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#Maldives election: Voting begins in controversial poll

The Maldives has started to vote in a heavily-criticised election that will be closely watched by India and China.

The Indian Ocean archipelago is best-known overseas for its clear waters and high-end resorts but its government stands accused of crushing dissent.

President Abdulla Yameen has embraced China, while his opponent, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is seen as leaning towards India and the West.

The European Union and US have voiced concerns about the election.

Both have threatened to impose targeted sanctions if the democratic situation does not improve.

Police raided opposition headquarters on the eve of the vote, according to local reports.

The United States and United Kingdom condemned the police raid, with Robert Hilton, a US diplomat, saying it “calls into question the government’s commitment to a free and fair election”.

Polls opened at 08:00 (03:00 GMT) on Sunday.

The Maldives is made up of 26 coral atolls and 1,192 islands, and tourism is a vital part of its economy. More than 400,000 people live there but its future hangs in the balance due to climate change.

The archipelago has been gripped by political upheaval in recent years. In February the Supreme Court quashed the convictions of nine opposition figures, among them exiled ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted from office in 2012.

But after President Yameen declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of two judges, the court reversed its decision.

The move was seen as a sign that Mr Yameen – who is seeking to win another five-year term – would not tolerate any challenge to his rule and sparked criticism from Washington, London and New Delhi.

Some in India, meanwhile, called for an intervention in a small, neighbouring country once seen as firmly within its sphere of influence. Mr Nasheed also appealed for Indian military intervention.

The 59-year-old leader is running against Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a long-time member of parliament representing an opposition coalition of four parties, whose leaders are either in jail or exile.

“The clock is ticking. Our hearts are pounding,” Yameen told cheering supporters at a final rally in Male.

The crowd of thousands were gathered at the base of the country’s first bridge, built by Chinese loans and opened earlier this month.

Yameen, who is running on a platform of economic development and defence of faith and sovereignty, said the choice in Sunday’s poll was between Islam and “infidelity”.

The opposition, backed by “Christian priests”, were looking to undermine the Maldives‘ Sunni Muslim faith, he alleged, and warned them: “Don’t try to play with our nation, and our youth. Don’t try to change our thought. Don’t try to pollute our blood.”

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), in a statement on Saturday, said the “political environment in the country is heavily tipped in favour of the ruling party, as critical media are being subdued into silence, and opposition figures sentenced to jail terms or forced into exile for politically motivated charges”.

The election commission, chaired by a key ally of Yameen, has enforced new vote-counting rules that will prevent scrutiny of individual ballot papers, “threatening the sanctity of the ballot” , the group said.

Observers from ANFREL and dozens of foreign journalists who sought to monitor the election were denied visas to enter the country.

Ahmed Shareef, president of the election commission, assured reporters in Male that the vote will be fair as the national electoral body has “facilitated all requests by the opposition candidate”.

More than a quarter million people, out of a population of nearly 350,000, will be eligible to vote in the polls.

The Commission has set up as many as 472 ballot boxes, including in four polling stations abroad in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and UK.

Around 2,60,000 Maldivians will cast their vote on Sunday in the island nation’s third-ever multi party presidential election since 2008.

The European Union and the US have expressed concern over the vote, and threatened sanctions against rights violaters.

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