Voting was under way Sunday in the Maldives presidential election with the incumbent seeking to maintain his grip on power for the next five years, as observers and voters raised concerns about access and procedures.
President Abdulla Yameen is being challenged by the veteran opposition lawmaker Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Both men cast their votes within hours of the polls opening, although Solih appeared chirpier than his thunder-faced rival.
Dozens of people had gathered outside ballot centres before they opened in Malé and also in Colombo, which is home to a sizeable diaspora, and pictures of voting lines quickly flooded social media.
A Maldives Independent reporter at the scene in Kuala Lumpur estimated the crowd size to be in the hundreds, observing that the ruling party’s signature colour of hot pink was visible on the embassy building’s exterior.
The Elections Commission said voting was proceeding smoothly in the Maldives. But local NGO Women & Democracy said its observers were being denied access to ballot centres and that officials were breaching guidelines by not calling out names of voters or cross-checking names with those on the EC list.
People also worried about the weakness of the ink used to mark their fingers once votes had been cast, and about helplines not being answered.
“I hope the opposition wins,” former auditor general Niyaz Ibrahim told the Maldives Independent. “If Yameen does there are dark days ahead.”
There have been concerns for months about the election not being free or fair.
The government has presided over human rights abuses, a crackdown on the opposition and tightened its grip on the media through an anti-defamation law.
The roll-call of high-profile people Yameen has imprisoned or chased into exile since taking office include two former presidents (one of whom is also his ageing and poorly half-brother), two Supreme Court justices, two vice presidents, two defence ministers, leaders of opposition parties, lawmakers (one of whom is his nephew) and the country’s chief prosecutor.
Police searched Solih’s campaign office on Saturday, investigating “acts of bribery” to influence the election. But officers left before midnight empty-handed, according to eyewitnesses.
A document circulating on social media in the days leading up to the poll, purportedly from a top-ranking police officer in Malaysia, claimed Solih and another senior figure from the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party had deposited tens of millions of dollars into bank accounts in Kuala Lumpur last month. The document also said that other Maldivians were under investigation by Malaysian police.
A senior police source in Malaysia told the Maldives Independent the document was fake, but acknowledged it could look authentic to the untrained eye.