Maldives strongman concedes election defeat
AFP – The strongman president of the Maldives on Monday conceded defeat in elections, easing fears of a fresh political crisis in the archipelago at the centre of a battle for influence between India and China.
"The Maldivian people have decided what they want. I have accepted the results from yesterday," Abdulla Yameen said in a televised address to the Indian Ocean nation a day after the joint opposition candidate unexpectedly triumphed.
"Earlier today, I met with Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who the Maldivian electorate has chosen to be their next president. I have congratulated him," Yameen said.
There had been concerns at home and abroad that Yameen might not accept the outcome. He had borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from China for an infrastructure blitz, to the alarm of the Maldives’ traditional backer India.
At the last election in 2013, the Supreme Court annulled the result after Yameen trailed former president Mohamed Nasheed, giving Yameen time to forge alliances and win a second round of voting that was postponed twice.
Results from Sunday’s election released by the electoral commission showed Yameen on 41.7 percent of the vote, well behind Solih on 58.3 percent — the only other name on ballot papers.
The final official result will take up to a week to be published.
The result was a major surprise, with Yameen’s main political rivals either in prison or in exile, media coverage of the opposition sparse and monitors and the opposition predicting the vote would be rigged.
Yameen stayed quiet overnight after the outcome became clear. But signs grew Monday that he would throw in the towel, with a foreign ministry statement saying Solih had won and state media showing him claiming victory.
Nearly 90 percent of the 262,000 electorate turned out to vote, with some waiting in line for more than five hours.
Celebrations broke out across the 1,200-island tropical archipelago popular with wealthy foreign tourists, with opposition supporters waving yellow flags of Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and dancing in the streets.
The US State Department, which had warned of "appropriate measures" if the vote was not free and fair, had called on Yameen to "respect the will of the people".
Regional superpower India, competing with China to retain its influence in the region, was the first to "heartily congratulate" Solih.
"This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law," the foreign ministry said.
Sri Lanka, home to many Maldivian dissidents, also congratulated him but China was yet to comment, with Monday being a public holiday.
– Media fearful –
Solih had the backing of a united opposition trying to oust Yameen but struggled for visibility. The local media was fearful of falling foul of heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions.
In February Yameen imposed a 45-day state of emergency, alarming the international community, in what was seen as an attempt by his opponents in parliament to impeach him.
A crackdown saw former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — Yameen’s half-brother — jailed along with the Chief Justice and another Supreme Court justice amid accusations of an imminent coup.
On the eve of the poll, police raided the campaign headquarters of the MDP and searched the building for several hours in a bid to stop what they called "illegal activities". There were no arrests.
Nasheed told AFP in Colombo the vote would "bring the country back to the democratic path" and Yameen had no option but to concede defeat.
Independent international monitors were barred from the election and only a handful of foreign media were allowed in to cover the poll.
The Asian Network for Free Elections, a foreign monitoring group that was denied access to the Maldives, said the campaign had been heavily tilted in favour of 59-year-old Yameen.
The government had used "vaguely worded laws to silence dissent and to intimidate and imprison critics", some of whom had been assaulted and even murdered, according to Human Rights Watch.