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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera
Zaheena Rasheed

‘Absolute power’: After pro-China Maldives leader’s big win, what’s next?

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu addresses his supporters during celebrations after his People's National Congress registered a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, April 22, 2024 [Stringer/Reuters]

Very few expected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu’s party to win Sunday’s parliamentary elections, that too by a landslide. For this was a man whose triumph in the presidential poll last year came by a fluke.

Back then, the 45-year-old mayor of the capital Male entered the presidential race only at the eleventh hour as a proxy candidate, after the country’s Supreme Court barred the leader of the opposition, former President Abdulla Yameen, from contesting the vote over a bribery conviction.

On campaign banners and posters, it was Yameen’s face that featured most prominently. And at campaign rallies, the seat at the front and centre stood empty, reserved for the jailed leader.

Muizzu wooed voters on promises to free Yameen and see through the politician’s “India out” campaign to end what they called New Delhi’s outsized influence in Maldives – an archipelago home to 500,000 people in the Indian Ocean – and expel Indian military personnel stationed there.

But soon after his election win in October, Muizzu and Yameen – who was moved to house arrest – fell out, prompting the president-elect to set up a separate party, the People’s National Congress (PNC). Amid the bitter split, it looked as if Muizzu would face an uphill battle to obtain enough support in Sunday’s parliamentary polls, especially as the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – which controls a supermajority in the outgoing parliament or Majlis – still appeared strong.

But Muizzu’s PNC swept the vote last weekend.

The party won 66 seats, while its allies took nine, giving the president the backing of 75 legislators in the 93-member house – enough to change the constitution if he wishes to. The MDP meanwhile won only 12 seats. And Yameen’s party won none.

Muizzu now has “absolute power”, said Ibrahim Ismail, a former legislator and founder of the Mandhu College in Male. “This level of majority is not a good thing. You can expect no checks or balances on the president’s power.”

Ismail, who played a key role in drafting the constitution of Maldives, said he feared a return to “tyranny”, nearly two decades after Maldivians ushered in a multiparty democracy. “The PNC is really not a proper political party. It is not coming from the ground up,” he said. “It was formed during Muizzu’s rise to power and there is no one, no structures in the party to hold him to account. Basically, every member who has been elected to parliament on the PNC ticket is at the mercy of the president.”

This win also gives the president “almost total power over the judiciary”, Ismail said. “It is likely that there will be changes to the courts, quite possibly the replacement of the entire bench of the Supreme Court. And if the judges want to retain their position, they may be forced to compromise their judicial independence, paving the way for tyranny,” he said.

Equally concerning, Ismail said, is that the government “can virtually rewrite the constitution”, potentially weakening provisions ensuring fair elections and imposing term limits on elected officials.

India ties at all-time low

The signs are already worrying.

Although Muizzu promised not to go after his opponents during the presidential campaign, one of the first actions his government carried out in power was to cut off online access to several critical news and satire websites.

The government did backtrack after a public outcry, however.

“I foresee serious challenges for Maldives’s democracy,” said Ahmed “Hiriga” Zahir, managing editor of the Dhauru newspaper. “There are concerns over transparency. The Muizzu government has failed to disclose expenses on the presidential palace as well as the number of political appointments it has made,” the veteran journalist said. “And there has been virtually no interaction between the government and the media six months into his term. If this goes on, and if there is no sizeable opposition, it will be tough for our democracy.”

Still, Zahir said, the Maldivian public was likely to turn on Muizzu in the next election if he fails to deliver on campaign pledges.

The president – a civil engineer by profession – campaigned on promises to boost infrastructure development, of which the most spectacular was establishing a brand new population centre on an island reclaimed from the sea connected to the capital by an underwater tunnel.

It is unclear, however, if he can deliver on these megaprojects.

The tourism-dependent island nation’s debt stands at about 113 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), more than half of it owed to China and India, amounting to about $1.6bn each. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in February warned that the country was at risk of high debt distress and called for “urgent policy adjustments”, including reforms to healthcare and subsidy programmes as well as bloated state-owned enterprises.

“The situation is pretty challenging,” said Mark Bohlund, senior analyst at REDD, a London-based financial intelligence provider. “I think the Maldives will need external support in some form. Whether it be from India, China or the Middle East.”

But so far, very little help has been forthcoming.

Ties with India – which often steps in to bail out Maldives, including during the COVID-19 pandemic – are at an all-time low, due to Muizzu’s efforts to expel the 75 Indian military personnel stationed in the country. The troops operate two India-donated Dornier aircraft that assist in medical evacuations and rescue operations. New Delhi has agreed to replace them with civilians and the last batch are to leave Maldives by May 10.

Relations came under further strain when three of Muizzu’s deputy ministers made derogatory comments about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January, branding him a “clown” for launching a campaign to boost tourism on India’s Lakhswadeep islands, located north of the Maldivian archipelago.

The row resulted in Indian social media activists calling for a boycott of Maldives tourism. Arrivals from India – which was the largest source of tourists last year – have since plummeted.

‘A lot of leverage’ for China

Muizzu has had little help from partners in the Middle East too.

He was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia soon after his inauguration in November, but the visit was abruptly called off without explanation. The president did visit Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, but there have been no public offers of financial aid.

China, too, so far has appeared reluctant.

Despite Muizzu making a visit in January to Beijing, where Chinese President Xi Jinping called him an “old friend”, it is not clear what help, if any, was offered. Maldivian media reported that China agreed to provide grant assistance to Maldives — although the amount was not disclosed — and said it would consider restructuring debt repayments, a large chunk of which is due in 2026.

According to REDD, however, the restructuring of Chinese debt alone is unlikely to be sufficient for Maldives to avoid increased external debt distress because of an Islamic bond worth $500m that is also reaching maturity in 2026.

A former senior government official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said China may now be more amenable given Muizzu’s landslide win. “China has a lot of leverage,” the ex-official said, and will likely seek favours in return, including the ratification of a Free Trade Agreement that has languished since 2014 and access to key east-west trade routes that Maldives straddles. Indian and Western diplomats have previously expressed worries this access may pave the way for China to secure an outpost in the Indian Ocean.

David Brewster, senior research fellow at the National Security College in Australia, was sceptical that Maldives would allow a Chinese military presence, even if it meant the alleviation of its financial woes.

“Certainly China will have a lot of leverage, but I would be very surprised if there is any military presence. Because the consequences of that in terms of Maldives’s relations with India and other countries will be so severe,” he said, noting that Maldives now also has “very large debt to India”.

Taking the example of neighbouring Sri Lanka, another nation highly indebted to China and which suffered a financial crisis in 2022, Brewster wondered just how much help Beijing may offer.

“In Sri Lanka, China was not particularly helpful in terms of renegotiating debt and alleviating their debt. So we don’t know what Beijing will do in the Maldives,” he said. “In Sri Lanka, it was India that came in with the large loan and really helped the country get through the crisis, while all international debts were rescheduled. And it was only after that China grudgingly agreed to a debt deal itself,” he said.

Maldives, he said, most likely will need to go to the IMF very soon.

“It’d be interesting to see how that plays out, whether China will be interested in playing a constructive role or not,” he added.

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