Male, Sep 24 (AP/UNB) — Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih declared victory early Monday in the Maldives' contentious presidential election, which was widely seen as a referendum on the island nation's young democracy.
The win was unexpected, and Solih's supporters flooded the streets, hugging one another, waving the Maldivian flag, cheering and honking horns in celebration. The opposition had feared the election would be rigged for strongman President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, whose first term was marked by a crackdown on political rivals, courts and the media. Yameen did not concede, and his campaign couldn't be reached for comment.
"People were not expecting this result. Despite the repressive environment, the people have spoken their minds," said Ahmed Tholal, a former member of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives and a project coordinator at the nonprofit watchdog Transparency Maldives.
Solih, 56, was a democracy activist during decades of autocratic rule and a former Parliament majority leader. He became the Maldivian Democratic Party's presidential candidate after its other top figures were jailed or exiled by Yameen's government.
Party leader and former President Mohamed Nasheed, in exile in Sri Lanka, had hoped to run again but was disqualified because of an outstanding prison sentence in the Maldives.
Famed for its sandy white beaches and luxury resorts, the nation of islands and atolls in the southern Indian Ocean has seen economic growth and longer life expectancy under Yameen, according to the World Bank. But democratic freedoms have been curtailed.
Solih campaigned door to door, promising at rallies to promote human rights and the rule of law, a message that resonated with voters who saw signs the Maldives were slipping back to autocratic rule, just a decade after achieving democracy.
"Ibu is totally different from Yameen, because Yameen is a dictator and a brutal person. Ibu is a very mild person who listens to everyone," said Ahamed Fiasal, a 39-year-old IT business owner, using Solih's nickname.
Still, Fiasal said, the result was surprising because "no one thought that Yameen would lose like this. He had all the power — the judiciary, the police, the security forces under him. It seemed he might rig the election even at the last minute and would win somehow or the other."
But Solih had 58.3 percent of the vote with nearly 97.5 percent of ballots counted early Monday, according to independent news website mihaaru.com.
A spokesman for Maldives' Election Commission said official results would not be announced until Saturday, allowing a week for parties to challenge the results in court.
Solih, surrounded by thousands of his supporters in the capital city of Male, urged calm until the commission had announced the results.
In his victory speech, Solih called the election results "a moment of happiness, hope and history," but said that he did not think the election process had been transparent.
A police raid on Solih's main campaign office the night before the election was seen as a worrying sign that Yameen would "muzzle his way" to re-election, according to Hamid Abdul Gafoor, an opposition spokesman and former Maldives lawmaker now based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The European Union had said that it was not sending election observers because the Maldives had failed to meet the basic conditions for monitoring. The U.S. had threatened to sanction Maldivian officials if the elections were not free and fair.
The State Department congratulated the people of the Maldives for having a peaceful, democratic vote. The statement from spokesperson Heather Nauert noted the reported opposition victory and urged "calm and respect for the will of the people" as the election process was being concluded.
Few foreign media organizations were allowed into the country to cover the election.
Yameen used his first term to consolidate power, jailing opponents, including his half brother, a former president, and two Supreme Court Justices.
In February, Yameen declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and ordered troops to storm the Supreme Court and arrest judges after they had ordered the release and retrial of those jailed after politically motivated trials.
Despite the turmoil, voters flocked to the polls on Sunday, standing in long lines in rain and high temperatures to cast ballots.
More than 260,000 of the Maldives' 400,000 people were eligible, and voters also stood in long lines in Malaysia, the U.K., India and Sri Lanka, where the opposition had encouraged overseas Maldivians to participate.
Male, Sept 23 (AP/UNB) — A raid on the opposition's main campaign office and the specter of U.S. sanctions on government officials were not deterring thousands of people from heading to the polls Sunday to vote in the Maldives' presidential election, widely seen as a referendum on the island nation's young democracy.
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 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.
Opposition supporters in the Maldives and in neighboring Sri Lanka, where former President Mohamed Nasheed is living in exile, decried the raid as a naked attempt to rig the vote in favor of Yameen.
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.
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, who 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.
Male, Sep 23 (AP/UNB) — Huge crowds flocked to closely guarded polling stations on Sunday to vote in the Maldives' third multiparty presidential elections, widely seen as a referendum on the island nation's young democracy.
Both President Yameen Abdul Gayoom and the opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, voted in the capital, Male, shortly after polls opened.
More than 260,000 of the 400,000 Maldivians were eligible to vote at about 400 polling stations across the islands that comprise the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Observers from Transparency Maldives said in a statement late Sunday morning that opening procedures "went well," with nearly all of the polling stations opening within 30 minutes of the scheduled opening time.
Hundreds waited in line as a light rain fell in Maldives' capital, Male.
Voters debated the relative merits of the two candidates in front of a polling station at the Imauddin School.
