NEW DELHI — The Maldives, the isolated scattering of islands caught in a geopolitical struggle between China, India and the West, were thrust into more uncertainty Sunday when voters appeared to have ousted the country’s autocratic president.
With votes still being tallied, local news organizations reported that Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the opposition candidate, had beaten President Abdulla Yameen. Mr. Solih won 58 percent of the vote with about 97 percent of ballots counted, according to the independent news website mihaaru.com. Transparency Maldives, an election watchdog, said he had won “by a decisive margin.”
As Mr. Solih declared victory and his supporters danced in the street, observers held their breath as they waited to see what Mr. Yameen would do next.
His campaign had yet to concede by early Monday morning, and a spokesman for the Maldives’ Election Commission said official results would not be announced for a week, according to Reuters.
“This is a moment of happiness, this is a moment of hope, this is a moment of history,” Mr. Solih said at a news conference at midnight. He said, “I would like to call upon Yameen and ask him to respect the will of the people and to immediately begin the smooth transition of power as per the Constitution and the law.”
With Mr. Yameen hoping to solidify his hold on power with a second term, the opposition had warned that the Maldives’ nascent democracy was at stake in the election. Accusations of fraud have plagued both sides.
As polling stations opened on Sunday, lines of voters snaked down streets in the Maldives and in countries with large Maldivian communities, like Sri Lanka, suggesting a high turnout.
Lying southwest of India, and stretching across maritime routes that are crucial to China, the Maldives has been caught up in recent years in Beijing’s growing global ambitions, which the United States and its allies have struggled to contain.
China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the Maldives, which critics, including the political opposition, warn amount to “debt-trap diplomacy” that weighs down the recipient country with loans in order to secure a naval base as repayment. The governments of both countries reject that assessment.
Even before the elections on Sunday, Mr. Yameen had been accused of rigging them, forcing employees of state-owned companies to vote for his party, stacking the election commission with loyalists, locking up opposition leaders and canceling voter registrations.
On Saturday night, the police raided the opposition’s office in the capital, Malé, citing evidence of vote-buying. This month, the police said they had unraveled a plot to “create the false impression that the election will not be free and fair,” which Western diplomats warned could be used to annul the elections if the governing party does not win.
The United States said this month that it would impose sanctions on Maldivian officials if the elections are not free and fair. But both the European Union and United States declined to send teams to monitor the voting, wary of appearing to condone them.
The election pitted Mr. Yameen’s governing Progressive Party against a unified opposition led by Mr. Solih, a senior lawmaker from the Maldivian Democratic Party. The Maldives became a democracy in 2008, when it held its first vote to elect a president directly.
Mr. Yameen came to power in 2013, after elections monitored by more than 100 international observers. Since then, he has jailed his political opponents, including his half brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who led the country for 30 years until opening it up in 2008, and Muhammed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president.
The opposition rallied behind Mr. Solih after many opposition leaders, including Mr. Nasheed, fled into exile.
Many observers had said the opposition would win if there were a level playing field.
For the first time in three years, it was permitted this month to hold a rally, after the government came under pressure for not issuing permits in the past. Around 10,000 people attended, about twice as many as at the governing party’s rallies, though in the past the government has used force to stifle protests and dismissed dissenters as terrorists.
“There is a huge popular groundswell in favor of change,” said Mr. Solih’s campaign manager, Mariya Ahmed Did. “President Yameen was not given a mandate to trample all over Maldivian democracy and our Constitution, but that is what he has done these past five years.”
She said, “The Maldives risks becoming just another banana republic.”
Mr. Yameen’s campaign manager, Adhlee Ismail, denied in a brief telephone interview that the elections had been rigged.
The Chinese government has been a consistent supporter of Mr. Yameen despite his crackdown on dissent. In February, Beijing sent a naval force to linger off the coast of Malé after Mr. Yameen sent troops to burst into the Supreme Court and jailed two of its justices after they overturned the convictions of opposition politicians. Mr. Yameen then declared a state of emergency and prevented Parliament from meeting for a while.
Even if Mr. Yameen were to lose, China’s influence would not simply be rolled back, some observers say. The United States and India are unwilling or unable to match the billions of dollars Beijing has invested in cash-starved regions of South Asia as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. China is spending about $62 billion in Pakistan alone as part of the program, tilting another American ally further into its axis.
“If President Yameen loses, China will be able to work with the next leader, as it has shown in the case of Sri Lanka after the 2015 election,” said Nilanthi Samaranayake, a South Asia analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank based in Arlington, Va. For small nations in the region, China’s appeal as a source of money for development “transcends domestic politics,” she said.
Many in the Maldives and elsewhere are wary of China’s increasing military interests. Despite assurances to the contrary, Beijing has steadily bolstered its presence on a collection of disputed reefs in the South China Sea, eventually building bases there.
The Maldives, which is included in China’s One Belt, One Road plans, has received about $2 billion in Chinese loans that critics say will be difficult to repay. The Chinese initiative has been likened to the United States’ ambitious Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, but the Marshall Plan was mostly composed of grants rather than onerous loans, critics argue, and went toward economically viable projects.
Mr. Yameen has been racked by accusations of corruption, including reports that he plans to sell some of the 1,200 islands that make up the Republic of Maldives for his personal gain, a charge he has denied.
Although the Maldivian government said international journalists were welcome to report on elections, many — including from The New York Times — were unable to secure visas to enter the country.
Maria Abi-Habib reported from New Delhi, and Hassan Moosa from Malé, Maldives.