Keenly contested Maldives presidential vote begins

Commuters in the Maldives make their way along a street decorated ahead of the country's presidential election (Mohamed Afrah)
Commuters in the Maldives make their way along a street decorated ahead of the country's presidential election (Mohamed Afrah)

Polling began Saturday in the Maldives' presidential vote, officials said, with incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih facing a tough re-election bid.

Solih is seeking a second term in a poll that has turned into a referendum on his pursuit of renewed ties with India, the archipelago nation's traditional benefactor.

About a quarter of the 574 polling booths are in the capital Male, with others on the chain of tiny coral islets scattered in a long line across the Indian Ocean, stretching for some 800 kilometres (500 miles).

"We saw dozens of people lining up even before the booths opened," an election official at the Aminiya School polling booth in the capital said.

Just over 282,000 people are eligible to vote, with eight candidates in the running.

Convicted prisoners in the Maldives can vote but the most high-profile prisoner, opposition leader and former president Abdulla Yameen, has not registered to do so.

Yameen is serving an 11-year sentence following his corruption conviction in December.

Solih is facing stiff competition from Yameen's proxy, Mohamed Muizzu, mayor of Male.

Solih polled 58.3 percent at the previous election, but this time his party has split, with another candidate in the running.

After his shock victory in 2018, Solih moved swiftly to repair relations with New Delhi strained under Yameen, who banked on China for loans and diplomatic support.

During his autocratic five-year tenure, Yameen borrowed heavily from China for construction projects, making the nation -- better known for upscale beach tourism and celebrity travellers -- a hotbed of geopolitical rivalry.

The elections commission urged citizens to vote early, although polling will run for eight hours.

Election officials said they expected results to be announced late Sunday.

If no candidate wins a majority of votes, a run-off is scheduled for September 30.

Balloting also takes place in overseas locations with large Maldivian populations, such as Trivandrum in the southern Indian state of Kerala, as well as in the capitals of Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Britain and the United Arab Emirates.