Pro-China candidate Mohamed Muizzu won 54% of the vote in a run-off poll on Saturday to become the new president of the Maldives.
Muizzu, 45, is a civil engineer educated in northern England who was housing minister in the Yameen government ousted in the 2018 election. In 2021 he became mayor of the capital Male, before running in the latest poll with the campaign slogan “India out”.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who was seeking a second five-year term, will serve as caretaker president until Muizzu takes over in mid-November. He reportedly accepted defeat and congratulated his rival late on Saturday night.
Mr Muizzu, 45, from the Progressive Alliance coalition favours better relations with China, which is keen for access to the strategically-placed archipelago to protect energy shipments it gets from the Gulf.
Election officials said about 85% of 282,000 eligible voters cast ballots at more than 580 polling stations on 187 of the Maldives’ islands.
The Maldives, which is known for its pristine beaches and high-end resorts, is about 750 kilometres southwest of India. It was part of India’s sphere of influence for a long period and had over 70 Indian military personnel based in the archipelago in recent years to monitor the region’s busy sea-lanes.
Muizzu, who accused Solih of allowing India to have an unchecked presence in the small nation, has promised warmer ties with Beijing.
Before Solih won power in 2018, Abdulla Yameen from the Progressive Party (PPM) was president from 2013-18, which was an era that saw the Maldives develop closer relations with China and borrow heavily from Beijing for infrastructure projects after joining President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Yameen, who was accused of being lured into a Chinese ‘debt trap’, is serving a 11-year prison term for corruption, which prevented him from contesting this year’s vote.
Mr Muizzu has requested that Mr Solih transfer the former president from prison to house arrest, according to a report by Australia’s ABC News, which noted remarks by Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister, who said the poll result stemmed more from the government’s failure to meet economic and governance expectations, rather than concern over Indian influence.
“I don’t think India was at all in the people’s minds,” Mr Shaheed was quoted as saying. He forecast that Muizzu was unlikely to change the country’s foreign policy, but simply lessen opposition to Chinese projects, the report said.