Despite surprising election results, a fractious political landscape will remain a challenge for the Maldives as the country tackles effects of climate change and growing international attention.
Following Abdulla Yameen’s surprising victory over former president Mohammed Nasheed, the Maldives’ political scene remains tense. The Maldives’ Supreme Court just handed the independent election commissioners six month jail sentences for attempting to follow up with run-off elections after the voting count had been completed. Mr. Nasheed said the announcement was the “saddest day in the history of the Maldives’ constitutional life.”
The battles between Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and Yameen’s party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), are sure to linger. President Yameen is the half-brother of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who held office from 1978 to 2008. Gayoom formed the PPM in 2011, essentially returning the old guard to power.
Battling the effects of climate change
Until his ouster from the presidency in February 2012, Mr. Nasheed was best known on the international stage for his efforts to fight institutional corruption and to implement new regulations aimed at curbing the effects of climate change.
Despite recent assertions that there has been a slowdown in climate change, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has warned that ocean temperatures would continue rising and severe weather patterns would increase. Will the Maldives’ new government continue Mr. Nasheed’s policies in regards to the islands’ precarious environmental situation?
Signs seem to indicate yes. The Maldivian Minister of Environment and Energy Thoriq Ibrahim said “averting catastrophe is still possible,” and urged the international community to agree on a cap on global temperature rise. He said the new government plans to shift to renewable energy sources by 30 percent over a five year period. The Ministry of Environment also announced plans at the second annual Monsoon Forum to found a climate research institute.
A proposal put forward at a March conference indicates a significant policy shift. The ‘Accelerating Sustainable Private Investments in Renewable Energy programme’ (ASPIRE) proposal calls for replacing diesel generators with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. ASPIRE estimates this would save $7.5 to $8 million in fuel savings. The move to solar PV would reduce the need for expensive imports and bring down the cost of government fuel subsidies.
With 90 percent of food imported for tourism, agriculture is another sector that is finding new ways to innovate. Mohamed Shafeegu, the Director of Seagull Maldives, is working to expand the Maldives’ use of hydroponics, as a way to grow plants in water rather than soil. He explained, “I think hydroponics is our future. The demand [for food] will increase with tourism, so there is a big future for agriculture. If we can plan, we can do this.”
Mangroves for the Future (MFF) is a nonprofit organization that seeks to turn back the tide on beach erosion and to protect marine ecosystems from illegal dumping. MFF is working with civil society organizations, the media, and the Maldivian government to improve education and awareness on sustainable coastal management. The coral reefs have been hit particularly hard mainly from the heavy impact of tourism.
Attention is growing from the East
The international community, however, remains wary of the Maldivian government’s human rights record. Naushad Waheed, an artist and a member of the MDP, has been repeatedly jailed and remains an outspoken critic of abuses committed by the Maldivian police. Ismail Hilath, a blogger and human rights activist, still fears for his safety after being attacked in June 1012.
Investors are concerned about the Maldives’ record as well. After Nasheed was forced out of office, the new government nationalized the international airport in the capital of Malé after Nasheed’s government had already signed a $500 million deal to develop the airport with the Indian company, GMR. The Maldives is now being sued for $1.4 billion for the lost profits.
As India and China increase their regional influence, the Maldives have received plenty of attention. The islands would be a welcome place for both nations to dock ships with their growing naval power. President Yameen, visiting India in January, said “I would like to tell you that the relationship we have with China is very close. [But ties with India] will precede any other relationship.”
India includes the Maldives, along with Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka, in an Indian Ocean security arrangement called IO-5. After equipping the Maldives with coastal radar gear, some suspect there will be a future Indian military base established in the archipelago nation.
Others are not so sure. China has been dramatically increasing its influence, opening a new embassy in Malé beside the headquarters of the PPM. Chinese tourism has been estimated at a quarter of the one million tourists that visit the Maldives every year. The Chinese government has also pledged $500 million in aid to the Maldivian government. India, which was perceived by the PPM to support Mr. Nasheed in the last election, is now growing concerned.
There has also been a growing trend of religious conservatism backed by funding from Saudi Arabia. India has also alleged that the Pakistani militant faction, Lashkar-e-Taiba, has been recruiting and establishing cells in the Maldives. Most recently, President Yameen has been visiting Japan, where in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the two countries promised to increase security and economic cooperation.
Western powers have breathed a sigh of relief that the human rights issues appear to be abating. Some point to the fact that Mr. Nasheed’s participation in the elections alone is a sign of government ease. However, the Maldivian political scene remains highly toxic as politicians even refuse to shake hands in public debates. As the Obama Administration continues in its ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific, the Maldives will be sure to remain a critical strategic and environmental case.