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Maldives votes in the shadow of India-China rivalry

Africa
 Officials prepare to count votes at a polling station during the second round of Maldives' presidential election in Male on September 30, 2023. [AFP]

Voting got under way in the Maldives Sunday in a parliamentary election likely to test President Mohamed Muizzu's tilt towards China and away from India, the luxury tourism hotspot's traditional benefactor.

Among the first to vote was Muizzu, 45, who cast his ballot at the Tajuddin school in the capital Male.

Election chief Fuad Thaufeeq urged the 284,663 eligible voters to cast their ballots early. Polling stations across the archipelago will be open for nine and a half hours.

Primarily known as one of the most expensive holiday destinations in South Asia, with pristine white beaches and secluded resorts, the atoll nation has also become a geopolitical hotspot in the Indian Ocean.

Global east-west shipping lanes pass the nation's chain of 1,192 tiny coral islands, which stretch around 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the equator.

Muizzu won last September's presidential poll as a proxy for pro-China ex-president Abdulla Yameen, freed last week after a court set aside his 11-year jail term for corruption.

This month, as campaigning for the parliamentary elections was in full swing, Muizzu awarded high-profile infrastructure contracts to Chinese state-owned companies.

His administration is also in the process of sending home a garrison of 89 Indian troops who operate reconnaissance aircraft gifted by New Delhi to patrol the Maldives' vast maritime borders.

The current parliament, dominated by the pro-India Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of Muizzu's immediate predecessor Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has sought to stymie his efforts to realign the archipelago's diplomacy.

"Geopolitics is very much in the background as parties campaign for votes in Sunday's election," a senior aide of Muizzu told AFP, asking not to be named.

"He came to power on a promise to send back Indian troops and he is working on it. The parliament has not been cooperating with him since he came to power."

Since Muizzu came to office, lawmakers have blocked three of his nominees to the cabinet and refused some of his spending proposals.

Splits in all the main political parties, including Muizzu's People's National Congress (PNC), are expected to make it hard for any single party to win an outright majority.

But Muizzu's prospects received a fillip with the release of his mentor Yameen from house arrest on Thursday.

A court in the capital Male ordered a retrial in the graft and money laundering cases that saw Yameen sent to prison after he lost a re-election bid in 2018.

Yameen had also backed closer alignment with Beijing while in power, but his conviction left him unable to contest last year's presidential poll himself.

He instead put forward Muizzu as a proxy, and after leaving the High Court, Yameen vowed to continue the anti-India campaign that helped his ally to victory.

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