Male, Maldives – Police raided the opposition’s campaign headquarters as thousands rallied on the streets of the capital on the eve of a presidential election billed as a test for democracy on the Muslim island nation.
Special operations police entered the seven-storey building in Male on Saturday, citing an investigation into “bribery and influencing votes”, said Hisaan Hussein, an opposition lawyer.
“This is all a desperate attempt to disrupt tomorrow’s vote,” she told Al Jazeera from the scene.
The police, in a post on Twitter, said its officers were active at the site “to bring a stop to unlawful activities” there.
A court document authorising a 14-hour police search, seen by Al Jazeera, said an investigation was under way into “distributing money to buy votes and influence the September 23 election”.
The United States and the United Kingdom condemned the police raid, with Robert Hilton, a US diplomat, saying it “calls into question the government’s commitment to a free and fair election”.
Sunday’s poll is taking place amid a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent and mounting fears of vote rigging. Polling stations are set to open at 8am (03:00 GMT).
President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom is seeking re-election in the Maldives, better known for its upmarket honeymoon resorts, after a first five-year term marred by allegations of corruption and human rights abuses.
The 59-year-old leader is running against Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a long-time member of parliament representing an opposition coalition of four parties, whose leaders are either in jail or exile.
“The clock is ticking. Our hearts are pounding,” Yameen told cheering supporters at a final rally in Male.
The crowd of thousands was gathered at the base of the country’s first bridge, built by Chinese loans and opened earlier this month.
Yameen, who is running on a platform of economic development and defence of faith and sovereignty, said the choice in Sunday’s poll was between Islam and “infidelity”.
The opposition, backed by “Christian priests”, were looking to undermine the Maldives’ Sunni Muslim faith, he alleged, and warned them: “Don’t try to play with our nation and our youth. Don’t try to change our thought. Don’t try to pollute our blood.”
Malsa Shareef, a 21-year old student, said she supported Yameen because of his economic record, which includes a new runway at the main international airport and dozens of new resort openings in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
“He has strengthened the Maldives’ economy and improved our standing on the international stage,” the first-time voter said. “I want someone who takes Maldives into the 21st century.”
In the days leading up to the vote, Yameen pledged to provide flats for all Maldivians and waived fines on housing loans, utility bills, and traffic violations. He also freed hundreds of prisoners in a move the opposition has described as a “desperate attempt” to influence the vote.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, Solih said Sunday’s vote was “the last chance” to restore democracy in the Maldives.
“A majority of the Maldivian people have been deprived of basic services,” he said, addressing a crowd of thousands waving yellow flags and green balloons.
Yameen “has made it an offence to speak the truth, jailed scores unjustly” and “destroyed all norms of justice”, said Solih, pledging to lift curbs on civil and political rights in the country.
He also promised to release jailed dissidents, which include Yameen’s half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was arrested in February after he teamed up with the opposition to oust the president.
Opposition supporters at the rally claimed Yameen will rig the election, but said they expect people to turn out in large numbers to vote against the president.
“More than 70 percent of the country is against Yameen. We will win,” said Ahmed Sobah, 40. “That’s because of corruption and the jailing of nearly everyone who opposes him.”
The allegations of graft include the embezzlement of at least $79m from tourism revenues and conspiracy to launder $1.5bn through the Maldives central bank.
Yameen has denied any wrongdoing.
Observers say they do not expect the poll to be free or fair.
The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), in a statement on Saturday, said the “political environment in the country is heavily tipped in favour of the ruling party, as critical media are being subdued into silence, and opposition figures sentenced to jail terms or forced into exile for politically motivated charges”.
The election commission, chaired by a key ally of Yameen, has enforced new vote-counting rules that will prevent scrutiny of individual ballot papers, “threatening the sanctity of the ballot”, the group said.
Observers from ANFREL and dozens of foreign journalists who sought to monitor the election were denied visas to enter the country.
Ahmed Shareef, president of the election commission, assured reporters in Male that the vote will be fair as the national electoral body has “facilitated all requests by the opposition candidate”.
More than a quarter of a million people, out of a population of nearly 350,000, will be eligible to vote in the polls.
The European Union and the US have expressed concern over the vote and threatened sanctions against rights violators.
Afeef reported from Male; Rasheed reported and wrote from Colombo