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

MALE, Maldives — 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.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, perceived as pro-India, sought re-election for a second term amid allegations by his main rival, Mohamed 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.

Muiz's party, the People's National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China. Its leader, Abdullah Yameen, when he was president in 2013-2018, made 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 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 with 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.

More than 282,000 people were 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.


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