MALE • The Maldives voted yesterday in an election in which hardline President Abdulla Yameen is expected to cement his grip on power, but which the opposition and international groups have criticised for a lack of transparency and suppression of dissent.
The Muslim-majority Indian Ocean nation has become a theatre of rivalry between its traditional partner India and China, which has backed Mr Yameen's infrastructure drive. This has prompted concern in the West about Beijing's increasing influence.
Mr Yameen's government has jailed many of his main rivals on charges ranging from terrorism to corruption.
More than a quarter of a million people were eligible to vote in around 400 polling booths across the coral islands, best known for their luxury resorts.
Mr Yameen, 59, is seeking a second five-year term.
Hundreds of people queued outside polling stations in the capital Male early yesterday. On some islands, people started queuing on Saturday night.
"I am voting to revert a mistake I made in 2013. I am voting to free (former) president Maumoon (Abdul Gayoom)," Ms Nazima Hassan, 44, told Reuters after casting her vote in Male.
Mr Abdul Rasheed Husain, 46, said he voted for Mr Yameen to take the Maldives "to the next level".
Late on Saturday, police raided the main opposition campaign office, saying they were there to "stop illegal activities", after arresting at least five opposition supporters for "influencing voters", opposition officials said.
Britain's Ambassador to Maldives James Duaris said in a Twitter message that it was "easy to understand why so many people are concerned about what might happen on election day".
Most poll monitors, including those from the European Union and the United Nations, declined the government's invitation to observe the election, fearing their presence might be used to endorse Mr Yameen's re-election, even after possible vote rigging.
Transparency Maldives, one of the few election monitors on the ground which had reiterated concerns about the fairness of the electoral rules, said the vote had gone smoothly.
"Observers concluded that the polling stations were set up to ensure a secret vote in the vast majority of cases (99 per cent). This was less clear in about 1 per cent of all cases observed. These polling stations will be closely watched."
The opposition's joint candidate, Mr Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, known as Ibu, told supporters he was confident of victory.
"I appeal to everyone not to allow any space for unrest tomorrow," the 54-year-old told a rally on Saturday. "Let the voting end peacefully and let the people decide what they want. The people are hungry for a change."
Mr Yameen, meanwhile, said he was confident of the work he had done in his first term in office to put the nation on a path of development.
The results are expected by today. A candidate must secure 50 per cent of the vote to win outright, failing which there will be a run-off three days later.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The presidential election is being closely watched after months of political turmoil in the paradise islands. Here are some things to know:
Q Who are the candidates running?
A Mr Abdulla Yameen, a once mild-mannered civil servant turned strongman president, is seeking a second term in office.
The 59-year-old has ruled with an iron fist since 2013. The free press has been cowed, the military used to stave off impeachment and most opponents - even his own half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was president for 30 years until 2008 - have been jailed.
In a power struggle in February, Mr Yameen launched what the United Nations called an "all-out assault on democracy", declaring a state of emergency and cracking down on dissent. At its height, he sent soldiers to storm the Supreme Court and arrest judges who had ordered the release of political prisoners. Emergency rule was not lifted for 45 days.
The opposition has fielded a joint candidate, the little-known Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, 54. But campaigning has been difficult for the movement, much of which operates in exile.
Mr Mohamed Nasheed, an exiled opposition figure, withdrew his candidacy after being barred from running. He was convicted of terrorism in 2015 in a trial widely viewed as politically motivated.
Q Who is likely to win?
A The odds are stacked in Mr Yameen's favour. Rights groups say his regime has used harsh fines and vague decrees to silence dissent and impose censorship in the lead-up to Polling Day.
Human Rights Watch says that new vote-counting rules adopted just days before the poll threatens to further shore up a Yameen victory, and deny Maldivians a right to choose.
Q Why does it matter?
A The Maldives is a hugely popular holiday destination, attracting nearly 1.4 million foreigners last year.
Election irregularities, or a repeat of February's political crisis, could see sanctions imposed. The European Union said in July it was ready to impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals if the situation did not improve.
The US State Department this month warned it would "consider appropriate measures" if the election was not free and fair.
There are also broader geopolitical concerns at play. The Maldives, like other smaller regional countries once firmly in India's orbit, has drifted closer to China in recent years, which has given hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to the atoll nation.