MALE: The Maldives voted Saturday to decide its next president in an election seen as a referendum on whether to hitch its fortunes to China or India, both vying for influence in the tropical paradise.
President 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.
Frontrunner 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 won the election’s first round earlier this month, taking 46 percent of the vote but finishing ahead of Solih by barely 15,000 ballots and short of the absolute majority needed to win outright.
“Queues formed long before polling opened,” one official said.
Solih and Muizzu voted at separate polling booths in the capital Male, with both telling reporters they were confident of victory.
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 program.
His mentor, former President Abdulla Yameen, borrowed heavily from China for construction projects and spurned India.
Solih was elected in 2018 on the back of discontent with Yameen’s increasingly autocratic rule, accusing him of pushing the country into a Chinese debt trap.
Yameen’s turn toward Beijing had also alarmed New Delhi, which shares concerns with the US and its allies at China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean.
India is a member of the strategic Quad alliance alongside the US, 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.