Voters in the Maldives have cast their ballots in a third bid to choose a new president and end a political crisis sparked by the toppling of their first freely-elected leader nearly two years ago.
Voter turnout on Saturday appeared to be less than a previous vote in September, the result of which was annulled by the Supreme Court. About 240,000 people were eligible to vote.
After the polls closed, officials were preparing to count the votes and quickly release the results in order to prepare for a runoff that would be held on Sunday if no candidate got at least 50 percent of the vote.
However, in a late development Saturday, a member of candidate Qasim Ibrahim’s Jumhoory Party filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to delay the runoff, citing the inability to campaign for a second round.
The Indian Ocean archipelago, a popular tourist destination, has been the focus of intense diplomatic pressure since judges annulled the results of the September election.
When new presidential polls were scuppered six weeks later, suspicions grew that authorities were determined to prevent opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed from returning to power at any price.
The 46-year-old – a one-time political prisoner and environmental activist – won the first multi-party elections in 2008, bringing an end to 30 years of rule by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
But after clashing with key institutions, including the judiciary and security forces, he was forced to resign in February 2012 in what he has always maintained was a “coup”.
Nasheed is expected to win, having secured a clear lead over his two challengers on September 7, albeit falling five percentage points short of an absolute majority.
Voter lists disputed
The Supreme Court however annulled those results on the grounds that the voter lists were flawed, even though the outcome was given a clean chit by international observers.
His two challengers, who include Gayoom’s half brother Abdulla Yameen, thwarted the rescheduled vote on October 19 by refusing to endorse an updated electoral roll as required by law.
An elections commission spokeswoman confirmed both Yameen and a third candidate, Ibrahim, had now approved the lists.
Under the terms of the constitution, a new president must be sworn in by November 11.
Nasheed’s hopes have been boosted by outgoing President Mohamed Waheed’s decision not to stand after he got just five percent in September.
A host of Western diplomats have flown from their base in Sri Lanka to ensure there are no last-minute hitches.
“Since the September 7 first round of elections were annulled via questionable tactics, we have been actively engaging with all political parties and independent institutions to encourage a way forward,” the US embassy said in a statement this week.
Nasheed eyes victory
During his rule, Gayoom packed the judiciary and security forces with his supporters and there is a suspicion they still want to thwart Nasheed.
Nasheed is hoping that anger against his rivals for blocking the previous votes will increase his tally among the 239,000-strong electorate.
In his final campaign speech Friday, Nasheed eyed a clear victory.
“God willing, we will win this election in one round,” he said at a rally in the capital Male.
Nearly one million holidaymakers visited the Maldives last year but the tourist industry dreads the prospect of more instability after suffering mass cancellations after Nasheed’s downfall.
Nasheed resigned on February 7, 2012, in a statement made on national television in the aftermath of a police mutiny. He later claimed he and his family had been threatened with violence.