Democracy Adrift: Maldives Election Tests China’s Widening Grip

Sanctions threat looms over Sunday vote in strategic archipelago as Beijing’s footprint grows

By Niharika Mandhana Wall Street Journal

Sept. 20, 2018 5:30 a.m. ET

A battle for influence between China and the world’s largest democracies is about to come to a head in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The president of the Maldives, who has embraced Beijing and jailed his foes, is seeking re-election on Sunday, with the global stakes high enough that the U.S. has threatened “appropriate measures” and the European Union has prepared sanctions if the vote isn’t free and fair.

A victory for President Abdulla Yameen would draw the archipelago closer into China’s orbit, just as Beijing’s overseas infrastructure investments are sparking debt troubles and strategic realignments.

Beijing-backed investment has flowed into the Maldives since Mr. Yameen signed on to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” plans in 2014.

But Mr. Yameen’s opponents say democratic oversight of government decision-making has eroded. The president, they say, is drawing the Maldives into a “debt trap” that will give China more sway in the island nation, which straddles strategic trade routes between the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Those worries echo on other Indian Ocean shores. The new government in Pakistan, awash in debt and weighing a bailout, wants to redirect China’s investments. When Sri Lanka couldn’t repay a Chinese loan for a port, it granted a Chinese state company a 99-year lease on the facility.

Chinese port projects in Pakistan and Myanmar have exacerbated India’s fears that China wants a toehold for its Navy in New Delhi’s traditional sphere of influence, though Beijing denies any military ambitions behind its port investments.

Such concerns have driven the U.S. and India closer together, including on the military front. The U.S. is working with other allies to counter China farther afield, including Australia in the South Pacific and Japan in the South China Sea.

Democracy is having a mixed run in Asia. Maldivian opposition leaders draw inspiration from Malaysia, where voters this year forced out the party that had been in power since 1957 and chose a leader who is unwinding his predecessor’s deals with China.

Elsewhere in the region, however, democracy has been in retreat. Myanmar’s celebrated shift from military rule has gone awry, as democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi faces censure for backing military leaders who the U.N. says should be prosecuted for genocide, and Beijing has emerged as the country’s main international defender.

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Senlocked up his rival ahead of July elections—and China helped pay for voting booths. Thailand’s military-installed government, which took power in a coup in 2014, has repeatedly postponed elections.

In the Maldives, Mr. Yameen has employed similar tactics since he took office in 2013, arresting opponents and even some onetime allies on charges including terrorism and assassination plots, and curbing free speech.

Opposition parties and media investigations have alleged high levels of government corruption, most recently involving island-leasing. Mr. Yameen said he isn’t involved in corrupt deal making.

Opposition leaders say Mr. Yameen is attempting to dishonestly win a second five-year term and establish effective one-party rule—a charge he denies.

Mr. Yameen would succeed if he can manipulate the election Sunday, said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, a leader of the main opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, which ousted one of Asia’s longest-serving dictators in 2008.

“It is very difficult to imagine the MDP surviving if we are fraudulently pushed down again,” Mr. Ghafoor said. After years of politically motivated legal action and exile of its leaders, “it would be too much.”

Mr. Yameen’s most prominent opponent isn’t on the ballot: former president and MDP chief Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced in 2015 to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges following a trial that the U.N. said was unfair and flawed. Mr. Nasheed runs his party from Sri Lanka.

In February, after the Maldives Supreme Court scrapped his conviction, Mr. Yameen declared a state of emergency and detained two of the judges. The remaining judges reversed the court’s decision, scotching Mr. Nasheed’s hopes of a presidential bid.

For the election, opposition parties have united in support of candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a parliamentarian for more than two decades.

Local rights group Transparency Maldives and the opposition have questioned the impartiality of the Election Commission and the possibility the vote could be manipulated by former members of Mr. Yameen’s campaign.

The U.S. State Department warned of “continued democratic backsliding” ahead of the Maldives election; the EU has draft travel bans and asset freezes ready to deploy if Sunday’s poll is found to be faulty.

The Maldives government called the U.S. warning an act of intimidation intended to influence the democratic process, and said it was committed to holding elections that are free, fair and credible. The Election Commission denied it is biased or compromised and said the polling process is secure.

“The future of democracy in the Maldives is at stake,” said Mr. Ghafoor, the opposition leader. “This is a make or break election.”

Write to Niharika Mandhana at