MALE, Maldives (AP) — Maldivians were voting Saturday in a runoff presidential election that 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 main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz nor incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September. 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.
Solih has insisted that 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.
Muiz promised that if he won 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 favor.
The runoff is considered a tough challenge for Solih and his chances depend on how members of a breakaway faction of his party would vote for him.
Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, broke away from Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party and fielded his own candidate in the first round. He has decided to remain neutral in the second round but some of his supporters are likely to back Solih.
Abdullah Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency from 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.
Muiz, an engineer who had served as the housing minister for seven years, was selected only as a fallback candidate for People’s National Congress after Yameen was prevented by the Supreme Court from contesting the election because he is serving a prison term for money laundering and corruption.
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.
“These five years have been the most peaceful and prosperous five years we’ve ever seen. We have had political peace, opposition candidates are not jailed every day,” said Abdul Muhusin, who said he voted for Solih in the runoff on Saturday.
Another voter, Saeedh Hussein, said he chose Muiz because “I want the Indian military to leave Maldives.”
“I don’t believe the Maldivian military has any control. Only Muiz can change these things and make the Indian military leave Maldives,” he said.
There are more than 282,000 eligible voters and the runoff result is expected Sunday.