MALE - People in the Maldives were voting on Saturday in a closely contested election for president of the Indian Ocean archipelago, seen as a battle for influence between India and China.

President Ibrahim Solih, seeking a second five-year term in the Indian Ocean tourist destination, has championed an "India-first" policy during his time in power. He appears to be slightly ahead in the polls.

The coalition backing his main rival, Mohamed Muizzu, has a record of being close to China and has launched an "India out" campaign, promising to remove a small Indian military presence of several surveillance aircraft and some 75 personnel.

Muizzu entered the fray after former President Abdulla Yameen was banned from contesting the election by the Supreme Court in August following a conviction for corruption and money laundering.

Polls close at 4 p.m. (1100 GMT), with final results expected on Sunday if the race is close. If no candidate secures a majority, a second-round vote on Sept. 30 would decide the winner.

About half the country's 520,000 people were expected to vote on Saturday. Thousands turned out early at over 570 polling stations across 187 islands. Maldivians were also voting at polling stations in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia. They will also vote at polling stations in Britain and Abu Dhabi.

"All polling stations are open and voting has begun. We thought turnout might be low during the early stages. However, we have been surprised with many people queuing very early," Fuwad Thowfeek, the president of the Elections Commission told Reuters. "So far, everything is moving smoothly without any disruptions or delays."

A poll of 384 people published last month by the Baani Center think tank found that 21% of respondents favoured Solih compared with 14% supporting Muizzu.

Three weeks before the vote, 53% were undecided, the organisation said in a statement. "This month's poll has seen the most 'undecideds' since Baani began its monthly poll in April."

(Reporting by Mohamed Junayd; Writing by Uditha Jayasinghe; Editing by Nick Macfie and William Mallard)