Supporters of Maldives opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih have taken to the streets in celebration after he claimed victory over President Abdulla Yameen in the general election.
The national electoral commission has not yet announced official results.
But Mr Solih has said he won Sunday’s vote by a 16% margin, with 92% of the votes counted.
He has already called on President Abdulla Yameen to “accept the will of the people”.
“The message is loud and clear. The people of Maldives want change, peace and justice,” Mr Solih, widely known as Ibu, told reporters in the capital, Male.
President Yameen, who had been widely expected to win another term in office, has not yet commented publicly.
Mr Yameen’s government stands accused of crushing dissent and observers had believed the election was rigged in his favour.
Who is Ibrahim Mohamed Solih?
- One of the most senior politicians in the Maldives, and has for years been calling for democratic reform.
- Joint presidential candidate for an opposition alliance – which includes the MDP, the Jumhooree Party and the Adhaalath Party.
- Mr Solih has been parliamentary leader of the MDP since 2011.
The election commission is expected to announce official preliminary results later on Monday, and full results by the end of the month.
But outside the main opposition campaign centre in Male, hundreds of people gathered overnight to celebrate, chanting “Ibu, Ibu, Ibu”.
Exiled ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted by Mr Yameen in 2012, said on Twitter that Mr Solih had done “an extremely good service” to the people of Maldives.
The European Union and US had earlier voiced concerns about the election, with both threatening to impose targeted sanctions if the democratic situation did not improve.
Polls opened at 08:00 (03:00 GMT) on Sunday, and closed three hours later than expected, at 19:00, due to long queues.
What’s the situation in the Maldives?
The Maldives is made up of 26 coral atolls and 1,192 islands. More than 400,000 people live there but its future hangs in the balance due to climate change. Tourism is a vital part of its economy.
The archipelago has been gripped by political upheaval in recent years. In February the Supreme Court quashed the convictions of nine opposition figures, among them Mr Nasheed.
But after President Yameen declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of two judges, the court reversed its decision.
The move was seen as a sign that Mr Yameen would not tolerate any challenge to his rule and sparked criticism from Washington, London and New Delhi.
Some in India, meanwhile, called for an intervention in a small, neighbouring country once seen as firmly within its sphere of influence. Mr Nasheed also appealed for Indian military intervention.
What role has China played in the Maldives?
As part of Beijing’s push to gain strategic influence and carve out new trading routes in the Indian Ocean and beyond, it has lent billions for huge infrastructure projects in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and operates key ports in those countries, to the chagrin of India.
Under Mr Yameen, the Maldives has also welcomed Chinese money for major projects and signed a free trade agreement. More tourists from China now visit the Maldives than from any other country.
Analysts say that Beijing fears any change in government that could affect its interests, while India is concerned about Mr Yameen’s cosy ties with its regional rival.
“India sees it all in a very securitised sense that here are all these Chinese-backed ports around it,” said Gareth Price, a South Asia expert at the think-tank Chatham House, referring to Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Delhi thus sees China’s lavishing of loans on the Maldives as part of a wider strategic ambition to secure another foothold in the Indian Ocean, he added.
Was it a fair election?
International monitors, including from the EU and UN, did not send teams to monitor the election, fearing their presence would appear to condone Mr Yameen’s re-election. Others said they could not get visas in time.
On Saturday, police officers searched the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party office in Male without a warrant, the party said. A police spokesperson confirmed the raid to the BBC, without providing further details.
But the election commission’s spokesman said allegations of possible voter fraud “don’t have any basis in reality”.
Mr Yameen has shrugged off accusations of authoritarianism, saying during the campaign: “No-one will come to greet me and shake my hand, if there is tyranny.”
His half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, ran the country autocratically for three decades until the archipelago’s first-ever democratic vote in 2008, which was won by Mr Nasheed. Mr Gayoom was jailed in June.