Maldivians vote for president in a virtual geopolitical race between India and China

Voting has started in the Maldives presidential election, a virtual referendum over which regional power, India or China, will have the biggest influence in the archipelago state

Mohamed Sharuhan
Saturday 09 September 2023 10:39 BST

Voting started in the Maldives presidential election Saturday, a virtual referendum over which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago state.

Eight runners are vying for the post, with current president President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih — perceived as pro-India — facing off with his main rival Mohamed Muiz.

Solih is seeking re-election for a second term amid allegations by Muiz that he has allowed India an unchecked presence in the country.

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 is heavily in India's favor.

The People's National Congress, Muiz’s party, is viewed as heavily pro-China. Its leader, Abdullah Yameen, when he was president from 2013-2018, made the Maldives a part of China's “One Belt One Road.” The initiative envisages building ports, railways and roads to expand trade — and China’s influence — in a swath across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Mohamed Shareef, a senior official for Muiz's party, told The Associated Press that the removal of Indian military personnel was a “non-negotiable” position for the party. He said that the number of Indian troops and their activities are hidden from Maldivians and that they have near-exclusive use of certain parts and airports in the country.

Both India and China vie for influence in the tiny archipelago state made up of some 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, located by the main shipping route between East and the West.

Solih was considered the front-runner in the field of eight candidates since his strongest rival, Yameen, was blocked from running by the Supreme Court because he is in prison for corruption and money laundering convictions.

Muiz hoped to take advantage of a split in Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party that led Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, to break away and field his own candidate.

Nasheed is currently backing Ilyas Labeeb who, though not highly critical of India has accused Solih of not being transparent in his dealings with India, said Azim Zahir, a political science and international relations lecturer at the University of Western Australia.

The “India Out” campaign — spearheaded by Muiz’s party — has been all over social media in the runup to the election and almost all candidates except Solih adopted the “India vs. the rest” rhetoric, said Zahir.

Solih is widely credited for having brought stability to the country and adeptly handling the COVID-19 health crisis, which can work in his advantage, added Zahir.

He added that Solih has no corruption allegations against him unlike Muiz when he was a housing minister, he said.

There is also a possibility of this mostly Sunni Muslim nation becoming more conservative because both sides are backed by religious hardliners pushing their agendas.

The groups are not known to espouse violence but want more control over women, are against music and art as well as religious freedom, Zahir said.

The Maldives is believed to have sent the highest number of fighters per capita when the Islamic State group was active. Also, a local group with IS ideology set off a bomb targeting Nasheed in 2021, seriously wounding him.

More than 282,000 people are eligible to vote in Saturday's election. A candidate would need to get 50% plus one vote to win outright. Otherwise, the top two finishers would meet in a runoff election later this month.


Associated Press writer Krishan Francis contributed to this report from Colombo, Sri Lanka

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