Maldives opposition candidate declares victory in high-stakes presidential election

Maldives opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih declared victory in the country’s presidential elections Sunday.

Solih said he won with a 16% margin after 92% of the votes were accounted for, according to Reuters.

“The will of people has spoken; and it has spoken decisively for change,” Solih said, according to state broadcaster PSM News.

Incumbent President Abdulla Yameen, who has been accused of cracking down on dissent and jailing opposition leaders, has not officially conceded.

In a televised press conference, Solih said his priority is to unite the country after such a contested election, and called upon the incumbent to ensure a peaceful political transition.

Transparency Maldives, an anti-corruption nongovernmental organization, acted as an observer during the elections and said its results also indicated Solih had won.

“Our quick count results indicate that Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has won the 2018 presidential election by a decisive margin. We call on all stakeholders to maintain an environment conducive for a peaceful transfer of power,” the organization posted on its Twitter account.

Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, who governed the country from 2008-2012, congratulated Solih in a message on his official Twitter account.

“You have done an extremely good service not only to the people of Maldives, but also to freedom loving people everywhere. Democracy is a historical inevitability,” Nasheed wrote.

Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party accused Yameen’s government of planning electoral fraud ahead of the election and several foreign monitoring groups criticized the freedom and fairness of the election.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) said the election was heavily in favor of the ruling party after crackdowns on critical media outlets and arrests of opposition figures.

Human Rights Watch also criticized the election process, citing Maldivian activists who say new changes to the vote counting process will complicate verification.

“Maldives authorities have detained critics, muzzled the media, and misused the Election Commission to obstruct opposition candidates to ensure President Yameen a victory on election day,” Human Rights Watch Asia Associate Director Patricia Gossman said in a statement.

Some 262,135 people were eligible to vote in Sunday’s election, according PSM News.

Criticism denied

The Maldives Elections Commission has denied criticism of its vote counting process.

“The Commission strongly refutes the allegations and calls upon all parties to refrain from disseminating such false information and unsubstantiated allegations that could create concern within the general public, and create concern amongst international partners and stakeholders, on the integrity of the Commission,” it said in a statement on September 19.

State of emergency

The Indian Ocean island nation, a popular tourist destination and home to about 400,000 people, has been engulfed in a political crisis since earlier this year when Yameen defied a Supreme Court ruling to reinstall opposition MPs and release political prisoners.

Opposition supporters staged street protests lobbying the government to obey the court order and urged the international community to help persuade the government to obey the ruling.

Yameen instead declared a state of emergency, giving him power to arrest and detain people, and setting off a power struggle between the Supreme Court and the government.

After the emergency declaration, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — Yameen’s half-brother — Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and another Supreme Court judge, Justice Ali Hameed, were arrested.

Amnesty International condemned their convictions for “obstructing justice” as politically motivated.

Yameen appointed a new chief justice in June.

US warning on democracy

Earlier this month, the US State Department said the elections “were of critical importance to the Maldives’ future.”

“The United States is concerned about continued democratic backsliding in Maldives, particularly as the country prepares for a presidential election on September 23,” spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement issued September 6.

“We join the international community in calling for the release of falsely accused political prisoners; full implementation of the Maldivian Supreme Court’s February ruling overturning the convictions of opposition members; an end to executive interference in the Parliament and judiciary; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and holding a free and fair election that reflects the will of the Maldivian people,” Nauert said.

She said without a return to a democratic path in the Maldives the US would “consider appropriate measures against those individuals who undermine democracy, the rule of law, and a free and fair electoral process.”