A presidential election in the Maldives on Saturday (9 September) could be decisive in determining whether China or India win a competition for influence over the tiny Indian Ocean island chain.
Home to about 521,000 people, the Maldives is famous for its sun-kissed atolls and luxury tourist resorts but the rival Asian giants have both invested millions of dollars in infrastructure in the islands as they seek to build goodwill and influence.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who promotes close ties with his country’s huge neighbour with an “India-first” policy, appears to be slightly ahead in the polls.
The coalition backing his main rival, Mohamed Muizzu, has a record of being close to China and has launched an “India out” campaign, promising to remove a small Indian military presence of several surveillance aircraft and some 75 personnel.
But for many of the 280,000 eligible voters, the big-power rivalry is not expected to be a major factor when it comes to casting their ballots, said former foreign minister and human rights advocate Ahmed Shaheed.
“Domestically, I do not see that the Indian-China issue is something that’s a pressing issue for voters even though this appears to be a foremost concern for several international observers,” Shaheed told Reuters.
“From the campaigns, it’s clear that the biggest challenge ahead is managing the debt burden,” he said.
The last publicly available data showed that at the end of 2022, the national debt stood at 113% of the country’s gross domestic product of $6.1 billion.
“However, this is not an election that’s boiling down to campaign issues but rather to outbidding each other on promises of handouts,” said Shaheed.
A poll of 384 people published last month by the Baani Center think tank found that 21% of respondents favoured Solih compared with 14% for Muizzu. But that indicated a big majority of Maldivians, 53%, were undecided.
Solih had won a landslide victory in 2018 as a joint opposition candidate.
In 2021, Muizzu who represents a coalition of the Progressive Party and the People’s National Congress, won a surprise victory in a vote for mayor of the capital, Male, which at the time was believed to be a stronghold of Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party.
While India has longstanding cultural, financial and security ties with the Maldives, China has in recent years invested in infrastructure projects as it builds closer ties and pursues its Belt and Road vision of transport and energy networks.
Solih has called India the “first responder in times of crises, and is amongst the loudest supporters in times of good fortune”.
Muizzu’s party says India’s overwhelming influence poses a threat to sovereignty and he accuses India of aiming to establish a permanent military presence in the archipelago.
India, which denies that, is helping to build a naval harbour for Maldivian forces, who will be trained by the Indian military.
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