Maldives presidential runoff is set for Sept. 30 with pro-China opposition in a surprise lead

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Maldivians will return to the polls on Sept. 30 to vote in a runoff election between the top two candidates in the country's presidential race after neither secured more than 50% in the first round, the elections commission said Sunday.

Main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz managed a surprise lead with more than 46% of votes, while the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who was seen as the favorite, got only 39%.

The election on Saturday has shaped up as a virtual referendum over which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago state. Solih is perceived as pro-India while Muiz is seen as pro-China.

The result is seen a remarkable achievement for Muiz, who was a late selection as a candidate by his party after its leader, former President Abdullah Yameen, was blocked from running by the Supreme Court. He is serving a prison term for corruption and money laundering.

“People did not see this government to be working for them, you have a government that was talking about ‘India first,’" said Mohamed Shareef, a top official from Muiz’s party.

Azim Zahir, a political science and international relations lecturer at the University of Western Australia, said the first-round election outcome was “a major blow” to Solih and "one could read it even as a rejection of his government,”

Muiz had only three weeks to campaign and did not have the advantage of a sitting president, Zahir said. He said Muiz's strong stand against the presence of Indian troops in the Maldives could have been a significant factor in the election.

He said the result also showed a nation divided according to the rival parties' ideologies between the pro-Western, pro-human rights Maldivian Democratic Party and Muiz's People's National Congress, which has a more religiously conservative leaning and views Western values with suspicion.

Solih has been battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country.

Muiz promised that if he wins, he will remove Indian troops stationed in the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said are heavily in India’s favor. He however has promised to continue friendly and balanced relations with the Maldives' closest neighbor.

Muiz’s PNC party is viewed as heavily pro-China. When its leader Abdullah Yameen was president from 2013-2018, he made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. It envisages building ports, railways and roads to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Shareef said that the removal of Indian military personnel was a “non-negotiable” position for the party. He said the number of Indian troops and their activities are hidden from Maldivians and that they have near-exclusive use of certain ports and airports in the country.

Both India and China are vying for influence in the small state made up of some 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean. It lies on the main shipping route between the East and the West.

Muiz seems to have taken advantage of a split in Solih’s MDP that led Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, to break away and field his own candidate. Nasheed’s candidate, Ilyas Labeeb, secured 7% of the vote.

More than 282,000 people were eligible to vote in the election and turnout was nearly 80%.