Maldives Stability Projections Post Ibu Solih’s Accession to Power
The democracy trajectory is positive for now, but complex, internal, external and economic drivers will dictate stability in Maldives.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has assumed Presidency of Maldives in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi who flew in from Delhi on 17 November.
The visit of Prime Minister Modi the first by him to the SAARC country even though not an official one marked a change of tone in the engagement with Male. Maldives was the only SAARC country which Prime Minister Modi had not visited in the past four and a half years thus heralding a new era in India Maldives relations which have been on a downturn since February 2012 when popular leader and Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) Chairperson Mohammad Nasheed was deposed as President in a political coup.
The atoll nation shifted gears under former President Yameen Abdul Gayoom internally as well as in the external domain. Yameen imprisoned his rivals and potential competitors on terrorism charges leading to exile of Mohammad Nasheed, his half brother and former President Gayoom and also top business tycoon, Ibrahim Gasim. His popularity remained low as his party Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) failed in the local elections held a couple of years back but he managed to maintain a hold on power with support of the military and the police and a compliant judiciary.
That he would be eased out by the people due to his unpopularity was clear and attempts to continue through a challenge of the Presidential Elections in the courts failed, while the overwhelming majority of victory of Mr Solih meant that there were no moral grounds for the police or the military to intervene.
While professing India First policy Yameen also courted regional rivals China and Pakistan. Benefiting from the largesse by China, he has however driven his country into debt which was evident as in the first meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Solih, the latter highlighted “dire economic situation facing the country as he takes office”.
Ironically the per capita income and human development indicators of Maldives are the highest in South Asia, thus aid dependency is a sign of economic mismanagement and heavy imposition of debt burden.
Despite overwhelming success of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the elections and his popularity in the people at large there are a number of stability drivers which need to be guarded against.
First internally delicate handling of key political leaders who joined hands to oppose Abdulla Yameen is essential. In fact Yameen was the key force that united diverse rivals. In a positive indicator the leaders of the four party coalition, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim, MDP leader and former President Mohamed Nasheed and Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran agreed to act as advisors to the President and hold a meeting once a month. They have also agreed on members of the cabinet thus it augurs a good beginning for the Presidential tenure of Mr Solih.
At the same time while Yameen has lost the elections he has a sizeable following which will have to be assuaged to prevent him mobilising them against the Solih government. Yameen has the resources given the support that he had from China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the past.
What model is adopted national reconciliation or retributive justice with the Mr Yameen will determine the stability ahead.
Also Read Maldives – National Consensus versus Retributive Justice to Dictate Stability
The country is also facing a dilemma of socio-religious identity between an Islamic (the only religion permitted) and secularism as the 400,000 population appears divided. Importantly this was one of the reasons for the fall of President Nasheed’s government in 2012 as he had promoted secular identity while Yameen took the opposite course and during his tenure religious radicalism increased with some idols destroyed in a popular resort recently.
The second challenge is on the external front, a dilemma that is generally faced by all countries in South Asia – balancing between India and China. While Yameen virtually bandwagoned with China, Solih is wary and has sought assistance from Prime Minister Modi.
The invite to Prime Minister Modi and his presence for the inaugural ceremony on 17 November would have been noticed in Beijing.
China is unlikely sulk and given past experience of events in Sri Lanka in 2015 when favourite Mahinda Rajapaksa, lost to present incumbent Maithri Sirisena, Beijing will continue engagement with Maldives including President Solih’s administration. Thus management of the India China bilateral engagement will remain Mr Solih’s principal challenge.
The third driver is the economy. As per the World Bank, public debt of Maldives is estimated to be 61.2 percent of GDP in 2017, an increase from 59.7 percent of GDP in 2016. This as per World Bank is driven by external projected-related borrowing and the US$ 200 million Eurobond issuance. Thus Maldives’ risk of external debt distress is assessed as high as per the IMF report of 2017, due to a widening current account deficit, low international reserves, pipeline of guarantees, and rapid debt buildup.
President Solih highlighted pressing need for increased housing and infrastructure development as well as for establishing water and sewerage systems in the outlying islands. While Prime Minister Modi has welcomed the opportunity, India’s resources are limited and how much support can be provided will be decided during Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives official visit to India on the 26th of November and the State Visit of President Solih to India.
The country’s economic potential is high though limited to the tourism and fishing sectors, external support would therefore be necessary. China, India and Saudi Arabia will be the main sources. How Solih balances these global and regional players thus will determine the stability of his government.