On Sunday, September 23, the Maldives will hold a national election that has observers concerned about the country’s direction. The “island nation,” an archipelago of around 1,200 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, stands on a major fault line between democracy and authoritarianism.
The country’s president, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom—often described as a “strongman” or “hard-liner”—has pulled the country backward on the path to democracy. As Human Rights Watch puts it, “Increasingly autocratic measures by the Maldives president…who took office following a disputed election in 2013, are eroding fundamental human rights in the island country, including freedom of association, expression, peaceful assembly, and political participation.”
As important, the Maldives sits at the heart of Indian Ocean geopolitics.
It is often described as a “battleground” for influence between China and India. The Maldives has historically retained close ties with India but in recent years has grown more enmeshed with China as a result of China’s infrastructure financing. Such methods of infrastructure financing have led to a dramatic increase in the national debt, as in other South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As a Center for Global Development in-depth analysis notes, “the country is considered by the World Bank and the [International Monetary Fund] to be at a high risk of debt distress due to its vulnerability to exogenous shocks.”
What’s more, a recent investigative report from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project chronicled widespread corruption in the country linked to deals leasing islands for tourism.
And, of course, hovering in the background of all these political problems is the existential question of climate change, sea level rise, and the Maldives’ future.
In advance of Sunday’s vote, here are a few readings to provide in-depth background on the crises this country faces.
- Human Rights Watch: “Maldives: Election Rigging Feared”
- Human Rights Watch: “An All-Out Assault on Democracy: Crushing Dissent in the Maldives”
- Wall Street Journal: “Democracy Adrift: Maldives Election Tests China’s Widening Grip”
- The Guardian: “Maldives Election: Fears China-Backed President Could Return Country to Darker Days”
- Al Jazeera: “The Maldives: Rise and Fall of a Muslim Democracy”
- Center for Global Development: “Examining the Debt Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative From a Policy Perspective” (especially pages 14-17)
- Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project: “Paradise Leased: the Theft of the Maldives”
- United Nations Development Programme: “Waters of Paradise: Adapting to Climate Change in the Maldives”
My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place in the World, was published by Oxford University Press in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).