Brisk polling in keenly contested Maldives presidential vote

Voters flaunt the electoral ink on their finger after they cast their vote at a polling station in Male on 9 September 2023, during the 2023 presidential election. Polling began on 9 September in the Maldives' presidential vote, officials said, with incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih facing a tough re-election bid.

Voters went to polls in the Maldives on Saturday with incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih facing a tough re-election bid in the Indian Ocean nation of coral atolls.

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.

Solih, 61, and his main rival Mohamed Muizzu, the mayor of Male, were among those voting early in the capital island Male where schools were turned into polling stations.

Both men had ended their campaigning with rallies in the capital.

Solih, who was dressed in a yellow T-shirt and cap, the colours of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), addressed a large gathering.

The 45-year-old Muizzu, a proxy of jailed opposition leader and former president Abdulla Yameen attended a mass rally marking the end of a short campaign.

Convicted prisoners in the Maldives can vote but Yameen did not register to vote at his Maafushi high security prison, officials said. Five ballot boxes are at prisons.

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

Eight candidates are contesting for the top job in the nation of 1,192 coral islets, scattered in a long line stretching some 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the Indian Ocean.

Party split

"We have registered nearly 40 per cent turnout in the first half of polling," an election official told reporters in Male. "The process is orderly, lot of people turned up even before booths opened."

He said they expected around 80 to 90 per cent of the 282,000 electorate to turn out.

Solih polled 58.3 per cent at the previous election in 2018, but this time his party has split, with another candidate in the running.

After his shock victory five years ago, 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.

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 30 September.

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.