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Pro-Beijing opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz won the Maldives’ presidential runoff Saturday, following an election that observers described as a referendum on whether the country will foster closer ties with China or India, Reuters reported.
Official results showed Muiz of the People’s National Congress secured more than 53 percent of the vote, defeating pro-India incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party.
Voter turnout was 78 percent.
The victory was a surprise for Muiz, who was named as a fallback candidate close to the nomination deadline after the country’s supreme court prevented former President Abdulla Yameen from running as he serves a prison sentence for money laundering and corruption.
Yameen’s supporters alleged that the former president was jailed for political reasons. Following the announcement of the results, Muiz requested Solih to transfer Yameen to house arrest.
The polls also came as India and China have been vying for influence in the archipelago nation in recent years.
During his 2013-2018 term, Yameen moved the Maldives politically closer to China, which included joining the Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative seeks to build infrastructure and transport networks to expand trade and China’s influence across Asia, Africa, and Europe.
But Solih, who took office in 2018, sought closer economic and security ties with neighboring India. This policy shift has seen the presence of Indian troops in the archipelago, with opposition parties accusing Solih of jeopardizing the Maldives’ sovereignty.
Solih has countered that Indian troops are in the Maldives only to build a dockyard under an agreement between the two governments.
Ahmed Shaheed, former foreign minister of the Maldives, told the Associated Press that the election outcome primarily reflects the public’s dissatisfaction with the government’s ability to meet economic and governance expectations, rather than concerns about Indian influence.
He suggested that Muiz is unlikely to shift the country’s foreign policy significantly toward China, but may reduce opposition to Chinese projects in the Maldives.