Maldives’ new beginning

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New Delhi must reach out to Yameen regime

New Delhi had possibly hoped for the return of Mr Mohamed Nasheed, an ally of India with strong democratic and liberal credentials, as the President of Maldives. Now it must reconcile with the somewhat surprising victory of Mr Nasheed’s rival. Mr Abdulla Yameen won Sunday's presidential run-off by a narrow margin — he received 51.4 per cent of the votes. He is the half-brother of Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldivian autocrat who ruled the archipelago from 1978 to 2008, when he lost power to Mr Nasheed in the country's first general election. To that end, the popular mandate in favour of Mr Yameen firmly establishes the return of the old guard to Male. The process had begun in February 2012 when Mr Nasheed was ousted from office and his deputy Mohamed Waheed became the head of a caretaker Government. In the year and a half of Mr Waheed’s tenure, several Gayoom-era loyalists returned to the forefront; with Mr Yameen’s election, the process seems to have come a full circle. For India, this poses a diplomatic challenge as the Gayoomists in recent years have distanced themselves from New Delhi, preferring instead to cozy up to other regional powers. In fact, one of the ‘high-points' of Mr Waheed's short and lacklustre presidency was his decision to unceremoniously eject the Bangalore-based infrastructure development firm, GMR, which was rebuilding the Male international airport — Maldives' biggest foreign investment project. The fiasco upset New Delhi, which incidentally had been the first to recognise Mr Waheed's Government when the rest of the world was still trying to decide if his predecessor was the victim of a coup. Adding to New Delhi's worries was also the support that radical Islamists received from the Waheed regime. This is a concern that remains with Mr Yameen as well. Analysts agree that he was able to cross the 50 per cent-plus-one mark because he got the Islamists' support — the third presidential candidate (voted out in the first round) contributed his conservative vote share, while the radical Adhaalath party also supported Mr Yameen. Religious extremism has undermined democratic institutions in the Maldives, and New Delhi will be watching how the new President responds to the challenge.

What should work in India's favour in this context is that it had close ties with the Gayoom regime. In 1988, when the dictator had sought military assistance to quell a coup, New Delhi responded favourably. The situation is different now, with other regional heavyweights vying for strategic space in the Indian Ocean region. Still, India remains one of Maldives' most influential partners. New Delhi may have frittered away some of the diplomatic leverage in recent years, but as this presidential poll — during which it hand-held Male through a contentious electoral process, ensuring that it remained on the democratic track — shows, there is still time and scope to retrieve lost ground.  

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