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Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih wins Maldives presidential election

Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, won the contentious presidential election in the Maldives on Monday, convincingly defeating incumbent, Abdulla Yameen, in what was widely seen as a referendum on the Indian Ocean archipelago’s fragile democracy.

“This is a moment of happiness, a moment of hope,” Solih told reporters in Male. “This is a journey that has ended at the ballot box because the people willed it.”

Solih, who was fielded by the combined opposition, including the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), is expected to take charge on November 17, when Yameen’s five-year term ends.

Yameen, who cultivated ties with China and Saudi Arabia, conceded defeat after the Election Commission said Solih had won Sunday’s election by a margin of 16.7%. The final official result will take up to a week to be published.

The concession and the results were a surprise to the Maldives’ opposition, who had feared Yameen would rig the vote in his favour. Since his election in 2013, the strongman cracked down on political dissent, jailing rivals, including his half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the first democratically elected president, and even Supreme Court judges.

But Yameen soothed concerns over a possible messy transfer of power in a televised address to the nation. “Maldivian people have decided what they want. I have accepted the results from yesterday. Earlier today, I met with Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who the Maldivian electorate has chosen to be their next president. I have congratulated him,” he said.

Solih, 56, has already said he will seek to free all political prisoners, including former president, Gayoom. He also wants to rework or scrap deals not made in the best interests of the Maldives, and restore ties with India, which could strain relations with China.

He must also keep together the opposition coalition that includes two fierce rivals, Gayoom and former president, Mohamed Nasheed.

Sohil was a democracy activist during decades of autocratic rule and a former Parliament majority leader. He became the MDP’s presidential candidate after other top figures, including Nasheed, were jailed or exiled by Yameen’s government.

A close confidant of Nasheed and married to one of his cousins, Solih played a leading role in forming the Maldives Political Reform Movement from 2003 until 2008, which culminated in the adoption of a new Constitution.

He campaigned door to door, speaking at rallies about human rights and the rule of law — a message that resonated with voters, who saw signs the Maldives was slipping back to autocratic rule, just a decade after achieving democracy.

MDP leader, Nasheed, in exile in Sri Lanka, had hoped to run again but was disqualified because of an outstanding prison sentence.

India and the US congratulated Solih — popularly known as “Ibu” — on his victory even before Yameen conceded.

“This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law,” India’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “India looks forward to working closely with the Maldives in further deepening our partnership.”

Solih’s win presents an opportunity for India to rebuild the traditionally strong ties between the two countries in order to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region.

The US state department congratulated the people of the Maldives for having a peaceful, democratic vote. A statement from spokeswoman Heather Nauert noted the opposition victory and urged “calm and respect for the will of the people” as the election process was being concluded.

Both New Delhi and Washington had been concerned by Beijing’s growing influence in the Maldives and the island nation’s lurch toward more hardline attitudes on religious issues during Yameen’s five years in power.

China has poured billions of dollars into infrastructure projects, including an extension to the international airport in the Maldives and a bridge linking it to the capital Male.

Before the election, the opposition said it will review Chinese investments, partly out of concern over the level of debt entailed, with experts warning the government could fall into a debt trap. The Chinese investment is seen as part of its “String of Pearls” strategy, developing a network of friendly ports in the region from Sri Lanka to Pakistan.

India and Western nations are worried the strategy ultimately aims to help China’s military extend its reach.

First Published: Sep 24, 2018 20:46 IST

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