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Maldives Voters Flock to Polls         09/23 10:07

   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)

 
 
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