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Politics

Maldives election outcome deals blow to Belt and Road

Win by president's pro-India party emboldens pushback against China-funded projects

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih wants a probe into China-led infrastructure projects negotiated under his predecessor.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- The new president of the Maldives has gained support for his efforts to loosen the Indian Ocean nation's economic bonds with China, as his party won a wide majority in weekend parliamentary elections.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party, which leans toward rival regional power India, won around 60 of the legislature's 87 seats, preliminary results announced late Sunday show.

This follows Solih's presidential victory in September over incumbent Abdulla Yameen, who had courted China. Final results of the general election, which took place Saturday, will be released by Friday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Solih to congratulate him on the election victory, the president said in a statement. Modi said "the Indian government will always stand ready to be of assistance to the Maldives," according to the statement.

The Maldives, cluster of islands southwest of India home to nearly 400,000 people, forms part of the sea lanes connecting East Asia with Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

The nation grew increasingly reliant on Beijing during Yameen's presidency, which began in 2013. The Maldives ramped up infrastructure projects using Chinese funds and construction materials through Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. The Maldivian finance minister estimated in December that the country owes China $1.4 billion, and Solih's party warned that the country faces political risks from this large debt to Beijing.

The two countries also inked a free trade agreement at the end of 2017. Chinese products represented 17% of Maldivian imports last year, soaring from 4% in 2012. India, the traditional center of influence for the Maldives, totaled 10% in 2018.

Since Solih took office in November, he has worked with the Maldivian Democratic Party to review the country's China policy, including the trade deal.

Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives had rushed the trade agreement through a parliamentary committee hearing that lasted less than 20 minutes. Members of the MDP and other parties were shut out of the deliberations. The unicameral legislature later passed the trade deal without a quorum.

The former president was arrested in February on allegations of money laundering, and also stands accused of witness tampering in the case.

The MDP suspects that Yameen received kickbacks after padding cost estimates for Chinese-led infrastructure projects.

"I expect the new parliament to approve the bill that grants an expert committee investigative powers so that we can recover the stolen funds," Solih told supporters Sunday in Male, the nation's capital.

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