Threatened, 4 of 5 poll officials flee Maldives

COLOMBO: Four of the five members of Maldives’ Elections Commission have fled the country because of threats from supporters of outgoing President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who accused them of rigging last month’s presidential election in favour of the opposition candidate, the head of the commission said on Wednesday.

The developments came even as the Maldives supreme court said on Thursday that it would examine Yameen’s petition to annul his September election defeat despite international pressure on the strongman leader to go quietly.

The Supreme Court has decided to accept the constitutional dispute filed by President Yameen and it would be heard,” the court said on Twitter, raising the prospect of fresh upheaval in the country’s turbulent recent politics. It later said a hearing will be held on Sunday in the tourist paradise Indian Ocean archipelago at the centre of a tussle for influence between India and China.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), whose candidate won a landslide at the September 23 vote, said Yameen should respect the results and drop his spurious challenge.

“The Joint Opposition calls on Yameen to immediately withdraw this blatantly unsubstantiated case, and to step aside and to facilitate a peaceful and smooth transition,” MDP said in a statement.

Yameen, whose main rivals were either in jail or in exile for the vote, was unexpectedly beaten by political lightweight Ibrahim Mohamed Solih with 58.4% of the vote.

Elections Commissioner Ahmed Shareef said groups of Yameen supporters had gathered in front of the members’ homes and threatened them, accusing them of accepting bribes from the opposition. The opposition alliance said Yameen, who has rolled back many of Maldives’ democratic reforms, is attempting to cling to power after initially conceding defeat.

Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives said in a statement that it was disappointed that only one commission member remained in the country while “there is a national outcry” over the commission’s conduct during the election. However, the court announced the hearing date after meeting with Shareef, who had insisted that the vote was free and fair.

In the run-up to the election, the opposition had feared it would be rigged in favour of the incumbent as Solih was not allowed to campaign freely and was denied media coverage.

Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) said it mounted the challenge because of complaints of irregularities it received from its constituencies. “The party has been overwhelmed with numerous genuine concerns related to the elections, including serious allegations of vote rigging, fraud, malpractice and corruption,” PPM said in a statement.

Local media reports said the company which printed ballot papers was under pressure to support Yameen’s claim of vote rigging, but it had refused. Printers have been offered bribes while others have been intimidated, the Avas.mv website reported. Shareef told reporters in the capital Male that Yameen had called for an annulment of the results and a fresh election and he too was consulting lawyers ahead of Sunday’s hearing.

The United States and the European Union had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair and if Yameen, 59, did not accept the result.

Yameen had already conceded defeat and reluctantly said he would leave office on November 17, when his term ends.

But he has been publicly urging his supporters to challenge the results. Yameen’s lawyer Mohamed Saleem said Wednesday that the decision to file the challenge came after receiving and reviewing “numerous complaints” by Yameen’s supporters. “So in light of that, President Yameen decided that the challenge must be filed for the rights of his supporters,” he added.

Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, the Colombo-based spokesman for the MDP, said that the legal challenge was “an attempt by Yameen to create unrest”.

The party said lawyers filed the complaint over “serious allegations of vote rigging, fraud, malpractice and corruption”. It said the party is seeking a remedy from the high court and Supreme Court, but did not specify what kind of relief it wants.

The constitution allows two weeks for candidates to submit a challenge from the day that official election results are announced.

The election was generally seen as fair, although the opposition alleged ahead of time that Yameen’s government was using state resources to rig the vote in his favour. Yameen’s five-year term ends on November 17.

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