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Maldives strongman Yameen seeks second term amid fears of rigging

  • Published at 06:39 pm September 23rd, 2018
MALDIVES-ELECTION
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen prepares to cast his vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Male, Maldives September 23, 2018 Reuters

A candidate must secure 50% of the vote to win outright, failing which there would be a run off three days later, but since there are only two candidates there will be no second round

President Abdulla Yameen cast his ballot on Sunday in a controversial election in the Maldives just hours after police raided the opposition's campaign headquarters, fuelling fears the vote has been rigged in the China-friendly strongman's favour.

Yameen is expected to retain power and has imprisoned or forced into exile almost all his main rivals in a crackdown his critics say is returning the honeymoon island nation to authoritarian rule.

The process is being closely watched by regional rivals India and China, who are jostling to influence Indian Ocean nations. The European Union and United States, meanwhile, have threatened sanctions if the vote is not free and fair.

Yameen voted minutes after polling booths opened in the capital Male, where opposition campaign efforts had been frustrated by a media crackdown and police harassment.

Before polls opened, police raided the campaign headquarters of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and searched the building for several hours in a bid to stop what they called "illegal activities." There were no arrests.

Yameen's challenger, the relatively unknown Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, also cast his vote.

Solih has the backing of a united opposition trying to oust Yameen but struggled for visibility with the electorate because the media is fearful of falling foul of heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions.

Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected president of a newly-democratic Maldives in 2008 but now lives in exile, urged the international community to reject the results of the election.

There were long queues in Male and at embassies abroad, where the opposition had urged Maldivians to turn out and vote.

Some 262,000 people in the archipelago - famed for its white beaches and blue lagoons - can vote in an election from which independent international monitors have been barred.

Only a handful of foreign media have been allowed in.

Closely watched

The Asian Network for Free Elections, a foreign monitoring group that was denied access to the Maldives, said the campaign was heavily tilted in favour of the 59-year-old Yameen.

The government has used "vaguely worded laws to silence dissent and to intimidate and imprison critics," some of whom have been assaulted and even murdered, according to Human Rights Watch.

There have been warnings that Yameen could try and hold onto power at any cost.

In February he declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and ordered troops to storm the Supreme Court and arrest judges and other rivals to stave off impeachment.

Yameen, on the eve of the election, told supporters he had overcome "huge obstacles" since controversially winning power in a contested run-off in 2013 but had handled the challenges "with resilience."

The crackdown attracted international censure and fears the Maldives was slipping back into one-man rule just a decade after transitioning to democracy.

The US State Department this month said it would "consider appropriate measures" should the election fail to be free and fair.

The EU in July also threatened travel bans and asset freezes if the situation does not improve.

India, long influential in Maldives affairs - it sent troops and warships in 1988 to stop a coup attempt - also expressed hopes the election would represent a return to democratic norms.

However in recent years Yameen has drifted closer to Beijing, India's chief regional rival taking hundreds of millions of dollars for major infrastructure projects.

A candidate must secure 50% of the vote to win outright, failing which there would be a run off three days later, according to election laws, but since there are only two candidates there will be no second round.