The opposition declared a victory in pivotal polls in the Maldives on Sunday, paving the way for the ouster of a leader who aligned the strategically located archipelago more closely with China at the expense of traditional democratic allies during his five-year term.
President Abdulla Yameen had jailed many of his rivals, forced others to exile and cracked down on dissent in an attempt to keep his grip on power. The election was seen as a test for the nascent democracy that shifted away from autocratic rule a decade ago, with the U.S. and European Union threatening sanctions if the polls weren’t free and fair.
Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won 58% of the vote, according to provisional results tallied by local news media, and urged Mr Yameen to peacefully give up power. Final results may not be announced for days, the Election Commission said, and Mr Yameen hasn’t conceded.
“The message is loud and clear,” Mr Solih said in a speech as supporters gathered outside his campaign office in the middle of the night. “This is a moment of hope. This is a moment of history.”
The results will boost efforts by India and the U.S. to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. Opposition leaders have said they will review China’s infrastructure investment in the Indian Ocean country that sits astride shipping lanes connecting China to the Middle East and beyond.
Mr Yameen’s critics have raised questions about his brisk dealings with Beijing and accused him of leading the Maldives into a debt trap that, they say, risks giving China control over critical infrastructure.
They point to neighbouring Sri Lanka which couldn’t make payments on a Chinese-funded port and ended up granting Beijing a 99-year lease on it. Experts say the small size of the Maldives economy makes it even more vulnerable. Mr Yameen has said his policies are aimed at rapid economic development.
The Sri Lanka project, and others in Pakistan and Myanmar that are backed by China, have alarmed India, where officials see Beijing’s expanding footprint as a sign of its naval ambitions. Many officials in New Delhi feared that under Mr Yameen’s leadership, the Maldives would be next to host a China-sponsored port.
With a new government, Chinese deals worth millions of dollars for bridge, airport and road construction will come under scrutiny. But its leaders will face a tough challenge balancing the country’s foreign policy with the need for infrastructure financing from Beijing. The Trump administration is looking to offer developing countries in Asia alternatives to Chinese funding, but U.S. initiatives don’t match the scale of China’s.
Mr Yameen came to power in a controversial election in 2013, after the country’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced out in what his party says was a coup. Mr Nasheed was sentenced in 2015 to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges in a trial that the United Nations criticized as flawed and unfair. He was allowed to leave the country and runs his Maldivian Democratic Party from Sri Lanka.
Blocked from running for elections, Mr Nasheed threw his support behind Mr Solih, a senior leader of his party, and helped build an opposition coalition to challenge Mr Yameen.
“Democracy is a historical inevitability,” Mr Nasheed wrote on his official Twitter account in response to the vote count.
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