Maldives Election Result Halts Drift Toward Authoritarianism

By Niharika Mandhana (Wall Street Journal)

Sept. 24, 2018 7:45 a.m. ET

President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has said he wants to improve relations with democratic governments in India and the West

Maldives' Pro-China President Ousted in Pivotal Election

In Sunday’s election, Maldives opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated President Abdulla Yameen, who aligned the archipelago with China and cracked down on dissent.

Maldives leader Abdulla Yameen conceded defeat on Monday to a candidate who has pledged to reverse the country’s slide toward authoritarianism, marking a setback for China, which had forged strong ties with the president in an effort to expand its influence.

Voters in the Maldives elected Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a longtime parliamentarian who has said he wants to improve relations with democratic governments in India and the West. New Delhi described the outcome as a “triumph of democratic forces” in the country, which turned from autocracy to multiparty elections only a decade ago.

Mr. Solih secured more than 58% of the ballots cast, the Election Commission said on Monday.

The Maldives straddles trade routes in the Indian Ocean that are crucial to China’s economic and military ambitions. Chinese President Xi Jinping moved quickly to strengthen relations after Mr. Yameen took office five years ago, making a visit in 2014 and securing the government’s support for his ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative.

The results of Sunday’s elections echo recent events in Malaysia, where voters tossed out a government that had steered the country into China’s orbit with high-profile and often controversial deals. Malaysia’s new leader has said he plans to cancel or defer some of those Chinese-backed infrastructure projects.

The new Maldives leadership is expected to take a tough line on the influx of Chinese money. Opposition leaders have criticized Mr. Yameen’s embrace of Beijing, accusing him of burdening the Maldives with piles of debt for economically unviable projects and exposing the country to interference from Beijing. Mr. Yameen has denied those allegations.

But China could prove difficult to replace as a source of funding for infrastructure and development projects, with India and the U.S. unable to match its offers of investment. In Sri Lanka, voters ousted a pro-China president in 2015, but the current administration continues to rely on Beijing.

Still, a friendlier government in the Maldives gives India an opening to revive economic and military ties, which had reached a low point under Mr. Yameen. Officials in New Delhi were concerned that Beijing could leverage its rapport with Mr. Yameen to expand its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. China has backed major port projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

India and the U.S. have watched with concern as their allies have shifted closer to Beijing. The world’s two largest democracies are working together on maritime and defense issues and joining hands with other countries, like Japan and Australia, that are wary of China’s rise.

The opposition victory in the Maldives opens the door for the return of Mr. Yameen’s most prominent rival, Mohamed Nasheed, from exile in Sri Lanka. The first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, Mr. Nasheed was sentenced in 2015 to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges in a widely-criticized trial that the U.N. said was unfair and flawed.

He was allowed to leave the country and began to push Western governments to articulate a tough stance against Mr. Yameen’s jailing of opponents, Supreme Court judges and even onetime allies. The president-elect, Mr. Solih, belongs to Mr. Nasheed’s party.

“The people of the Maldives have taken back their country from the brink,” Mr. Nasheed said after the results were announced. “This most certainly is a vote for democracy and freedom.”

Write to Niharika Mandhana at