The Maldives started voting on Saturday to decide their next president, in an elections widely seen as a referendum on whether to hitch their fortunes to China or India, both vying for influence in the island nation.
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, 61, faces an uphill battle to secure a second mandate after a term that saw renewed ties with New Delhi, the archipelago’s traditional benefactor.
Frontrunner Mohamed Muizzu, 45, has vowed closer ties with Beijing and a review of relations with India if he is elected.
Muizzu won 46% of the first-round vote earlier this month, seven points clear of Solih, but the contest remains on a knife’s edge, with barely 15,000 votes between the pair.
People began lining up across the country, best known for its luxury beach resorts and celebrity tourists, to cast their ballots before voting began at 8am.
“Queues formed long before polling opened,” said an election official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media. “The Elections Commission is encouraging people to vote early.”
Just over 282,000 people are eligible to vote before polls close at 5pm, with results expected late Saturday or early 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 moved into Beijing’s orbit when last in power and 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 the increasingly autocratic rule by Yameen, who he accused of pushing the country into a Chinese debt trap by borrowing heavily for infrastructure.
But his restoration of the Maldives’ traditional posture has itself proved controversial, with many in the archipelago disapproving of India’s outsized political and economic clout.
If elected, Muizzu has vowed 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.