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Maldivians vote out pro-China president by wide margin

Opposition candidate Solih's anti-corruption message trumps Yameen's economic record

Maldivian opposition figure Ibrahim Mohamed Solih speaks to the media at the end of the presidential election in Male.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Maldivians are waking up to political change after opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih staged a surprise victory over incumbent strongman Abdulla Yameen to become the next president of a tiny island nation caught in a rivalry between China and India.

The provisional tally in Sunday's election revealed the voter discontent with an increasingly authoritarian Yameen who had campaigned for a second five-year term on his record of economic development, large chunks of it bankrolled by Chinese loans, aid and investment. Solih beat Yameen by 134,616 to 96,132 in a country with 262,135 eligible voters in a population of more than 400,000.

Solih well exceeded the 6,000-vote margin Yameen had secured in the controversy-plagued 2013 presidential election.

The challenger's strong showing this time around will contribute to a smooth transfer of power in South Asia's smallest nation. Solih begins his term in mid-November after a constitutionally mandated two-month transition period.

Solih, a veteran legislator chosen to lead a beleaguered opposition alliance, benefited from the twin campaign themes of the Yameen government as corrupt and oppressive. Days before the vote, he got a shot in the arm when the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project exposed a network of Yameen cronies and business tycoons allegedly profiting from deals to lease more than 50 tropical islands.

The expose added to previous revelations of corruption under Yameen, including a 2014 admission by then-Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim that political and business allies of the president had profited from hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks. In 2016, Al Jazeera shook the Yameen government with an investigative documentary on a $1.5 billion money-laundering network run out of the Maldives with the authorities' blessing.

A construction worker looks toward the China-funded Sinamale Bridge, or the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, in Male, the Maldives.    © Reuters

"The opposition's message accusing the Yameen regime of being corrupt and oppressive swayed many voters," said Thoriq Hamid, a political analyst based in Male, the Maldivian capital.

"Corruption linked to the tourist resorts is not new, but the magnitude during the last five years is astounding," Hamid said.

Yameen may have also been undone by the youth vote in a country where 47.5% of citizens are under 25, according to the 2014 census. Solih's campaign used social media to tap this demographic.

"Social media may also explain the election outcome, because many young voters and first-time voters are heavily engaged in social media," said Ahmed Adam, a Maldivian human rights activist at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, or Forum-Asia, a Bangkok-based regional human rights and development network.

"Corruption under the Yameen regime and need for justice were the main social media themes," Adam said.

But seasoned observers in the Maldives were not expecting such a large swing against Yameen, who drew substantial crowds to his campaign rallies, including civil servants sporting the trademark pink shirts of his political party. The rallies became pledges of loyalty to Yameen and lent him an air of invincibility.

Sunday's political game-changer gives the small Maldives a chance to pen a new chapter in its rapidly growing geopolitical role owing to its chain of 1,192 islands, of which only 200 are populated, straddling one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.

Under Yameen, the Maldives turned its back on South Asian regional power and longtime ally India, instead warming up to China to boost its $3.6 billion economy. Fear of India losing ground to an assertive China in its backyard even prompted calls in hawkish quarters of India for military intervention to stop Yameen in his tracks.

"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 Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement congratulating Solih. "In keeping with our 'Neighborhood First' Policy, India looks forward to working closely with the Maldives in further deepening our partnership."

But more than 24 hours after the polls closed, China had yet to offer its own congratulations to Solih -- a prospect some Male residents see as a bitter pill for Beijing's foreign affairs mandarins.

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