Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has declared victory in the Maldives’ presidential election Sunday, following a controversial campaign observers said was rigged in favor of strongman President Abdulla Yameen.
Solih had the backing of a united opposition trying to oust Yameen but struggled for visibility with the electorate, with local media fearful of falling afoul of heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions.
“I call on Yameen to respect the will of the people and bring about a peaceful, smooth transfer of power,” Solih said on television, shortly after interim results from the country’s election commission gave him an unassailable 58 percent of the popular vote.
He also urged the incumbent to immediately release scores of political prisoners.
Yameen, who was widely tipped to retain power, had jailed or forced into exile almost all of his main rivals.
Before polls opened, police raided the campaign headquarters of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and searched the building for several hours in a bid to stop what they called “illegal activities”. There were no arrests.
Mohamed Nasheed, the head of Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party, said the vote would “bring the country back to the democratic path”.
Yameen would have no option but to concede defeat, said Nasheed, who was elected president of a newly-democratic Maldives in 2008 but currently lives in exile.
“He will not have people around him who will support him to fight on and stay,” he told AFP.
The poll is being closely watched by regional rivals India and China, who are jostling to influence Indian Ocean nations. The European Union and United States, meanwhile, have threatened sanctions if the vote is not free and fair.
Many voters across the Indian Ocean archipelago said they stood in line for over five hours to cast their ballots, while expatriate Maldivians voted in neighboring Sri Lanka and India.
The Election Commission said balloting was extended by three hours until 7:00 pm (1400 GMT) because of technical glitches suffered by tablet computers containing electoral rolls, with officials using manual systems to verify voters’ identities.
An election official said the deadline was also extended due to heavy voter turnout.
Yameen voted minutes after polling booths opened in the capital Male, where opposition campaign efforts had been frustrated by a media crackdown and police harassment.
Local observers said the balloting itself went off peacefully and most of the delays were due to technical issues.