Maldives leader looks to tighten grip as opposition muzzled
Maldives strongman Abdulla Yameen seeks a second term as president Sunday in a tourist paradise that has become a battleground for influence between regional giants India and China, and a source of global alarm over political oppression and a muzzling of the media.
With all his main rivals in prison or in exile, the odds appear stacked in the Beijing-friendly incumbent's favour, and warnings of punitive action from the international community have been flowing in even before a single ballot has been cast.
The EU has said it is ready to slap travel bans and asset freezes on individuals "if the situation does not improve", while the US has warned it would "consider appropriate measures" against people undermining democracy and rule of law.
India, long influential in Maldives affairs -- it sent troops and warships in 1988 to stop a coup attempt -- has also expressed misgivings.
But with China bankrolling Yameen's regime to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, his grip on the honeymoon archipelago of nearly 1,200 coral islands appears unlikely to loosen.
Battered by years of violent intimidation, spurious arrests and enforced exile, the opposition has united behind a joint candidate -- the little-known Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
But voters would be hard-pressed to notice, with heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions stifling a media already fearful of doing anything to offend the president of the Muslim nation of 340,000 people.
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.
"The election campaign reporting is severely restricted by the defamation law. This is not fair reporting, but we have no choice," one local journalist told AFP, preferring to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.
"We can't even use social media to talk about opposition politicians," the reporter said.
Even publishing photos of people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of jailed politicians is off-limits.
Few foreign journalists seeking to cover the election have been granted visas, and in many cases only at the last minute, anecdotal information suggests.
The opposition says that the result will be to reduce "independent scrutiny of the vote and President Yameen's likely attempts to steal it."
Activists told HRW that new rules could also hamper the ability of observers to follow the counting process, raising fears that the election will be rigged, the watchdog said.
- 'Assault on democracy' -
The accusations follow a familiar pattern for Yameen, 59, who was accused of grabbing power in controversial circumstances in 2013 when the Supreme Court annulled a vote count he was losing.
A subsequent poll was then delayed twice as Yameen forged new alliances before narrowly winning a contested run-off against ex-president Mohamed Nasheed -- now in exile following a 2015 terrorism conviction.
Meanwhile he has used cheap Chinese credit to invest in infrastructure, like the new "China-Maldives Friendship Bridge" and a major expansion of the main airport that originally India was to undertake.
Flanked by Chinese officials at the $200-million bridge's inauguration in August, Yameen hailed "the dawn of a new era".
But his close ties has raised fears that, like other countries enjoying Beijing's "Belt and Road Initiative" largesse, the Maldives may find itself in a Chinese debt trap.
Last year Sri Lanka, which like the Maldives straddles east-west maritime trade routes, granted China a 99-year lease on a new, $1.4-billion deep-sea port because it couldn't pay its debts.
Since taking office Yameen has also cracked down on dissent, imposing a 45-day state of emergency in February described by the UN human rights chief as "an all-out assault on democracy".
The drastic measures, taken after a court ordered that sacked MPs be restored and dissidents freed from jail, were seen by opponents as a move to head off attempts to impeach him.
Even family members have not been spared, with Yameen's half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom -- who was president from 1978 to 2008 -- subsequently arrested, along with the Maldives' chief justice and Supreme Court judges.
There have been allegations of corruption too, with a report this week claiming Yameen benefited from the lucrative leasing of islands and lagoons to developers. He has denied any involvement.
© 2018 AFP