The Maldives is preparing for a presidential runoff on Saturday (30 September), which has the potential to significantly alter its relations with India and China.
This comes as both the Asian powers are vying for influence in this strategically important region.
With its nearly 1,200 coral islets, the Maldives has become a sought-after destination for prestige tourism and is a popular choice for beach holidays.
Situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives holds a crucial position along one of the busiest east-west shipping routes, a strategic location that adds to its geopolitical significance.
Frontrunner Mohamed Muizzu's party had previously aligned itself with Beijing during its previous term in office. It eagerly accepted financial support from China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
The 45-year-old mayor of Male, Muizzu, led the efforts to build a $200 million bridge with Chinese backing, connecting the capital to the country's main airport during the previous government.
In the first round of voting earlier this month, Muizzu secured slightly over 46 percent of the votes, while the incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who played a role in restoring ties with India, trailed behind with 39 percent.
Despite having only 283,000 eligible voters and a narrow margin of around 15,000 votes between them, former foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed stated that the election was highly uncertain.
According to Shaheed, the prevailing sentiment in the Maldives indicates that the two candidates are closing in on each other, making the outcome of the election too close to call.
"The mood in the Maldives suggests that the two candidates are narrowing their gap," Shaheed was quoted as saying by news agency AFP.
"This is going to be a very, very close race," he added.
Solih became president in 2018 after the public expressed dissatisfaction with his autocratic predecessor Abdullah Yameen.
Yameen, who was an ally of Muizzu's, is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for corruption.
Solih accused Yameen of burdening the country with heavy debt from China for infrastructure projects.
In an effort to improve relations, Solih, who is 61 years old, quickly repaired the country's ties with India after he became President.
He invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his inauguration and allowed for an increase in India's military presence in the country.
Following his loss in the first round on 9 September, Solih has been focusing his campaign efforts on local issues such as housing in order to gather support.
Muizzu's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) has consistently directed the debate towards diplomacy, specifically criticizing Solih's stance towards India.
Both the PPM and activist groups have been organizing street protests on a regular basis, demanding a decrease in Indian influence within the Muslim nation.
According to Shaheed, the future stability of the government will rely on navigating a path that avoids antagonizing either of the powerful suitors for the archipelago.
"The next president will have to balance the interests of both India and China," Shaheed said.
"You can't spurn India and survive," he added.
Supporters of Muizzu believe that his election would eliminate foreign interference in the country.
Dunya Maumoon, a former cabinet minister who worked with Muizzu, expressed her support for his efforts to help "rescue the country's independence and sovereignty".
Muizzu has made it clear that he intends to follow in the footsteps of his mentor Yameen by aligning himself with Beijing.
During an online meeting with Chinese Communist Party representatives, he expressed his belief that if his party, the PPM, were to regain power, it would "script a further chapter of strong ties between our two countries".
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