The first round of the Maldives presidential election has taken political analysts by surprise, with pro-China candidate Mohamed Muizzu securing a commanding lead over the India-friendly incumbent, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. This unexpected turn of events has raised the geopolitical stakes for the upcoming final round of the election on September 30, as it indicates a potential shift in the Maldives’ foreign policy orientation.

Mohamed Muizzu, the mayor of the capital, Male, and candidate of the People’s National Congress (PNC), outperformed expectations by securing 46% of the initial vote, earning him a place in the final runoff. In contrast, incumbent President Solih received just 39% of the votes, falling short of the anticipated support he was expected to garner.

The outcome of the first round has reverberated in New Delhi and Beijing, with both governments preparing for potential shifts in diplomatic relations with the Maldives. While India had been closely aligned with Solih’s presidency, Muizzu’s lead suggests a possible change in the Maldives’ foreign policy orientation.

The Maldives, consisting of 1,200 islands, is not only known for its high-end tourist resorts but also occupies a strategic location in the Indian Ocean, making it a focal point in the regional competition for influence. The country’s foreign policy has oscillated between India and China in recent years, with former President Abdulla Yameen’s tilt toward China during his presidency from 2013 to 2018, which disrupted the traditional diplomatic norms.

Yameen’s presidency saw a significant shift towards China, including the acceptance of loans and financing for major infrastructure projects. China’s engagement with the Maldives extended beyond economic ties, as it also aligned with Yameen’s authoritarian style of governance. This period marked a departure from the Maldives’ traditional alignment with India.

In contrast, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who won the 2018 election, pursued an “India first” policy. This approach led to the restoration of close ties between the Maldives and India, resulting in Indian investments in infrastructure and security assistance.

Muizzu, the opposition candidate, strategically tapped into public concerns about the expanding Indian presence in the Maldives, particularly the Indian military contingent stationed there. This resonated with voters who harbored fears of India’s dominance in South Asia’s smallest nation.

As the Maldives heads into the final round of the presidential election, the unexpected results of the first round indicate a potential shift in the nation’s geopolitical orientation. Whether this shift will lead to a stronger alignment with China or a continuation of its relationship with India remains uncertain.