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The Maldives opposition said it has taken an early lead in the tense presidential election considered a referendum on democracy in the troubled island nation.

The coalition of four parties, whose leaders are either in exile or imprisoned, said preliminary results from Sunday’s election gave its candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, 58 percent of the vote with 90 percent of the ballots counted.

Solih, the long-time member of parliament, ran against incumbent president Abdulla Yameen, 59, who sought re-election with a pledge to boost Maldives’ economy after a first five-year term marred by allegations of rights abuses and corruption.

Mihaaru, an independent newspaper, with monitors present at most of the 472 ballot boxes in the country, also said Solih won nearly 58 percent of the votes.

A test of democracy in the Maldives

In the run up to the vote, observers said they did not expect the presidential election to be free or fair. The opposition accused the election commission, headed by a key Yameen ally, of rigging.

Ahmed Nihan, a senior ruling party official, told Al Jazeera that while it was too early to declare a winner, the Progressive Party of the Maldives “has the courage to accept the citizen’s say, regardless of whether we win or lose”.

“We have proved we are capable of facilitating an orderly vote,” said Nihan, adding that the opposition’s claims of vote rigging were “baseless”.

More than 250,000 people in the Maldives, out of a population of 350,000, were eligible to vote in Sunday’s election. Voting was also taking place in Kuala Lumpur and Sri Lanka.

Turbulent year

Watching results on national television in the Maldivian capital, Male, Dhahau Naseem said she was “very nervous”.

“I’m scared of being optimistic about positive results, given Yameen’s refusal to tolerate any dissent in the past,” said Naseem, referring to the president’s declaration of a state of emergency in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, which ordered the release of jailed dissidents.

The emergency decree was Yameen’s second in five years.

Within hours of the declaration, security forces arrested two out of the five top court judges on charges of plotting a coup.

Yameen’s half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the island nation for 30 years, was also arrested.

The three were later jailed on charges of obstructing justice.

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