Opposition candidate takes lead in Maldives presidential election

* Opposition builds 16.6 percentage point lead -local media

* Exit poll shows 63 pct of votes for opposition -officials

* Voters queue from Saturday night; police raid opposition office

* Observers denounce repressive campaign, lack of transparency

* International monitors stay away, fearing vote-rigging (Updates latest results, adds election monitor and PPM quotes)

By Mohamed Junayd

MALE, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has taken a 16 percentage point lead over incumbent Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives' presidential election, according to early provisional counts reported by local media.

Yameen was expected to cement his grip on power amid criticism over the fairness of the vote on the islands best known as a luxury holiday destination.

Voting closed at 1900 hours (1400 GMT), after the Indian Ocean nation's Election Commission extended voting by three hours because of long queues at polling stations.

The provisional results counted in 433 of 472 ballot boxes as of 1843 GMT showed the opposition leading by a margin of 16.6 percent, news website Mihaaru reported. The provisional results for the remaining 9 percent of the vote have yet to be announced.

The opposition said that its own exit polls showed its candidate had secured 63 percent of vote, adding that the count was being monitored closely.

Officials from Yameen's PPM party told Reuters that results from areas where he has strong support have yet to be released.

"If we win or lose, PPM has the courage to accept the decision of Maldivian people," the ruling party's parliamentary leader MP Ahmed Nihan wrote on Twitter.

The Muslim-majority Indian Ocean nation has become a theatre of rivalry between its traditional partner, India, and China, which has backed Yameen's infrastructure drive, and prompted concern in the West about Beijing's increasing influence.

Yameen's government has jailed many of his main rivals, including former president and his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on charges ranging from terrorism to corruption.

POLLING STATION QUEUES

More than a quarter of a million people were eligible to vote across the coral islands. Yameen, 59, is seeking a second five-year term.

Hundreds of people queued outside polling stations in the capital, Male, early on Sunday. On some islands, people started queuing on Saturday night.

"I am voting to revert a mistake I made in 2013. I am voting to free President Maumoon (Gayoom)," Nazima Hassan, 44, told Reuters after voting in Male.

Abdul Rasheed Husain, 46, in Male said he cast his ballot for Yameen to take the Maldives "to the next level".

In the polling booth at the Maldives embassy in Colombo, some voters had to wait for more than seven hours.

Ahamed Ihusan, a 24-year-old business management student, told Reuters that "if it is a free and fair election, the opposition will win".

Many opposition supporters blamed the Election Commission for the delays.

"Yameen is trying to frustrate voters by having a shoddy process for the elections and a long waiting time of 6-8 hours in some stations. I appeal to all to be patient and not step back," an opposition supporter told Reuters, asking not to be named.

Mohamed Shareef Hussain, Maldives envoy to Colombo, said the Election Commission had not assigned enough staff, causing delays.

Police late on Saturday raided the main opposition campaign office saying they came to "stop illegal activities", after arresting at least five opposition supporters for "influencing voters", opposition officials said.

British Ambassador James Dauris wrote on Twitter that it was "easy to understand why so many people are concerned about what might happen on election day".

INTERNATIONAL MONITORS STAY AWAY

Most poll monitors, including those from the European Union and United Nations, declined the government's invitation to observe the election, fearing their presence might be used to endorse Yameen's re-election even after possible vote rigging.

Rohana Hettiarachchi, a member of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which was named as an election monitor, said his organisation could not take part.

"Our four members were invited and the Election Commission published our name in the international monitors list. But we did not get the required visa," he told Reuters.

Transparency Maldives, one of the few election monitors on the ground, said the initial vote had gone smoothly and that Solih was on course for an emphatic victory.

"Our quick count results indicate that Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has won the 2018 presidential election by a decisive margin," it said in a statement. "We call on all stakeholders to maintain an environment conducive for a peaceful transfer of power."

Opposition candidate Solih told supporters he was confident of victory.

"I appeal to everyone not to allow any space for unrest tomorrow," he told a rally on Saturday. "Let the voting end peacefully and let the people decide what they want. The people are hungry for a change."

Yameen also urged voters to head to the polls and said he was confident of the work he had done in his first term in office to put the nation on a path of development.

The country has been in political turmoil since February, when Yameen imposed a state of emergency to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the convictions of nine opposition leaders, including Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically-elected leader and former president.

Yameen has disregarded calls from the United Nations, several Western countries and India for an amicable solution to the crisis.

Ahead of the vote, Human Rights Watch urged foreign governments to press the Maldives to uphold democratic rights.

"Should the Maldives government fail to do so, they should impose targeted sanctions, such as those proposed by the European Union, against senior ruling party officials implicated in abuses," the New York-based group said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal Writing by Shihar Aneez and Sanjeev Miglani Editing by Nick Macfie and David Goodman)

First Published: 2018-09-23 06:16:48
Updated 2018-09-23 20:52:34


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