Voters in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives on Saturday elected opposition leader Mohamed Muizzu as the country’s president, giving him 54 percent of the votes, according to preliminary results.
Muizzu, candidate for the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), roundly defeated incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and is set to be sworn in on November 17.
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The president-elect is widely seen as sympathetic to China’s interests in the country, and less favourably disposed towards India, Maldives’s giant neighbour and traditional security and economic partner.
Solih, who is viewed as pro-India, accepted the results.
“Congratulations to president-elect Muizzu,” Solih wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “I also congratulate the people who have shown a peaceful and democratic process.”
The result upends Solih’s efforts to revert the country’s diplomatic posture back towards New Delhi since taking office five years ago.
Who is Muizzu?
A British-educated civil engineer, Muizzu, 45, is the current mayor of Male, the country’s capital.
He was an unlikely candidate for the presidency after serving as construction minister in the government of his mentor Abdulla Yameen.
But Yameen’s jailing on corruption charges — which his party says were politically motivated — saw Muizzu tapped to lead the party as his proxy in an election where the strategically placed country’s ties with China and India were on the ballot.
As minister under Yameen, Muizzu oversaw several Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in the country of less than one million people, including a $200m bridge linking the capital with the archipelago’s main airport.
He told Chinese Communist Party officials during an online meeting last year that his party’s return to office would expand the “strong ties between our two countries”.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Male, said Muizzu might find it hard to fulfil all the promises he made during campaigning.
“India is deeply involved enmeshed in the finances, in trade, in infrastructure growth. I think it will be very hard, even if he wanted to, to stop that. He has publicly said he favours China,” Cheng said.
“China has been very deeply involved in financing a lot of infrastructure growth. But there are problems there too in that Maldives has a very considerable debt owed to China, some of which are due in a couple of years,” he added.
Muizzu’s election success hinged on a sustained campaign against India’s outsized political and economic clout in the Maldives.
New Delhi has a history of entanglements with affairs in Maldives, including the deployment of soldiers to thwart a 1988 coup attempt. Its influence has been a periodic source of resentment in the Muslim-majority nation.
The Maldives sits in a strategically vital position in the middle of the Indian Ocean, astride one of the world’s busiest east-west shipping lanes.
Solih was elected in 2018 on the back of discontent with Yameen’s increasingly controversial rule — many political opponents were locked up in the same prison where the former president is now behind bars — accusing him of pushing the country into a Chinese debt trap.
Yameen’s turn towards Beijing had also alarmed New Delhi, which shares concerns with the United States and its allies about China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean.
India is a member of the strategic Quad alliance alongside the US, Australia and Japan.