Sri Lanka, Sept. 26 (HT Agency): “This is a moment of happiness, this is a moment of hope, this is a moment of history.” This is how Maldives’ Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih described his surprise victory at the Presidential Election on Sunday.
In his own words, it was a “a difficult journey – a journey that has led to a prison cell or years in exile, a journey that has ended at the ballot box because the people willed it.” In an almost surreal scene quite unthinkable until recently in this somewhat conservative nation of 400,000 people, supporters rushed to the streets of Male, on Sunday night, waving yellow flags of his Democratic Party and chanting his nickname, “Ibu, Ibu, Ibu”. Solih, 54, studied in Australia, before working in media and being elected to Parliament from his home atoll of Faadhihpolhu at age 30. He also helped write a new constitution for the country.
Strongman President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom conceded defeat Monday on state television, amid earlier fears that he would not accept the election results. He has promised a smooth transition. Solih, a Member of Parliament, got 134,616 votes to the incumbent’s 96,132, with almost 90 percent of eligible voters in the Maldives and overseas casting their votes.
This is indeed a historic turning point for the Maldives, Sri Lanka’s other closest neighbour after India. The two countries are physically and culturally close, with trade and socio-cultural links going back centuries. The two main languages Divehi and Sinhala have many similarities.
There is a large Maldivian population in Sri Lanka and vice versa. Most of the Maldives ruling elite and top intellectuals have studied in Colombo and many Maldivian politicians including former President Mohammed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, live in Colombo.
Incidentally, Nasheed was among the first to praise Solih: “You have done an extremely good service not only to the people of Maldives, but also to freedom loving people everywhere,” the exiled leader said in a tweet. “Democracy is a historical inevitability.” Nasheed, who achieved worldwide fame for highlighting the effect of global warming on the archipelago, was imprisoned in 2015 on terrorism charges that his supporters say were spurious.
Sri Lanka, India and many other countries have welcomed news of the peaceful transition of power in the Maldives, hoping that it would bring much-needed stability and freedom to the tourist paradise at a juncture when the archipelago nation was feared to be veering towards authoritarianism. This will no doubt be welcomed by everyone, as the tiny nation’s image suffered for many years in the eyes of the International Community even after democratic rule was established in 2008.
Former President Yameen, who was elected in 2013, has been accused of jailing rivals and curtailing democratic freedoms. The country has been engulfed in a political crisis since he defied a Supreme Court verdict earlier this year that ordered the government to reinstate opposition MPs and release political prisoners. In February, he triggered worldwide condemnation by declaring a state of emergency and after his authorities arrested two Supreme Court Judges and Opposition Leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his half-brother who also served as president from 1978 to 2008.
Even on the night before polls opened, police raided Solih’s campaign headquarters. The new President is expected to stablise the political climate and realign the geopolitical imperatives of the Maldives, where the two regional powers India and China have maintained an active interest. China had increasingly invested in the Maldives in recent times. Major Chinese developments included an extension to the Velana (Hulhule) international airport and a bridge that connects it to the capital. India was among the first countries to congratulate the incoming leader, with a personal message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Solih will have his hands full from November 17, when he is expected to be sworn-in. Improving the battered image of the country and improving foreign relations will be a priority for Solih, said to be a master of “negotiation and discussion” instead of political rhetoric. One particular mission will be exploring the possibility of rejoining the Commonwealth, from which the Maldives withdrew from the UK in 2016 after the association of former British colonies threatened to suspend it for the alleged erosion of democratic institutions.
He will also want to play a bigger role within SAARC, the South Asian bloc. There is no doubt that relations between Sri Lanka and Maldives will improve by leaps and bounds under Solih’s leadership. After all, Sri Lanka experienced a similar transformation led by democratic forces three years ago and the peoples of both countries share similar aspirations. As islands sharing the same ocean, they should engage in joint research on Climate change and environment. They should expand cooperation in the tourism sector, perhaps by publicizing two destinations together and even marketing Colombo and Male together to airlines looking for new routes.
Both countries should strive to expand people-to-people contact, perhaps taking the Trans-Tasman Australia-New Zealand model as an example. The sky is the limit to a renewed Sri Lanka-Maldives partnership.