Maldivian opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu clinched victory in the presidential elections on Saturday by securing over 53% of the vote, as per local reports. Muizzu defeated incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih by over 18,000 votes.
Saturday's win came as a surprise for the pro-China candidate Muizzu, who entered the fray as an underdog and was named only as a fallback candidate closer to the nomination deadline after the Supreme Court prevented his party's leader and former President Abdulla Yameen from contesting because he is serving a prison sentence for money laundering and corruption.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Muizzu after his victory, saying that India remains committed to strengthening the "time-tested" bilateral relationship with Maldives and cooperation in the Indian Ocean.
"With today's result, we have got the opportunity to build the country's future. The strength to ensure the freedom of Maldives...It's time we put our differences aside and come together.
We need to be a peaceful society," said the President-elect in a statement after his win.
Solih managed to secure 46% of the votes in the presidential runoff. Neither of the candidates managed to get more than 50% of the votes in the first round of voting held earlier this month. After his victory, Muizzu asked Solih to transfer Yameen from prison to house arrest.
Muizzu's pro-China leanings
The presidential elections in Maldives turned into a referendum on which regional power, India or China, has the most influence in the country. Both India and China have been engaged in a tig-of-war to gain influence in Maldives. Muizzu has previously accused Solih of allowing India an "unchecked presence" in the Maldives and "threatening" the country's national security.
While Solih has a friendly relationship with India, Muizzu's party, the People's National Congress, is considered to be heavily pro-China. To make matters worse, Muizzu in his campaign warned that he would remove Indian troops from Maldives and balance the trade relations that were heavily tilted in the favour of New Delhi.
The President-elect also alleged that India's military presence in Maldives was aimed at building a dockyard under a bilateral agreement and hinting that it would impact the sovereignty of the country.
When Muizzu's Progressive Alliance was in power from 2013 to 2017 under Yameen, it pursued a heavily pro-China strategy by building a free trade agreement with Beijing and participating in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road project (BRI), the Guardian reported. Muizzu, the former mayor of the capital Malé, supervised a $200 million project sponsored by China.
"Today's result is a reflection of the patriotism of our people. A call on all our neighbours and bilateral partners to fully respect our independence and sovereignty," said Mohamed Shareef, a top official of Muizzu's party.
Maldives' crucial importance for India
Under Solih's presidency from 2018, the Maldives government pursued a friendly relationship with India as both countries have significant historical ties. This reduced Chinese investment in the country that has swelled under Yameen's regime.
Maldives holds great importance for both India and China, as it lies on the way of cargo shipping lines and is considered a gateway of geopolitical influence over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which has witnessed a growing belligerence by China in recent times. It is, however, unpredictable with rampant crime and corruption in domestic politics.
India has invested more than $2 billion in infrastructure in Maldives in partnership with the Solih government, and cooperation between New Delhi and Malé has increased in other sectors of military training and security. Several development initiatives were also signed by External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar.
However, Yameen, who heavily prefers China, has launched accusations of India building a strategic military presence in the country and launched a campaign against New Delhi. These accusations were rejected by the Solih government as "fake reports" and attempts to affect friendly relations between the two countries.
On the other hand, China has been quietly exerting influence in Maldives. This comes against the backdrop of the change in foreign policies of many countries to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Maldives is also known to house leaders linked with the Islamic State (ISIS), raising a significant security concern in the region.
Reaction to Muizzu's win
However, former Maldives foreign minister, Ahmed Shaheed, contended that Solih's loss was a "public revolt" against the government's failure to meet economic and governance expectations rather than concerns over Indian influence.
Ahead of the elections, Solih suffered a setback closer to the election when Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, broke away from his Maldivian Democratic Party and fielded his own candidate in the first round. He decided to remain neutral in the second round.
“These five years have been the most peaceful and prosperous five years we've ever seen. We have had political peace, opposition candidates are not jailed every day,” said Abdul Muhusin, who said he voted for Solih in the runoff on Saturday.
Another voter, Saeedh Hussein, said he chose Muizzu because “I want the Indian military to leave Maldives." “I don't believe the Maldivian military has any control. Only Muizzu can change these things and make the Indian military leave Maldives,” he said.
(with AP inputs)