Maldives strongman eyes new term as monitors cry foul
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People in the Maldives vote Sunday in elections that international monitors and the opposition fear will be rigged to ensure that China-friendly strongman Abdulla Yameen remains in power.
Yameen has imprisoned or forced into exile all his main rivals.
He has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from China to build up infrastructure, alarming the nation's longtime backer India.
The EU 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 those undermining democracy in the country of 1,200 islands.
Some 260,000 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.
Foreign poll monitoring group the Asian Network for Free Elections said the campaign was heavily tilted in favour of the 59-year-old Yameen, who was seen before his rise to power as an unremarkable civil servant.
The group said it did not expect a fair contest.
"In the absence of any scrutiny (of the elections) or pressure (on the government), sombre events surely loom ahead for the people of Maldives," the monitors said on the eve of the vote.
In February, Yameen alarmed the international community by imposing a state of emergency, suspending the constitution and sending troops to stop members of parliament who were trying to impeach him.
The chief justice and a judge of the Supreme Court were jailed along with Yameen's half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, president for 30 years until 2008 and the man who helped Yameen come to power in 2013.
The UN said the arrest of judges was an "outright assault on democracy."
Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected president from 2008-12 but now in exile, called Friday for the international community to reject the election result.
"Mathematically, it is not possible for Yameen to win because all opposition parties are united against him. But the results they will announce will be different to what is actually in the ballot boxes," Nasheed said from Sri Lanka.
- Silence dissent -
Nasheed was forced to withdraw from the presidential race after the Maldives election commission disqualified him because of a 2015 terrorism conviction.
The United Nations said the conviction and 13-year jail sentence were politically motivated. Yameen's government has refused to abide by a UN ruling which ordered restitution and compensation to Nasheed.
A relatively unknown opposition politician, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, 54, is backed by Nasheed to try to beat Yameen. There are no other candidates.
However Solih has struggled for visibility with the electorate because the media is fearful of falling foul of heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions.
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.
On Saturday police briefly raided the campaign headquarters of the opposition, the opposition said.
"We are very worried about the situation. But we have trust in our people," Solih told reporters in Colombo during a visit to canvass support from the Maldivian community living in Sri Lanka.
Eligible voters in neighbouring Sri Lanka and India along with those in Malaysia are entitled to vote on Sunday. The results are expected by midday Monday.
A candidate must secure 50 percent of the vote to win outright, failing which there would be a run off three days later.
© 2018 AFP