The election impact

Had New Delhi granted refuge or asylum to Mohamed Nasheed when he sought shelter in the Indian high commission in Male, his chances of staging a return to power would have diminished

Elections for choosing people’s representatives are the rituals and festivals of democracy. They are the minimal guarantees for fulfilling Abraham Lincoln’s maxim of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Without elections, there is no legitimate formal mechanism to mediate relations between society and the state.
However, modern-day elections have more to them than just being institutions to distribute economic resources and regulate political affairs of a nation. They carry an external dimension that may not be as apparent as their obvious internal import. Since the international system is constituted by nation states recognised as sovereign entities, there is a tendency to believe that whatever elections occur within democratic countries are and should remain purely internal matters.
But the international behaviour of a country is also impacted by its domestic electoral winds, making the polls a subject of global attention and intrigue. In some cases, the impact can be in the opposite direction too, i.e. the internal election results are influenced by outside actors and interventions with a view to shaping or moulding countries’ foreign policies and geo-strategic outlook.
To illustrate the often overlooked but significant foreign dynamic of elections, let us examine two critical recent cases of the Maldives and Australia. The Indian Ocean island of the Maldives went into a make-or-break political moment with its second presidential election, since the advent of multi-party democracy, last week. Intermingled with domestic campaign topics like high unemployment, plummeting gross domestic product growth, losses in the tourism sector and a housing crunch was the international question of which way this strategically located country would swing within a larger contest for sway among India, China and the United States.
The Maldives sits bang in the centre of what James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College term as the Indian Ocean “strategic triangle” marked by cooperation and competition among New Delhi, Beijing and Washington. Geopolitics — the art of great power-manoeuvring to gain leverage over geographical vantage points — dictates all these three big players in the Indian Ocean region to be concerned about who rules the Maldives and how friendly the regime in Male would be. Elections can be producers of anxiety not just for voters and parties within countries but also for outside powers vying for governments that cater to their respective wishes.
When the Maldives’ first freely elected government of former President Mohamed Nasheed was overthrown in a “soft coup” in February 2012, it was a cause for nervousness in New Delhi, worry in Washington and hope in Beijing. Mr Nasheed’s pro-India leanings and liberal secular credentials had offered strategic succour to New Delhi’s attempts to remain the leading naval power in the Indian Ocean. But his forcible ejection from power and the subsequent rule by a clique that resorted to highhanded treatment of the Indian construction company, GMR, raised suspicions in New Delhi that the Chinese and the Pakistanis were gaining a foothold in the Maldives.
The first-ever visit to the Maldives by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy ship in July this year for delivering “humanitarian medical service to local people” did not fool India. The deduction was that if Mr Nasheed had remained in office, such penetration of the Maldives by the Chinese military would not have been permitted. So we rooted for Mr Nasheed to register a comeback through the election route. India even drove sense into him when he dramatically sought shelter in the Indian high commission in Male in February this year by asking him to go back to the political path of electoral struggle. Had New Delhi granted refuge or asylum to Mr Nasheed then, his chances of staging a return to power would have diminished.
As desired by India, Mr Nasheed has emerged in the just-concluded election as the single most popular politician of divided Maldives by securing 45 per cent of the vote. It is, in one sense, a comforting confirmation for New Delhi that he is still the biggest political force in the Maldives. But the fact that he has to now face a second round run-off against an opposition field of candidates that makes loud anti-India noises will keep us on tenterhooks until the final results are known at the end of September. China, on the other hand, may appreciate the split election results. Its state media outlets are highlighting the commitment of Mr Nasheed’s challengers to “prevent the country from slipping into the hands of foreigners” (read Indians).
Unlike the Maldives, the Australian election that was also held last weekend was unambiguous in its verdict. The Liberal Party (which holds staunch conservative policy positions on domestic and foreign issues) swept back to power in a coalition with the agrarian National Party by trouncing the incumbent Labour Party in a landslide victory. To be sure, domestic factors like the recession in the Australian economy, immigration politics and lobbying by the powerful mining sector were indeed central in sealing the fate of the Kevin Rudd government of the fractured Labour Party. But the external stakes of this Australian election cannot be overemphasised.
The construct of an “Indo-Pacific” theatre that combines the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean expanses in a seamless strategic naval space, where powerhouses like China, Japan and the US slog inch by inch for spheres of influence, renders Australia a lynchpin for regional security. During the stormy tenure of the previous Labour Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia had agreed to host 2,500 American Marines in the northern territory of Darwin. It was widely understood as a plan to counter the vulnerability of Western allies in the Indo-Pacific to China’s modernising missile capabilities and as an anchor point for the US’ “pivot” to Asia.
Will the electoral defeat of the Labour Party lead to any rethinking on Australia’s strategic closeness towards the US? That is unlikely because the Liberal Party’s Prime Minister-designate, Tony Abbott, is even more pro-American than Ms Gillard was.
Mr Abbott’s comment that Washington is Canberra’s “greatest ally” has triggered speculation in the Chinese media about whether his election victory is a strategic defeat for Beijing.
Neither the Maldives nor Australia suffered outright foreign meddling by interested external powers with an eye to swinging election results to favour their preferred horses. That kind of blatant interference is of Cold War vintage. But since the distinction between domestic politics and international politics is fictional, the external tug-of-war over elections in strategic hotspots is a never-ending one.

The writer is dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs

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