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‘China Is the Winner’ in Maldives Election

Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu casts his ballot during the country's parliamentary election, in Male on April 21, 2024. Mohamed Afrah / AFP

A landslide parliamentary election victory for the Maldives’ pro-China president clears the way for him to redraw the physical and geopolitical map of his strategically-located Indian Ocean archipelago in Beijing’s favor, diplomats and analysts say.

President Mohamed Muizzu’s party, the People’s National Congress (PNC), will have 67 seats in the 93-member majlis, or parliament, full preliminary results showed Monday — already a two-thirds supermajority, plus support from five allied legislators.

A raft of Beijing-funded and Chinese-built projects, including an artificial island with tens of thousands of apartments, fish factories, and a new airport that had been obstructed by the outgoing opposition-controlled chamber — are now expected to go ahead.

“The people voted for Muizzu’s party because they believe he will deliver,” said Fathimath Rasheeda, 47, a housewife in Male.

“He promised a lot of construction. I think he is capable, and he will do it.”

Muizzu’s pledges are expected to pull the nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands, scattered some 800 kilometers across the equator astride key international shipping lanes, significantly further into Beijing’s sphere of influence.

“Ultimately, China is the winner of these elections in the Maldives,” a Western diplomat based in neighboring Sri Lanka told AFP.

The election, held under the shadow of rivalry between China and the regional powerhouse India, the Maldives’ traditional benefactor, was a test of Muizzu’s foreign policy shift.

But an aide to the president said the margin of victory was beyond even their own expectations.

“People believed his promises of bridges, airports, and, more importantly, housing,” they said, asking not to be named.

Debt Distress

The projects are expected to be funded by Chinese loans, and the contracts executed by Chinese state-owned companies — under Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Infrastructure development model which has proved controversial elsewhere.

“China is willing to work with the Maldives to maintain traditional friendship (and) expand exchanges and cooperation in various fields,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Monday.

But Western nations led by the US have warned the initiative amounts to a debt trap for developing nations.

Sri Lanka borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects before a foreign exchange crisis left it unable to finance essential imports such as food, fuel, and medicines, and it declared sovereign default in April 2022.

Two months ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned the Maldives of “debt distress” and urged “urgent policy adjustments” without giving specifics.

World Bank figures put the Maldives’ total foreign debt at $3.99 billion, or 71 percent of GDP, in 2022.

And an IMF study showed three years earlier that 53 percent of the country’s public and publicly guaranteed external loans were to China, its main economic and development partner.

The Maldives is also vulnerable to climate change. In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that rising sea levels could make it virtually uninhabitable by the end of the century.

Chinese Contracts

The biggest planned project is to create a brand new island near the capital called Ras Male, where 30,000 apartments will be built — a key factor that swayed voters, analysts said.

A week before the election, Muizzu also awarded more than $250 million worth of contracts to Chinese state-owned companies to build three fish processing factories.

After tourism, fish exports are the nation’s second-largest source of foreign exchange.

Another Chinese company was awarded a contract for an undisclosed amount to upgrade a domestic airstrip into an international airport.

“Doing business with China does not have to be at the cost of relations with India,” insisted Masood Imad, the Maldives’ ambassador-designate for Sri Lanka. “There is scope for expanding ties with New Delhi too.”

But India’s standing in the archipelago is rapidly diminishing, and in January, Muizzu chose China for his first state visit. There, he signed some 20 agreements, clearing the way for greater collaboration between the two.

Muizzu’s presidential campaign featured a pledge to eject some 89 Indian troops stationed in the country to operate three reconnaissance aircraft patrolling its vast maritime boundaries.

The first batch of Indian personnel left last month and the withdrawal is due to be completed by May 10.

“It is the successful ‘India out’ campaign that gave him the presidency,” a senior civil servant said. “It is the promise of housing that won him the maj

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