Mohamed Muizzu, winner of the Maldives' presidential election, smiles after a news conference in Male on Sept. 30. © Reuters

MALE — The Maldives’ opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu triumphed in Saturday’s presidential election, winning over voters with two broad campaign themes: that incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had failed to deliver on his clean government pledges, and that his pro-India leanings had undermined the country’s sovereignty.

Muizzu’s victory, with 54% of the vote, is widely seen as a loss for New Delhi and a win for Beijing, which now appears to have an opportunity to regain its foothold in the strategically situated Indian Ocean archipelago.

But while Muizzu is known as pro-China, South Asian diplomats based in the capital say that his style may lead to a balanced diplomatic tone rather than a strident one. “Maldivians feel that [Muizzu] would be able to keep Maldives on an even keel, moving away from Solih’s ‘India first’ policy,” one senior envoy told Nikkei Asia, on condition of anonymity.

Muizzu said after his victory that voters had chosen to “win back Maldives independence.” Solih congratulated his rival on X, thanking the public for its “beautiful democratic example.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sent his congratulations, writing on X that “India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.”

The election result had been foreshadowed by Muizzu’s surprising performance in the first round on Sept. 9, when he led the pack of eight contestants with 46% of the vote. Solih trailed in second place, at 39%, despite being the front-runner in opinion polls.

By early afternoon on Saturday, there were further signs of a shift in sentiment within South Asia’s smallest democracy. Crowds of Muizzu supporters gathered outside polling stations in the capital, Male, where he has been serving as mayor.

“Maldivian TV is saying more people are voting and that is because of support for Muizzu,” a 47-year-old owner of a clothing shop said, declining to be identified. “There are two reasons for change — the president is too close to India and his government has corruption problems.”

The India-China contest for influence over the Maldives has increased the diplomatic significance of the country of 1,200 islands and atolls, better known globally for its high-end tourist resorts. Soon after Solih won the previous election in 2018, India began pouring in millions of dollars’ worth of development assistance, aiming to counter China’s inroads during the previous presidency of Abdulla Yameen.

On the eve of the latest elections, Washington opened a new U.S. mission in the Maldives, adding to a growing list of Western governments that had, previously, kept an eye on the country from neighboring Sri Lanka — another hotbed of Indian-China competition.

During the campaign, seven candidates running against Solih pushed anti-India messages, questioning New Delhi’s security footprint in the islands, which straddles busy shipping lanes in waters where China has been expanding its naval presence. Solih had opened himself up to such attacks by embracing an “India first” policy to mark a clear break from the pro-China stance of Yameen, in whose government Muizzu had been a minister.

Clearly wary of the anti-Indian tempo of the campaign, Solih and Lt. Gen. Abdullah Shamaal, the head of the country’s small defense force, denied that they had allowed New Delhi too much influence. Critics zeroed in on military assets that India had provided Male, including two helicopters and a small aircraft to boost the Maldivian coast guard, along with an estimated 75 Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives to operate and maintain the aircraft.

Shamaal insisted that “there is no place, no military base, where the Maldives army does not have authority.”

Yet, such appeals to Maldivian patriotism did little to keep the public on the side of Solih, whose Maldivian Democratic Party also enjoys a commanding majority in the parliament. The soft-spoken 61-year-old secured 46.2% of the ballots in Saturday’s polls, which saw 86% turnout among 2,082,804 registered voters, according to preliminary estimates.

The turnout figure was up from 79% in the first round, which had been the lowest in a presidential contest since the Maldives held its first multiparty presidential elections in 2008, as it transitioned toward democracy.

Besides the India question, seasoned observers reckon Solih made a strategic misstep during the campaign by attempting to jog voters’ memories of the authoritarian grip that had characterized the Yameen presidency.

Yameen is currently serving an 11-year prison term for accepting bribes and laundering money during his term from 2013 to 2018. That period that saw China pump millions of dollars to fund infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative.

But despite their differences, some say Solih did not do enough during his term to separate himself from Yameen.

“Solih’s government did not distinguish itself much from the Yameen government, as far as the general public was concerned,” Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldivian foreign minister, told Nikkei Asia.

“In fact, in regard to rule of law and accountability, the Solih government has fared worse, while also being equally if not more corrupt and more inefficient,” he argued.

Yameen’s hopes of an eleventh-hour judicial reprieve that would allow him to run in the September elections were dashed by a ruling that barred him from contesting. This opened the way for the 45-year-old Muizzu to secure the nomination of the pro-China Progressive Alliance coalition, which includes Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives and Muizzu’s People’s National Congress party.

Residents in Male say that Muizzu, a British-educated civil engineer, appealed to many voters because of his record as a technocrat as well.

Besides previously serving as housing minister, he was picked by Yameen to handle the infrastructure portfolio. This period saw the construction of a $200 million, China-funded bridge connecting Male with the island on which the country’s international airport sits.

Now, the question is just how far Muizzu’s government might tilt toward Beijing. The senior envoy who spoke with Nikkei suggested talk of a dramatic move in China’s favor might be overblown.

“This would not necessarily entail an overtly pro-China shift,” the envoy said, “but a more nuanced posture in trying to maximize economic benefits by constructive engagement with both India and China.”