COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Polling booths in the Maldives closed Sunday after voting hours were extended in a controversial election marred by police raids on the opposition and allegations of rigging in favor of strongman President Abdulla Yameen.
Yameen, who is expected to retain power, has imprisoned or forced into exile almost all of his main rivals. Critics say he is returning the honeymoon island nation to authoritarian rule.
The process is being closely watched by regional rivals India and China, who are jostling to influence Indian Ocean nations. The European Union and US, meanwhile, have threatened sanctions if the vote is not free and fair.
Many voters across the Indian Ocean archipelago said they stood in line for over five hours to cast their ballot, while expatriate Maldivians voted in neighboring Sri Lanka and India.
The elections commission said balloting was extended by three hours until 7 p.m. (1400 GMT) because of technical glitches suffered by tablet computers containing electoral rolls, and officials had to use manual systems to verify voters’ identities.
An election official said the deadline was also extended due to heavy voter turnout, and anyone in the queue by 7 p.m. would be able to cast their ballot.
“Eight hours & counting. Waiting to exercise my democratic right! Let’s do this, Insha Allah!” former Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon said on Twitter.
Maumoon, who is also the estranged niece of Yameen and daughter of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, cast her vote at a booth in the Maldivian Embassy in Colombo.
Yameen voted minutes after polling booths opened in the capital Male, where opposition campaign efforts had been frustrated by a media crackdown and police harassment.
Before polls opened, police raided the campaign headquarters of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and searched the building for several hours in a bid to stop what they called “illegal activities.” There were no arrests.
Yameen’s challenger, the relatively unknown Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, also cast his vote.
Solih has the backing of a united opposition trying to oust Yameen although he has struggled for visibility with the electorate because the media is fearful of falling foul of heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions.
Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected president of a newly democratic Maldives in 2008 but who now lives in exile, urged the international community to reject the results of a flawed election.
Some 262,000 people in the archipelago — famed for its white beaches and blue lagoons — were eligible to vote in an election from which independent international monitors have been barred.
Only a handful of foreign media have been allowed in.
The Asian Network for Free Elections, a foreign monitoring group that was denied access to the Maldives, said the campaign was heavily tilted in favor of 59-year-old Yameen.
Local observers said the balloting itself went off peacefully and most of the delays were due to technical issues. Results are expected by early Monday.
The government has used “vaguely worded laws to silence dissent and to intimidate and imprison critics,” some of whom have been assaulted and even murdered, according to Human Rights Watch.
There have been warnings that Yameen could try to hold on to power at all costs.
In February he declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and ordered troops to storm the Supreme Court and arrest judges and other rivals to stave off impeachment.
Yameen told supporters on the eve of the election he had overcome “huge obstacles” since controversially winning power in a contested run-off in 2013, but had handled the challenges “with resilience.”
The crackdown attracted international censure and fears the Maldives was slipping back into one-man rule just a decade after transitioning to democracy.
The US State Department this month said it would “consider appropriate measures” should the election fail to be free and fair.
The EU in July also threatened travel bans and asset freezes if the situation does not improve.
India, long influential in Maldives affairs — it sent troops and warships in 1988 to stop a coup attempt — also expressed hopes the election would represent a return to democratic norms.
However in recent years Yameen has drifted closer to China, India’s chief regional rival, taking hundreds of millions of dollars for major infrastructure projects.