Maldives: Election officials hail strong turnout as polls close | News | DW | 23.09.2018
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Maldives: Election officials hail strong turnout as polls close

Sunday's presidential election in the tourist paradise has seen strongman and China-friendly incumbent, Yameen Abdul Gayoom, accused of vote rigging. The opposition's headquarters were raided on election eve.

Voting in the Maldives presidential election ended later than expected on Sunday, after polling stations were ordered to stay open for an extra three hours to deal with a large voter turnout.

An election official blamed technical glitches involving electronic voting registers as long queues formed in some areas, while the opposition accused the government of vote rigging.

Early estimates put the turnout at more than 70 percent. First results are expected at 10 p.m. local time (1700 UTC).

Sunday's vote was held amid concerns about the failure of the Indian Ocean archipelago's democratic reforms just a decade after Maldivians took to the streets and successfully overturned 30 years of authoritarian rule.

Incumbent President Yameen Abdul Gayoom is seeking a second term, having ruled with an iron fist since he won the country's second multi-party elections in 2013.

His government has forced major political rivals into exile and rolled back press and individual freedoms.

In the latest crackdown, police raided the main campaign office of the opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on Saturday, saying they had acted to prevent "illegal activities."

Robert Hilton, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, wrote on Twitter that the raid "calls into question the government's commitment to a free and fair election." Britain's Ambassador to the Maldives, James Dauris, also expressed concern at the raid.

Read more: Maldives seek to project calm but tourists told to stay away

Opposition's consensus candidate

Solih, a longtime politician, was nominated by an alliance of opposition parties, looking to thwart Yameen's attempt at a second term. Solih has vowed to fully restore democracy to the country with a 400,000-strong population.

Meanwhile, Yameen's supporters point to strong economic growth under his leadership, partly due to aid and investment from China, who considers the Maldives a key cog in its "Belt and Road" project along ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia.

The new $200 million (€170 million) China-Maldives Friendship Bridge — partly funded by Chinese aid — and which runs from the airport to Male, was opened last month to huge fanfare.

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China's intentions questioned

Beijing's increasing influence is causing anxiety in the West and in New Delhi, as India has been the longtime dominant power in South Asia.

Exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, who lost out to Yameen in a controversial election run-off five years ago, has warned that Sunday's vote is the last chance to extricate his country from Chinese control, which he described as a land grab in the guise of investments.

In 2015, Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in jail under the Maldives' anti-terrorism laws on charges widely seen as politically motivated. He fled to neighboring Sri Lanka.

Nasheed's vice president, meanwhile, is serving a 33-year sentence for what authorities called a failed assassination attempt on Yameen.

The former president has warned that Yameen would "lose the election" but "hold onto power" after rigging the electoral process.

Read more: Maldives political crisis: 'worst in its modern history'.

EU observers snub poll

Despite the election commission saying ahead of Sunday's vote that the country was fully prepared to hold a free and fair election, the European Union said it had not sent observers to oversee the poll because of the failure to meet the basic conditions for monitoring.

As well as China's increasing influence, the Maldives' 1,200 islands are at risk from rising sea levels as a result of climate change. It is the country with the lowest ground-level elevation in the world, at an average of 1.5 meters (4 feet 11 inches) above sea level.

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mm/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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