The unexpected defeat of President Abdulla Yameen has left many surprised and created uncertainty about the small island state's future.
Skim through recent news articles, research reports and expert comments that preceded the national elections in Maldives and you’ll hardly see anyone predicting a defeat for the government of President Abdulla Yameen.
But that’s exactly what has happened.
In a surprise result, the joint opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has emerged as the winner in the polls, garnering 58.3 percent of the votes against Yameen’s 42 percent, according to the election commission.
Even more surprising is that Yameen, who took office in 2013, has conceded defeat.
A change of heart?
“To be honest I am very surprised by the turn of events. I assumed Yameen wasn’t likely to hold an election that he will lose,” Dr. Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, told TRT World.
The archipelago of over 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean has been in political turmoil since February when Yameen jailed his opponents and removed supreme court judges he feared opposed him.
Price says right before the elections there were reports alleging the government would try to rig the elections.
“All of his past behavior, including the locking up of literally all of his opponents, implied that he wasn’t ready to give up power.”
The pressure on Yameen’s government had been building for months, both within the country, and from the United States and European Union which threatened the Maldives with targeted sanctions.
In February, security forces arrested supreme court judges on the orders of his government, drawing condemnation from human rights groups.
The apex court overturned the conviction of opposition leaders and reinstated parliamentarians who had abandoned Yameen’s government, leaving him vulnerable to impeachment.
The remaining judges had overturned the earlier decision.
“If he (Yameen) had not conceded defeat, the country could have descended into chaos,” Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told TRT World.
“It would have also validated all that the opposition had been saying about him — that he was trying to hold on to power illegitimately.”
A family affair
While the opposition including the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), to which Solih belongs, had been mobilising for months, it seemed far from mounting a forceful battle at polling booths.
Just months before the elections, the MDP was promoting former president Mohamed Nasheed as its main candidate on party posters.
Nasheed, also a leader of MDP, became Maldives first democratically elected president in 2008 when he defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had ruled the country for 30 years with an iron fist.
Gayoom is Yameen’s half-brother and the two had played a crucial role in forcing Nasheed to step down in 2012. But in recent years there had been a falling out between the half-brothers, and Gayoom now vigorously backs the opposition.
Gayoom among others was arrested on charges of bribing the Supreme Court justices to topple the government through a constitutional coup.
Yameen had successively taken over Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives, which had not been able to secure enough seats to form a majority in the 85-member legislature.
The outgoing president faces accusations of being involved in shady deals to sale or lease some resort islands. He was among the politicians and businessmen named in the Paradise Paper leaks.
A recent report by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) accuses Yameen of taking kickbacks in corrupt deals.
Yameen denies the allegations but the opposition might use them to put him through a trial, experts say.
“I suspect the next thing would be some charges against him. And I wouldn’t be surprised of he gets political asylum somewhere,” says Gopalaswamy of the Atlantic Council.
The Chinese inroads
Under Yameen’s tightfisted rule the Maldives had grown closer to China in recent years.
China had little interest in the small nation of 400,000 people — Beijing didn’t even have an embassy in Maldives until 2012.
But that has changed. Last year, the two countries signed a free trade agreement (FTA), eliminating tariffs on Maldivian exports of mostly fish and opened the archipelago to Chinese goods and services.
Maldives, which drives a substantial chunk of its revenue from tourists — most of them are Chinese now — has also become a recipient of Beijing’s investment.
China has loaned just over a billion dollars to build a bridge and an airport among other projects in the Maldives - something which opposition leaders fear could leave Maldivian people vulnerable to a debt trap.
All this has happened at the chagrin of India, which had historically played a dominant role in Maldives’ internal affairs.
Former president Nasheed even called upon the Indian government to intervene in his country to address the political turmoil.
On behalf of Maldivian people we humbly request:— Mohamed Nasheed (@MohamedNasheed) February 6, 2018
1. India to send envoy, backed by its military, to release judges & pol. detainees inc. Prez. Gayoom. We request a physical presence.
2. The US to stop all financial transactions of Maldives regime leaders going through US banks.
“Clearly, China has an interest in the Maldives,” says Price of Chatham House.
“The Maldives passed a law saying that foreign entities could buy land provided they invest $1 billion and reclaim certain percentage (of land) from the sea. This seems very much like a pro-China policy.”
Now, the change in government might mean there isn't as drastic a shift in the Maldives towards China, as many observed during the tenures previous government.
The Atlantic Council’s Gopalaswamy says smaller countries such as the Maldives were desperate for foreign investment. “And if it comes form China, they will take it.”
What could essentially change, he says, is greater parliamentary debate and scrutiny of Chinese investments.
“What we hope from the next government is that there would be a little bit transparency with regard to numbers and the conditions associated with the projects.”
As for the influence of India, which even sent in troops to save Gayoom’s government in the 1980s, Gopalaswamy says, it will continue to play a role when it comes to Male’s security.