Maldives Voters Flock to Polls

MALE, Maldives (AP) -- A raid on the opposition's main campaign office and the specter of U.S. sanctions on government officials did not deter thousands of people from voting Sunday in the Maldives' presidential election, widely seen as a referendum on the island nation's young democracy.

As officials began tabulating votes after the polls closed at 7 p.m., people in the Maldives and observers outside the tiny, tropical South Asian country waited for the results to see whether the opposition's cries of a rigged vote would be validated.

Famed for its white-sand beaches and luxury resorts, the Maldives under President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who is seeking re-election, has seen economic growth and longer life expectancy, according to the World Bank. But Yameen's critics, including the opposition presidential candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, say he has systematically rolled back democratic freedoms, jailing rivals and controlling the courts.

Aiman Rasheed of the independent watchdog group Transparency Maldives described Sunday's vote as "a referendum on authoritarianism versus freedom."

What's at stake in the small South Asian country came into sharp focus on Saturday, when police in Male, the capital, raided Solih's main campaign office, citing police intelligence that the office was being used to organize vote-buying, according to a copy of a police warrant obtained by The Associated Press.

The warrant also said that Solih's senior campaign official Ahmed Shahid was suspected of bribing voters. Repeated calls to Shahid went unanswered, but a Solih campaign spokesman said no one was arrested.

Opposition supporters in the Maldives and in neighboring Sri Lanka, where former President Mohamed Nasheed lives in exile, decried the raid as a naked attempt to rig the vote in favor of Yameen.

After several phone calls and messages, and a visit to Male police headquarters, police spokesman Ahmed Shiffan declined to answer the AP's questions about the raid.

Despite the turmoil, voters flocked to the polls, standing in long lines in rain and high temperatures to cast ballots. The polls were scheduled to close at 4 p.m., but opening hours were extended until 7 p.m. due to high voter turnout, said election commission spokesman Ahmed Akram.

Outside a polling station at the Imauddin School in Male, aviation worker Mohamed Ismail, 23, said he cast his ballot for Solih because "people live in fear" under strongman President Yameen, who took office in 2013.

Yameen used his first term in office to consolidate power, jailing opponents, including his half brother, a former president, and two Supreme Court Justices, and asserting control over the courts.

The European Union said Friday that it was not sending election observers because the Maldives had failed to meet the basic conditions for monitoring. The U.S. has threatened to sanction Maldivian officials if the elections are not free and fair.

"Look around. People are moving freely," said Adam Thaufeeg, a 40-year-old government employee. He said he voted for Yameen because of his vision for developing the Maldives.

More than 260,000 of the Maldives' 400,000 people were eligible to vote at about 400 polling stations across the islands that comprise the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Election officials said the first results could be announced late Sunday night.

(KA)