Voters in the Maldives went to the polls on Saturday to decide their next president in an election seen as a referendum on whether to hitch their fortunes to China or India, both vying for influence in the tropical paradise.
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih faces an uphill battle to secure a second mandate after working to improve strained relations with New Delhi, the archipelago nation’s traditional benefactor, insisting the Indian military’s presence in the Maldives was only to build a dockyard under an agreement between the two governments and that his country’s sovereignty will not be violated.
Meanwhile, front runner Mohamed Muizzu helms a party that presided over an influx of Chinese investment money when it last held power and has signalled a return to Beijing’s orbit if he wins.
Muizzu has promised that if he wins the presidency, he would remove Indian troops from the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favour.
Muizzu won a first-round election earlier this month, taking 46 per cent of the votes but finishing ahead of Solih by barely 15,000 ballots.
Election Commission officials expected final turnout to top the 80 per cent recorded during the earlier vote, leaving the contest on a knife-edge.
“Queues formed long before polling opened,” said an election official, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.
“The Elections Commission is encouraging people to vote early.”
Nearly a quarter of the 282,000 eligible voters had cast their ballots in the first two hours of voting, the commission said.
Solih and Muizzu voted at separate polling booths in the capital Male, with both telling reporters they were confident of victory.
Polling closes at 5pm local time (1200 GMT), with results expected late Saturday or early Sunday.
Watchdog Transparency Maldives said there had been some incidents of “electoral violence” without specifying further details.
Police reported arresting 14 people, mostly for taking photographs of their marked ballot papers and sharing them on social media.
The Maldives sits in a strategically vital position in the middle of the Indian Ocean, astride one of the world’s busiest east-west shipping lanes.
Muizzu’s party was an eager recipient of financial largesse from China’s Belt and Road infrastructure programme.
His mentor, former president Abdulla Yameen, borrowed heavily from China for construction projects and spurned India.
Solih, 61, was elected in 2018 on the back of discontent with Yameen’s increasingly autocratic rule, accusing the leader of pushing the country into a Chinese debt trap.
Yameen’s turn towards Beijing had also alarmed New Delhi, which shares concerns with the United States and its allies at China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean.
India is a member of the strategic Quad alliance alongside the United States, Australia and Japan.
But Solih’s restoration of the Maldives’ traditional posture has itself proved controversial, with many in the archipelago disapproving of India’s outsized political and economic clout.
Muizzu has vowed if elected to free his mentor Yameen, currently serving an 11-year sentence for corruption on the same prison island where he had jailed many of his political opponents during his tenure.
The 45-year-old emerged as a candidate after Yameen’s conviction barred the former president from running for public office.