, in the Abdulla Yameen government, he was appointed as the construction minister.

After winning the election, Muizzu said, “Today the people made a strong decision to win back Maldives independence and all of us, working together with unity, in Sha Allah, we will be successful.” Just a day after, fulfilling his poll campaign promise, jailed Yameen has been transferred from prison to house arrest.

While Muizzu’s victory is widely seen as a pro-China and anti-India verdict in the region, former foreign minister of the Maldives, Ahmed Shaheed, rejected this notion and termed it merely as the Solih Government’s failure on economic and governance fronts.

Similarly, the PPM’s Vice President, Mohamed Shareef, while talking to media, also claimed that all the fear-mongering about China is unwarranted and clarified that Maldives strongly wants to work with India on the safety and security of the region, with India remaining the biggest stakeholder.

Congratulating Dr. Muizzu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on X that India remained committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

It is very difficult for the Muslim-majority nation, which is strategically located on one of the busiest east-west shipping routes, to ignore its very close neighbor and strong traditional partner, India, according to strategic observers.

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