Maldives on brink after bitter presidential election battles | Election news

Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been declared the winner of a contested presidential primary, but his rival has yet to recognize the election amid allegations of electoral fraud, adding to political uncertainty in the popular Indian Ocean tourist destination.

The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said on Sunday that Solih won 61 percent of the vote, while his opponent Mohamed Nasheed collected 38 percent. The election – held on Saturday – was tense with at least five people arrested for disrupting voting and fights breaking out between rival factions in several polling stations.

The result was a blow to Nasheed, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 and was the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader. Nasheed had hoped for a comeback after a “terrorism” conviction, widely believed to be politically motivated, prevented him from running in the last presidential election.

Solih, who contested the 2018 vote instead of Nasheed, called for unity after Saturday’s primary.

Speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters in the Maldivian capital, Male, the incumbent leader urged his opponent to put his differences behind him.

“The firsts are over. Now is the time to unite and work together to win the presidential election for the MDP,” he said.

But Nasheed’s campaign said it was “still studying the results.”

In a brief statement released late Saturday, the campaign suggested fraud, saying: “We note that Nasheed is leading in most polls, and his opponent is ahead due to a few polls that were extremely over-voted.” Hours earlier, Nasheed’s spokesman, Hassan Latif, said their exit polls showed the former president would win 64 percent of the vote.

“Nasheed has won this election,” he tweeted.

Former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed
Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed at a primary election rally in Male on January 26, 2023. [File: Fayaz Moosa/ Mihaaru via Al Jazeera]

Fraud Claims

The row has sparked fears of a split in the MDP, a party that Nasheed co-founded and which has led a decades-long campaign for democracy in the Maldives. It also raised fears of further turmoil in the island nation of 500,000, four years after Maldivians elected former president Abdullah Yameen, who led a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, including jailing or forcing into exile almost all of his political opponents.

Nasheed and Solih, childhood friends who opposed Yameen, fell out during the campaign to oust the autocratic leader.

Their rivalry began in 2018 when the MDP’s top decision-making body voted to transfer the party’s presidential ticket from Nasheed to Solih. At the time, Nasheed – whose first stint in power was cut short by a military mutiny and who was sentenced to 13 years in prison on a trumped-up “terrorism” charge – was living in exile.

He reluctantly agreed to Solich’s candidacy, and the veteran politician went on to defeat Yameen in a landslide victory.

Nasheed returned home to a hero’s welcome and won the election for Speaker of Parliament.

But he soon fell out with the president, accusing him of inaction against corruption and violent groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS (ISIS).

Solih refutes this and claims he has brought “peace and stability” and “unparalleled development” to the Maldives after decades of turmoil.

Ahead of Saturday’s vote, Nasheed’s campaign warned supporters to be vigilant about attempts to rig the vote.

And on the day itself, Nasheed’s supporters disrupted voting in several polling stations, accusing Solih’s supporters of stuffing ballot boxes. The claims led to fistfights at about four polling stations, with people on Gaddu Island in the southern Gaafu Daalu atoll damaging a ballot box and tearing up some ballot papers. The brawl caused voting to be briefly suspended.

However, the MDP electoral commission insists that the vote went smoothly.

Ibrahim Wahid, the commission’s chairman, called the election “very successful” and said disruptions occurred in only a few of the 245 polling stations. The commission had received 50 complaints about the vote, he told reporters on Sunday, assuring that there were no cases of “double voting”.

He added that 70 percent of about 57,225 eligible voters turned out to vote.

“Great Uncertainty”

Nasheed’s supporters dismissed the assurances.

“This primary was stolen. Support for [Nasheed] it’s clear here,” wrote Twitter user @Mujookeynee, posting a photo of one of the former president’s well-attended campaign rallies in Male.

“The election was rigged… #Anni2023 is still on,” wrote Twitter user @HKurusee, referring to Nasheed by his nickname.

Solih’s supporters, meanwhile, said the president had won fair and square, thanks to his track record on infrastructure projects, including water and sanitation on the scattered islands of the Maldives. They also pointed to his successful governance of the Maldives during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the introduction of popular policies such as free university education.

Moosa Latheef, an editor at news website Dhauru, said it was unlikely Nasheed would have won Saturday’s vote given the wide margin.

“Nasheed’s refusal to concede so far does not bode well for our nascent democracy,” he said.

“We are in a period of great uncertainty,” he said. “It’s very difficult to predict what Nasheed can do.”

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