Polls opened in the Maldives presidential election on Sunday amid concerns about the failure of the Indian Ocean archipelago’s democratic reforms.
Being held a decade after Maldivians took to the streets and successfully overturned 30 years of authoritarian rule, the vote is being widely described as heavily skewed in favor of incumbent President Yameen Abdul Gayoom.
Yameen, who won the country’s second multi-party elections in 2013, has ruled with an iron fist, rolled back press and individual freedoms, and forced major political rivals into exile.
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 Maldives James Dauris also expressed concern at the raid.
Opposition’s consensus candidate
Solih, a longtime politician, has been 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.
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.
EU observers snub poll
Despite the electoral 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.>