By Mohamed Junayd
MALE (Reuters) - Maldives opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who fought a bitter election campaign against President Abdulla Yameen, said he won Sunday's presidential vote with a 16 percent margin after 92 percent of the votes had been counted.
Provisional results counted in 446 of 472 ballot boxes by 1943 GMT showed the opposition leading by a margin of 16.6 percent, news website Mihaaru reported.
"This is a moment of happiness, a moment of hope. This is a journey that has ended at the ballot box because the people willed it," Solih, popularly known as Ibu, told reporters in Male.
"The message is loud and clear. The people of Maldives want change, peace and justice. I would like to call on President Yameen to accept the will of the people and begin a smooth transition of power as per the constitution," he said.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the main opposition campaign centre in Male in a jubilant mood, chanting "Ibu, Ibu, Ibu" and calling on Yameen to concede defeat.
Yameen had been expected to cement his grip on power amid criticism over the fairness of the vote on the islands best known as a luxury holiday destination.
The Indian Ocean nation's Election Commission extended voting by three hours because of long queues at polling stations, and officials from Yameen's PPM party told Reuters that results from areas where he has strong support have yet to be released.
"If we win or lose, PPM has the courage to accept the decision of Maldivian people," the ruling party's parliamentary leader MP Ahmed Nihan wrote on Twitter.
The Election Commission said it would release official results by Sept. 30, as stipulated in the constitution.
The United States and India both congratulated the Maldives on its peaceful elections and noted that it appeared likely Solih's opposition coalition had won.
"We urge calm and respect for the will of the people as the election process concludes," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Yameen's media representatives declined to comment on Solih's claim.
The Muslim-majority nation has become a theatre of rivalry between its traditional partner, India, and China, which has backed Yameen's infrastructure drive and prompted concern in the West about Beijing's increasing influence.
Yameen's government has jailed many of his main rivals, including former president and his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on charges ranging from terrorism to corruption.
More than a quarter of a million people were eligible to vote across the coral islands, where Yameen, 59, is seeking a second five-year term.
Hundreds of people queued outside polling stations in Male early on Sunday. On some islands, people started queuing on Saturday night.
"I am voting to revert a mistake I made in 2013. I am voting to free president Maumoon (Gayoom)," Nazima Hassan, 44, told Reuters after voting in Male.
Abdul Rasheed Husain, 46, said in Male he cast his ballot for Yameen to take the Maldives "to the next level".
In the polling booth at the Maldives embassy in Colombo, some voters had to wait for more than seven hours.
Mohamed Shareef Hussain, Maldives envoy to Colombo, said the Election Commission had not assigned enough staff, causing delays.
Police raided the main opposition campaign office late on Saturday saying they came to "stop illegal activities", after arresting at least five opposition supporters for "influencing voters", opposition officials said.
British Ambassador James Dauris wrote on Twitter that it was "easy to understand why so many people are concerned about what might happen on election day".
INTERNATIONAL MONITORS STAY AWAY
Most poll monitors, including those from the European Union and United Nations, declined the government's invitation to observe the election, fearing their presence might be used to endorse Yameen's re-election even after possible vote rigging.
Rohana Hettiarachchi, a member of the Asian Network for Free Elections, which was named as an election monitor, said his organisation could not take part.
"Our four members were invited and the Election Commission published our name in the international monitors list. But we did not get the required visa," he told Reuters.
Transparency Maldives, one of the few election monitors on the ground, said the initial vote had gone smoothly and that Solih was on course for an emphatic victory.
"Our quick count results indicate that Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has won the 2018 presidential election by a decisive margin," it said in a statement. "We call on all stakeholders to maintain an environment conducive for a peaceful transfer of power."
The country has been in political turmoil since February, when Yameen imposed a state of emergency to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the convictions of nine opposition leaders, including Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader and former president.
Nasheed, who is in exile in Sri Lanka, told reporters in Colombo that the vote was for democracy and freedom.
Ahead of the vote, Human Rights Watch urged foreign governments to press the Maldives to uphold democratic rights.
"Should the Maldives government fail to do so, they should impose targeted sanctions, such as those proposed by the European Union, against senior ruling party officials implicated in abuses," the New York-based group said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Shihar Aneez and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Nick Macfie, David Goodman and Michael Perry)