MALE, MALDIVES - Maldives President Abdulla Yameen is expected to cement his grip on power in an election Sunday that opposition and international groups have criticized for a lack of transparency and the suppression of dissent.
Both Yameen and opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, voted in the capital, Male, shortly after polls opened.
The Indian Ocean nation of 400,000 people has become a theater of rivalry between its traditional partner India and China, which has backed Yameen's infrastructure drive, as well as the United States and European nations concerned about Beijing's increasing influence.
Yameen's government has jailed many of his main rivals on charges ranging from terrorism to corruption, and has introduced new vote-counting rules that observers say will prevent them from seeing ballots, raising doubts about the vote's legitimacy.
More than a quarter of a million people are eligible to vote in the coral archipelago, which is best known for luxury resorts but has struggled with democracy. Yameen, 59, is seeking a second five-year term.
Transparency Maldives (TM), one of the few election monitors on the ground, said the final days of campaigning had shown people were looking forward to the vote, though it reiterated concerns about the fairness of the electoral rules.
"Obviously, there are many issues with the electoral process, but we are hoping that the people will be given the space to exercise their fundamental right," Ahmed Tholal, TM's senior project coordinator, told Reuters.
"Having said that, the situation continues to be volatile and unpredictable," he added.
?International monitors stay away
Most poll monitors, including those from the European Union and the United Nations, have declined the government's invitation to visit and observe the election, fearing their presence might be used to endorse Yameen's re-election, even after possible vote-rigging.
The opposition's joint candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, known as Ibu, told supporters he was confident of victory despite the obstacles faced by the opposition during campaigning and attempts by the Elections Commission to change the rules to favor the incumbent.
"I appeal to everyone not to allow any space for unrest tomorrow; let the voting end peacefully and let the people decide what they want. The people are hungry for a change and we are sure of the result tomorrow," he told a rally on Saturday.
Votes will be counted soon after polling stations close on Sunday and preliminary results are expected to be clear by midnight (1900 GMT).
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 mostly Muslim nation on a path of development.
"The work I am doing is national service," he said on Saturday.
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 lingering 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.