Around 240,000 Maldivians will head to the polls on Sunday to choose their president in the small Indian Ocean nation.

A man walks in a street decorated with flags of the Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom's Progressive Party of Maldives in Male, Maldives on September 21, 2018.
A man walks in a street decorated with flags of the Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom's Progressive Party of Maldives in Male, Maldives on September 21, 2018. (AP)

Maldivians will cast their votes on Sunday for the third multiparty presidential election since 2008 to shape the future of the country.

The Maldives is best known as a luxury holiday destination, attracting nearly 1.4 million foreigners in 2017.

Because of its geographic location, it’s been a battlefield for influence between India and China.

Here are the key things you need to know about the election.

The Maldives lies in the Indian Ocean and is composed of more than 20 atolls made up of more than 1,000 coral islands.
The Maldives lies in the Indian Ocean and is composed of more than 20 atolls made up of more than 1,000 coral islands. (TRTWorld)

How does their electoral system work?

The Maldives elects on the national level a head of the state and a legislature.

The president is elected by an absolute majority vote through a two-round system to serve a five-year term.

The members of the assembly (Majlis) are elected directly again for a five-year term from 85 single-member constituencies.

There are about 240,000 registered voters of the country’s 417,492 population. The turnout was 90 percent in the second round of the presidential election in 2013.

People ride motorcycles past an image of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen on a road ahead of the presidential election in Male, Maldives on September 19, 2018
People ride motorcycles past an image of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen on a road ahead of the presidential election in Male, Maldives on September 19, 2018 (Reuters)

Who are the major players?

Abdulla Yameen, the incumbent president, is seeking a second term in office. He came to power in the 2013 election as the candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives, also known as the PPM. The 59-year-old has been accused of ruling the country with an iron fist.

Yameen has been challenged by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, an opposition figure and joint candidate for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The MDP leads an opposition bloc formed by the MDP, the Jumhoree Party, the Adalath Party, and a small faction of the PPM.

Mohamed Nasheed, an exiled opposition figure, defeated in the run-off in 2013, withdrew his candidacy after being barred from running. He was convicted of terrorism in 2015 in a trial widely viewed as politically motivated.

Political background
The Maldives abolished the 812-year-old sultanate in 1953 in favor of a republic under British rule. In 1965, it gained independence from the United Kingdom.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom came to power in 1978 through a public referendum. He introduced democracy in 2008 after a public revolt saw the burning down of police stations and government vehicles over the killing of a man in government custody.

However, Gayoom was defeated by Mohamed Nasheed in the country's first democratic election the same year.

Nasheed stepped down in 2012 following similar nationwide protests, and later said that the protests were instigated by Gayoom.

The current President Abdulla Yameen is the half brother of Gayoom and he served in Gayoom’s cabinet as a trade minister and as employment minister.

Yameen became a candidate in the 2013 election, in which Nasheed won the race in the first round. But Maldives’ top legal body, the Supreme Court, nullified the result. Yameen came out on top in a run-off with a narrow margin of 6,000 votes.

Maldivian joint opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (L) looks on next to Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed at a campaign for the September 23rd presidential election where thousands of eligible Maldivians live, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 27, 2018.
Maldivian joint opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (L) looks on next to Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed at a campaign for the September 23rd presidential election where thousands of eligible Maldivians live, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 27, 2018. (Reuters)

Iron fist or velvet glove?

Former president Nasheed was arrested on terrorism charges in 2015 and was sentenced to 13 years in prison in a trial, prompting protests in the Maldivian capital, Male. 

As political chaos deepened, President Yameen's boat was hit by an explosion, injuring his wife, aide and bodyguard. Maldivian authorities called it an assassination attempt.

Vice President Ahmed Adeeb was arrested on charges of involvement in the alleged assassination attempt and given 15 years in prison.

Nasheed was granted permission to travel to Britain for spinal surgery in 2016, and the British government granted him refugee status.

In response, Maldives left the British Commonwealth accusing it of trying to interfere in its internal politics.

In February, the Supreme Court, which is accused of playing an outsized role in the 2013 election that saw Yameen ascend to the presidency, ordered the release of convicted politicians, including Nasheed.

The government hit back declaring a state of emergency. Security forces stormed the Supreme Court and arrested two justices.

Later, they arrested Gayoom for allegedly conspiring with the Supreme Court to topple Yameen.

Authorities charged Gayoom and the two justices with terrorism and Yameen lifted the 45-day state of emergency in March.

The Maldives longtime former ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, centre, arrives for a hearing at a criminal court in Male, Maldives, on March 21, 2018.
The Maldives longtime former ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, centre, arrives for a hearing at a criminal court in Male, Maldives, on March 21, 2018. (AP)

Will the elections be free and fair?

Rights groups say Yameen has used harsh fines and vague decrees to silence dissent and imposed censorship in the run-up to polling day.

But Yameen's supporters counter that the country's economy and institutions have grown under him.

Gross domestic product more than doubled between 1990 and 2015, life expectancy at birth increased and poverty declined, according to the World Bank.

International alliances

Growth in the Maldivian economy is in part due to aid and investment from China, which considers the archipelago a key part of its "Belt and Road" project along ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia.

Yameen points to the positive signs in the economy to bolster his bid for another term and it is estimated the Maldives has taken loans to the tune of $1.3 billion from China. This reliance on China has led some to refer to Yameen as a "China-backed" candidate.

Beijing is also challenging India's long-held position as the dominant power throughout South Asia.

As the opposition blames Yameen for election irregularities, recalling the 2013 elections, the country could face sanctions from the European Union and the United States.

The EU said in July it was ready to impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals if the situation did not improve in the country.

The US State Department this month warned it would "consider appropriate measures" if the election was not free and fair.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies