Maldives heads to vote amid free polls concern

Just a little over a quarter million people in the tropical island nation would head to vote in an election amid mounting international concerns for a lack of transparency and suppression of government critics.

Incumbent president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom is seeking a second five-year term in the Indian Ocean archipelago, a popular luxury tourist destination and a key state in the battle for influence between India and China.

Maldives has been embroiled in political turmoil in recent years as president Yameen jailed all of his political rivals as the government muzzled local media and heavily restricted fundamental constitutional rights and freedom of expression with a series of contentious laws.

In February the Supreme Court quashed the convictions of nine opposition figures, among them exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted from office in 2012.

But after President Yameen declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of two judges, the court reversed its decision soon after.

The united opposition

Backed into a corner and facing oblivion, four political parties in the Maldives - ravaged by incessant political strife joined forces in March last year. Former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed along with Jumhoory Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim and religiously conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) leader Imran Abdulla inked a once unthinkable pact to form dubbed as the 'reform alliance'.

The flailing opposition buoyed by the once unspeakable alliance injected a fresh impetus to its efforts against Yameen and his government. They had managed to deliver several body blows and significantly weaken Yameen's vice like grip on the country. But cost of the failure to bring a premature end to Yameen's government has been great as the remaining key political figures including the 80 year old Gayoom are now jailed on terrorism charges.

With the candidacy of all four leaders all but ruled out due to criminal convictions, the once unthinkable alliance had been trying to nominate a single candidate to stand against Yameen but Nasheed contesting and ultimately winning the presidential ticket of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had fractured the alliance and left it on the brink of collapse.

However, Nasheed pulled out to pave the way for his childhood friend and top opposition lawmaker Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to take his place.

Question marks over free elections

The opposition coalition says the Maldives election commission is working on behalf of president Yameen and will not allow observers to verify individual ballot papers, which could allow "massive vote counting fraud".

The Elections Commission however has rejected the allegations as "baseless."

Question marks also remain over the security forces and independent state institutions to provide any oversight of government actions.

On the eve of the elections, police had raided the main opposition campaign headquarters in the capital Male alleging "vote buying" which exemplified the obstacles facing the country.

Will the outcome change anything?

It seems unlikely that Maldives could hope for long term stability regardless of the outcome of the elections.

The just over 260,000 electorate would look to pick the lesser of the two evils: Yameen and the likelihood of further authoritarianism or Solih and the prospect of an unstable government of warring factions which could implode even if they win.