Opposition candidate takes lead in Maldives presidential election

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Male: Maldivian polling workers open a ballot box to count votes at the end of the presidential election day in Male, Maldives, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018. (AP/PTI)

Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has taken a 16 percentage point lead over incumbent Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives’ presidential election, according to early provisional counts reported by local media.

Yameen was expected to cement his grip on power amid criticism over the fairness of the vote on the islands best known as a luxury holiday destination.

Voting closed at 1900 hours (1400 GMT), after the Indian Ocean nation’s Election Commission extended voting by three hours because of long queues at polling stations.

The provisional results counted in 433 of 472 ballot boxes as of 1843 GMT showed the opposition leading by a margin of 16.6 per cent, news website Mihaaru reported. The provisional results for the remaining 9 per cent of the vote have yet to be announced.

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Maldives’ opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih casts his vote at a polling station during presidential election day in Male, Maldives, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018. (AP Photo)

Read | Maldives voters flock to polls despite political turmoil

The opposition said that its own exit polls showed its candidate had secured 63 per cent of vote, adding that the count was being monitored closely. Officials from Yameen’s PPM party told Reuters that results from areas where he has strong support have yet to be released.

“If we win or lose, PPM has the courage to accept the decision of Maldivian people,” the ruling party’s parliamentary leader MP Ahmed Nihan wrote on Twitter.The Muslim-majority Indian Ocean nation has become a theatre of rivalry between its traditional partner, India, and China, which has backed Yameen’s infrastructure drive, and prompted concern in the West about Beijing’s increasing influence.

Peolple stand in line as they wait to cast their votes at a polling station during the presidential election in Male, Maldives September 23, 2018. (Reuters)

Yameen’s government has jailed many of his main rivals, including former president and his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on charges ranging from terrorism to corruption.

International monitors stay away

Most poll monitors, including those from the European Union and United Nations, declined the government’s invitation to observe the election, fearing their presence might be used to endorse Yameen’s re-election even after possible vote rigging.

Rohana Hettiarachchi, a member of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which was named as an election monitor, said his organisation could not take part.

“Our four members were invited and the Election Commission published our name in the international monitors list. But we did not get the required visa,” he told Reuters.

Transparency Maldives, one of the few election monitors on the ground, said the initial vote had gone smoothly and that Solih was on course for an emphatic victory.

“Our quick count results indicate that Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has won the 2018 presidential election by a decisive margin,” it said in a statement. “We call on all stakeholders to maintain an environment conducive for a peaceful transfer of power.”

Opposition candidate Solih told supporters he was confident of victory.

“I appeal to everyone not to allow any space for unrest tomorrow,” he 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.”

Yameen also urged voters to head to the polls and 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 country has been in political turmoil since February, when Yameen imposed a state of emergency to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the convictions of nine opposition leaders, including Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically-elected leader and former president.

Yameen has disregarded calls from the United Nations, several Western countries and India for an amicable solution to the crisis.

Ahead of the vote, Human Rights Watch urged foreign governments to press the Maldives to uphold democratic rights.

“Should the Maldives government fail to do so, they should impose targeted sanctions, such as those proposed by the European Union, against senior ruling party officials implicated in abuses,” the New York-based group said in a statement.

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