Maldives opposition leader wins presidential poll

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had the backing of a united opposition trying to oust strongman President Abdulla Yameen

The move is a sign of a government crackdown against the opposition that has raised fears that Sunday's election may be rigged to favour President Yameen Abdul Gayoom's party.

Police in the Maldives raided the main campaign office of the opposition presidential candidate on Saturday, the eve of an election viewed as a referendum on whether democracy will survive in the country.

Mohamed Nasheed, the head of Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party, said the vote would "bring the country back to the democratic path".

Those in the crowd include government employees who had previously been too fearful of their jobs to join the opposition's events. There was no response from Yameen after the results were announced.

"Look around. People are moving freely", countered Adam Thaufeeg, a 40-year-old government employee, who said he voted for Yameen because of his vision for developing the Maldives.

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. "It seemed he might rig the election even at the last minute and would win somehow or the other".

Solih's supporters flooded the streets, hugging one another, waving the Maldivian flag, cheering and honking horns in celebration.

Solih had the backing of a united opposition which has been fighting to oust Yameen. Yameen did not concede, and his campaign couldn't be reached for comment.

Preliminary results released by two private media outlets placed Solih in the lead with 58.1 percent of the vote in the two man race, with around half of all ballots counted.

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In his victory speech, Solih called the election results "a moment of happiness, hope and history", but said that he did not think the election process had been transparent.

A police spokesperson confirmed the raid to the BBC, without providing further details.

The crucial election has also been under the worldwide spotlight with the USA, the European Union, the United Kingdom and India, among others, urging Maldives to ensure conduct of a free and fair election.

Observers from Transparency Maldives said in a statement late Sunday morning that opening procedures "went well", with almost all of the polling stations opening within 30 minutes of the scheduled opening time.

The polls close at 4 p.m. and election officials say results are expected after 10 p.m.

Only a handful of foreign media have been allowed in. Yameen used his first term to consolidate power, jailing opponents, including his half-brother, a former president, and two Supreme Court Justices.

Monitors said a record number of people voted on Sunday, with queues snaking around the blocks of many polling booths and the voting deadline extended by three hours to accommodate the demand. Huge crowds flocked to closely guarded polling stations.

Many voters across the Indian Ocean archipelago said they stood in line for over five hours to cast their ballots, while expatriate Maldivians voted in neighbouring Sri Lanka and India.

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