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Maldives Election Tests a Young Democracy Caught in a Global Power Struggle

NEW DELHI — As people voted on Sunday in the isolated scattering of islands known as the Maldives, their shaky democracy faced the crush of a geopolitical struggle between China, India and the West.

The autocratic president, Abdulla Yameen, hopes to solidify his hold on power with a second term, the opposition warns that the Maldives’ nascent democracy is at stake, and accusations of fraud have plagued both sides. As polling stations opened on Sunday, lines of voters snaked down streets in the Maldives and in countries with large Maldivian communities, like Sri Lanka, suggesting a high turnout.

Lying southwest of India, and stretching across maritime routes that are crucial to China, the Maldives has been caught up in recent years in Beijing’s growing global ambitions, which the United States and its allies have struggled to contain.

China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the Maldives, which critics, including the political opposition, warn amount to “debt-trap diplomacy” that weighs down the recipient country with loans in order to secure a naval base as repayment. The governments of both countries reject that assessment.

Even before the elections on Sunday, Mr. Yameen had been accused of rigging them, forcing employees of state-owned companies to vote for his party, stacking the election commission with loyalists, locking up opposition leaders and canceling voter registrations.

On Saturday night, the police raided the opposition’s office in the capital, Malé, citing evidence of vote-buying. This month, the police said they had unraveled a plot to “create the false impression that the election will not be free and fair,” which Western diplomats warned could be used to annul the elections if the governing party does not win.

“There is very little trust in the electoral process,” said Aiman Rasheed, a program manager for Transparency Maldives, an anticorruption organization. “People feel like their votes do not matter.”

The United States said this month that it would impose sanctions on Maldivian officials if the elections are not free and fair. But both the European Union and United States declined to send teams to monitor the voting, wary of appearing to condone them.

The election pits Mr. Yameen’s governing Progressive Party against a unified opposition led by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a senior lawmaker from the Maldivian Democratic Party. The Maldives became a democracy in 2008, when it held its first vote to elect a president directly.

Mr. Yameen came to power in 2013, after elections monitored by more than 100 international observers. Since then, he has jailed his political opponents, including his half brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who led the country for 30 years until opening it up in 2008, and Muhammed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president.

The opposition rallied behind Mr. Solih after many opposition leaders, including Mr. Nasheed, fled into exile.

Many observers say the opposition would win if there were a level playing field. For the first time in three years, it was permitted to hold a rally this month, after the government came under pressure for not issuing permits in the past. Around 10,000 people attended, about twice as many as at the governing party’s rallies, though in the past the government has used force to stifle protests and dismissed dissenters as terrorists.

“There is a huge popular groundswell in favor of change,” said Mr. Solih’s campaign manager, Mariya Ahmed Did. “President Yameen was not given a mandate to trample all over Maldivian democracy and our Constitution, but that is what he has done these past five years.”

She said, “The Maldives risks becoming just another banana republic.”

Mr. Yameen’s campaign manager, Adhlee Ismail, denied in a brief telephone interview that the elections had been rigged. It was not yet clear on Sunday how long it would take to tally the results.

Even if Mr. Yameen were to lose, China’s influence would not simply be rolled back, some observers say. The United States and India are unwilling or unable to match the billions of dollars Beijing has invested in cash-starved regions of South Asia as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. China is spending about $ 62 billion in Pakistan alone as part of the program, tilting another American ally further into its axis.

“If President Yameen loses, China will be able to work with the next leader, as it has shown in the case of Sri Lanka after the 2015 election,” said Nilanthi Samaranayake, a South Asia analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank based in Arlington, Va. For small nations in the region, China’s appeal as a source of money for development “transcends domestic politics,” she said.

Sri Lanka’s current leadership won elections in 2015 on a platform that was critical of China, accusing the previous president of taking billions of dollars of loans from Chinese state-owned banks for projects that made little economic sense. But once the new government came to power, it found that India and the United States had little to offer in terms of development loans and it eventually warmed to Beijing. Last year, Sri Lanka’s government handed a large seaport to China for 99 years, unable to repay its loans.

Many in the Maldives and elsewhere are also wary of China’s increasing military interests. Despite assurances to the contrary, Beijing has steadily bolstered its presence on a collection of disputed reefs in the South China Sea, eventually building bases there.

The Maldives, which is included in China’s One Belt, One Road plans, has received about $ 2 billion in Chinese loans that critics say will be difficult to repay. The Chinese initiative has been likened to the United States’ ambitious Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, but the Marshall Plan was mostly composed of grants rather than onerous loans, critics argue, and went toward economically viable projects.

Mr. Yameen has been racked by accusations of corruption, including reports that he plans to sell some of the 1,200 islands that make up the Republic of Maldives for his personal gain, a charge he has denied.

Although the Maldivian government said international journalists were welcome to report on elections, many — including from The New York Times — were unable to secure visas to enter the country.

Maria Abi-Habib reported from New Delhi, and Hassan Moosa from Malé, Maldives.

Source: NYT > World

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