The Maldives has voted in a run-off presidential election held under intense international pressure to elect a new leader and end months of political unrest.
Polling booths in the Indian Ocean archipelago opened on Saturday at 7:30am (0230 GMT), with the electorate given eight and a half hours to choose between two candidates. Fuwad Thowfeek, the chief elections commissioner, said he hoped to be able to declare a winner on Sunday.
Today is absolutely critical for democracy and the future of our country. It will determine whether we become a democracy or a dictatorship.
"Everyone is highly anticipating the time when a new president is elected. And so, we are trying to announce the permanent results by very early tomorrow morning," Thowfeek said on national television. "We will be able to share that joy with the citizens by tomorrow."
The election is being contested by the country's former president, Mohamed Nasheed, and Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of the nation's former autocratic ruler, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed one 47 percent of the vote in the first round last week..
After an annulled result and two cancelled polls, foreign diplomats have increasingly viewed delays as politically motivated and the EU warned of "appropriate measures" if Saturday's election did not go ahead as scheduled.
Nasheed became the Maldives' first democratically elected president in 2008, but left office last year in what he says was a coup.
The incumbent president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, left for Singapore on Friday, saying: "I do not think there is much I can do from here, things that I cannot do over the phone."
"Critical for democracy"
Voters queuing up outside the Kalaafaanu School voiced unease about the outcome of the ballot, after an aggressive campaign by the two candidates contesting the second round and following sporadic violent protests in recent months.
"Today is absolutely critical for democracy and the future of our country," said 48-year-old Fareesha Abdulla. "It will determine whether we become a democracy or a dictatorship."
|Candidate Abdulla Yameen is confident of his victory [Reuters]
The political upheavals and sporadic violent protests in the capital Male have hit tourism, a vital source of foreign currency, notably resulting in the Maldives being unable to import all the fuel it needs.
Political analysts say the crisis may not pass even if the vote goes smoothly, after a bitter election campaign centring on the future role of religion in a largely Muslim state where Islamist ideology is on the rise.
Addressing a final rally on Thursday, Nasheed said his opponents were using Islam as a weapon, after they accused him and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of being too secular and close to Western countries.