April 4, 2019 / 6:11 PM / 2 months ago

Maldives president hoping for election majority to probe China deals

MALE (Reuters) - The Maldives heads for a parliamentary election on Saturday with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih seeking a majority for his party to investigate debts to China, which it fears could run as high as $3 billion and risk sinking the economy.

FILE PHOTO: Maldivian joint opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih speaks to the media at the end of the presidential election day in Male, Maldives September 23, 2018. REUTERS/Ashwa Faheem/File Photo

Since he unseated pro-China leader Abdulla Yameen in September, Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which has governed in a coalition with three other parties, has warned that a building boom has left huge debts to Chinese lenders.

The Maldives, a tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean with some 260,000 voters, has been caught in a battle for influence between India and China, which invested millions of dollars during Yameen’s rule as part of its Belt and Road plan.

The MDP has pledged to investigate the infrastructure projects and determine the islands’ true debt to China, which it says could be as a high as $3 billion. Yameen denies any wrongdoing in relation to the Chinese debt.

The MPD currently only has a majority with the support of its coalition partners, including The Jumhooree Party, which has been absent from votes to begin any graft investigation.

“The president has not been getting the support and cooperation he needs,” MDP spokeswoman Afshan Latheef said.

“It’s vital that the MDP gets a majority in parliament in order to fully investigate corruption and embezzlement, to seek justice for those disappeared and murdered and to fulfil the pledges of the government,” she added.

The Jumhooree leader, parliament speaker Gasim Ibrahim, could not immediately be reached for comment. In past he has said appointing commissions to conduct inquiries is unconstitutional.

The Jumhooree Party and Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) are both campaigning on a nationalist, religious platform.

Gasim has said an MDP majority would allow it to push for a secular Maldives and build churches and temples in the Muslim-majority country.

The MDP, which is competing against its current coalition partners in many constituencies, has fielded candidates for 85 seats in the 87-member parliament, while the Jumhooree Party has put up 51 candidates. PPM is contesting 50 seats.

There are no independent election opinion polls.

Last month, Yameen spent more than a month in police custody over a graft scandal aimed at siphoning money from the islands’ tourism board.

He was released on bail on March 28 in time for the last week of campaigning, and denies the charges.

(This story corrects paragraphs 6 and 7 to show Afshan Latheef is a spokeswoman not a spokesman)

Additional reporting and writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Alasdair Pal and Alison Williams

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