Maldivian authorities assure free vote amid fears of rigging

Opposition supporters in the Maldives demanded Saturday that officials ensure a free and fair presidential election, as the country prepared to vote in what is seen as a referendum on whether democracy will stay.

Since Sunday's election was announced, opposition leaders have feared the vote may be rigged to favor President Yameen Abdul Gayoom's party. The European Union said Friday it is not sending election observers because the country had failed to meet the basic conditions for monitoring.

But the archipelago nation's election chief, Ahmed Shareef, said Saturday that all measures had been taken to hold the election in a free and fair manner and without violence.

"So far, we have facilitated whatever the opposition candidate requested, within the regulations and laws permitting us," Shareef told reporters. "I don't think he could give any concrete reason to call it unfair."

Still, opposition activists voiced their concerns.

"There is no democracy in the Maldives — democracy has vanished under President Yameen," said Adam Ahmed, a 58-year-old opposition activist. He said a second term for the incumbent could mean an end to an "already withering" democracy, as many voters wanted to see a change of government.

Beyond the postcard image the Maldives has of luxury resorts and white sand beaches, the 400,000 citizens of the former British protectorate have struggled to maintain the democratic system established in 2008.

The Maldives' third multiparty presidential election is being held five years after Yameen began consolidating power, rolling back press and individual freedoms, asserting control over independent governmental institutions and jailing or forcing major political rivals into exile.

Yameen has jailed two former presidents, including his half brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives' former strongman, his former vice president, two Supreme Court justices, two former defense ministers and many others after trials criticized for a lack of due process.

As protests culminating in violent confrontations with police and mass arrests have grown, opposition parties — many of them Yameen's own former political partners — formed an alliance in exile with the aim of unseating him.

Supporters of the opposition presidential candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, and the president gathered Saturday at their respective party campaign offices in Male, the capital, for final campaign rallies, as pink and green campaign banners hung across the city's streets.

"I don't agree with the policies of this government and also some corrupt activities," said 19-year-old Scifulla Waheed, who is looking to vote for the first time on Sunday. "It is high time that we should rise to change the government."

Waheed, who believes Yameen has weekend democracy in the Maldives, said a free and fair election "will change this regime."

Yameen's supporters were also vocal.

"Under President Yameen, everything has improved," said Latheef, who gave only one name. "If the opposition comes into power, the economy will be in doldrums and we will have to face hardships."