MALE, Maldives – Provisional results Monday showed Maldives opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won Sunday’s presidential election in an unexpected victory over the strongman incumbent who had jailed his top rivals and Supreme Court justices.
Solih won 58.3 percent of the vote over President Yameen Abdul Gayoom with 89.2 percent turnout, according to the Maldives Election Commission. The longtime lawmaker had 134,616 votes and incumbent Yameen 96,132 votes.
Commission spokesman Ahmed Akram says the final results will be released within the 7-day window parties have to challenge the results in court.
Yameen has not conceded the race, but Maldives’ foreign ministry released a statement saying Solih had won, and that voting and the vote-counting process had “proceeded smoothly.”
Yameen spokesman Hussain Shihab says he is awaiting a briefing by top Yameen administration officials before making a statement.
Opposition party members fearing Yameen would rig the vote in his favor. Since his election in 2013, Yameen has cracked down on political dissent, jailing rivals and judges.
Solih’s supporters flooded the streets, hugging one another, waving the Maldivian flag, cheering and honking horns in celebration early Monday.
Solih, 56, was a democracy activist during decades of autocratic rule and a former Parliament majority leader. He became the Maldivian Democratic Party’s presidential candidate after its other top figures were jailed or exiled by Yameen’s government.
Party leader and former President Mohamed Nasheed, in exile in Sri Lanka, had hoped to run again but was disqualified because of an outstanding prison sentence in the Maldives.
Famed for its sandy white beaches and luxury resorts, the nation of islands and atolls in the southern Indian Ocean has seen economic growth and longer life expectancy under Yameen, according to the World Bank. But democratic freedoms have been curtailed.
Solih campaigned door to door, promising at rallies to promote human rights and the rule of law, a message that resonated with voters who saw signs the Maldives were slipping back to autocratic rule, just a decade after achieving democracy.
“Ibu is totally different from Yameen, because Yameen is a dictator and a brutal person. Ibu is a very mild person who listens to everyone,” said Ahamed Fiasal, a 39-year-old IT business owner, using Solih’s nickname.
Still, Fiasal said, the result was surprising because “no one thought that Yameen would lose like this. He had all the power — the judiciary, the police, the security forces under him. It seemed he might rig the election even at the last minute and would win somehow or the other.”
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 raid on Solih’s main campaign office the night before the election was seen as a worrying sign that Yameen would “muzzle his way” to re-election, according to Hamid Abdul Gafoor, an opposition spokesman and former Maldives lawmaker now based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The European Union had said that it was not sending election observers because the Maldives had failed to meet the basic conditions for monitoring. The U.S. had threatened to sanction Maldivian officials if the elections were not free and fair.
The State Department congratulated the people of the Maldives for having a peaceful, democratic vote. The statement from spokesperson Heather Nauert noted the reported opposition victory and urged “calm and respect for the will of the people” as the election process was being concluded.
Few foreign media organizations were allowed into the country to cover the election.
Yameen used his first term to consolidate power, jailing opponents, including his half brother, a former president, and two Supreme Court Justices.
In February, Yameen declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and ordered troops to storm the Supreme Court and arrest judges after they had ordered the release and retrial of those jailed after politically motivated trials.