Aviation worker Mohamed Ismail, 23, said he cast his ballot for Solih because "people live in fear" under strongman President Yameen, who has been criticized for cracking down on democratic freedoms.
"Look around. People are moving freely," countered Adam Thaufeeg, a 40-year-old government employee, who said he voted for Yameen because of his vision for developing the Maldives.
An election-eve police raid of Solih's main campaign office cast a pall over Sunday's elections.
A police warrant obtained by The Associated Press cited police intelligence that Solih's campaign office may have been used to coordinate vote-buying. Senior campaign official Ahmed Shahid was named in the warrant as a suspect. Repeated calls to Shahid went unanswered.
The raid Saturday was the latest sign of a government crackdown against the opposition, raising fears that the election may be rigged to favor Gayoom's party.
Gayoom 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.
"In view of events in Maldives," the country's British ambassador, James Dauris, tweeted Saturday, "it's easy to understand why so many people are concerned about what might happen on Election Day."
The polls close at 4 p.m. and results are expected after 10 p.m., election officials have said.
Jakarta, Sep 23 (AP/UNB) — Campaigning for Indonesia's presidential election officially began Sunday with the two contenders releasing white doves and vowing a peaceful race as concerns simmer the campaign will sharpen religious and ethnic divides.
The election due in April pits incumbent Joko "Jokowi" Widodo against former general and ultranationalist Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Jokowi in 2014.
Dressed in traditional clothing, the candidates and their running mates paraded through central Jakarta on Sunday and released doves at a ceremony after reading out a peaceful campaign declaration.
The 2014 presidential election was marred by dirty campaigning and wild internet rumors that Jokowi was a secret communist and of Chinese background, accusations often used in Indonesia to discredit or intimidate political opponents.
Jokowi, the first Indonesian president from outside the country's political and military elite, has picked conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate, aiming to neutralize criticism that he is insufficiently Muslim.
He has a big but not unassailable lead over Prabowo in polls and Indonesia's recent hosting of the Asian Games further burnished his image.
With a population of more than 260 million, Muslim majority Indonesia is the world's third-largest democracy after India and the U.S. The country's image as a moderate Muslim nation has been undermined by flaring intolerance in the past several years, from the imprisonment of Jakarta's Christian governor, who was a Jokowi ally, for blasphemy to the canings of gay men in Aceh, a province that practices Shariah law.
Most of Jokowi's five-year term has been spent balancing the demands of his moderate base, powerful Islamic conservatives, a complicated parliamentary coalition and the military, which has never completely accepted its diminished role following the end of the Suharto dictatorship two decades ago.
Upgrading Indonesia's creaking infrastructure has been his signature policy but progress is uneven and many Indonesians still yearn for the strong-man type leadership represented by Suharto era figures such as Prabowo.
La Guaira, Sep 23 (AP/UNB)— A Chinese navy hospital ship docked near Venezuela's capital on Saturday as the OPEC nation's deepening economic crisis garners the attention of the U.S. and other world powers.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino was on hand to greet the People's Liberation Army Navy's ship, the Peace Ark, on its latest stop as part of the 11-nation "Mission Harmony" tour announced in June.
"This is how you undertake diplomacy in the world," Padrino said, "with concrete actions of cooperation and not stoking the false voices of those who beat the drum of war."
Interest in the goodwill visit has been building since the Pentagon announced in August it was sending its own hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to neighboring Colombia to provide free medical treatment for thousands of Venezuelan migrants fleeing their homes amid widespread food and medicine shortages.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in a visit to Colombia last month, called the ship's deployment a humanitarian mission to deal with the fallout of President Nicolas Maduro's mismanagement of the economy. The United Nations estimates that 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the crisis-torn country in recent years, mainly to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil.
But top officials in Venezuela's socialist government saw the Comfort's deployment as a threat, part of an effort by the U.S. to pave the way for a military intervention on humanitarian grounds.
Padrino on Saturday said the Chinese boat's visit was part of the government's "strategic defense operation."
The Peace Ark's humanitarian tours around the world have become a sign of China's outreach efforts and Beijing's ambitions of gradually expanding its military influence abroad.
The ship, which has 300 beds, eight operation rooms and a medical helicopter, has carried out such missions to more than 40 countries provided free medical services for more than 180,000 people since it was commissioned in 2008.
Such goodwill visits have been the mainstay of U.S. diplomacy in Latin America for decades.
The Chinese ship has twice before visited Latin America, in 2011 and 2015, but never has stopped in Venezuela. It will also visit the Caribbean island of Grenada and Ecuador on its current deployment.
Maduro, who came back a week ago from a visit to China where he sought fresh investment and financing from one of Venezuela's top ally, said on Twitter that the boat will stay in Venezuela for about a week.