MALDIVES: Maldivians were voting Saturday in the runoff presidential election which has turned into a virtual referendum on which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.
Neither the main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz nor incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September, triggering a runoff election. Solih, who was first elected president in 2018, is battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country. Muiz's party, the People’s National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China.
Muiz secured a surprise lead with more than 46% of votes in the first round, while Solih secured 39% votes.
Abdullah Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency 2013 to 2018. The initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.
The Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean located by the main shipping route between the East and the West.
Muiz promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops stationed in the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor.
There are more than 282,000 eligible voters and the runoff result is expected Sunday.
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.
(With Inputs from AP & AF)