Polls have opened in the Maldives fourth attempt to hold run-off presidential elections that the island’s 240,000 voters hope will bring an end to two years of political turmoil.
“Voting started across the Maldives and several foreign capitals where Maldivians live,” Elections Commission official Aishath Reema told the AFP news agency on Saturday.
“People lined up to vote long before polling booths opened,” she said. Polling booths in the Indian Ocean archipelago opened at 7:30am (0230 GMT) with the electorate given eight and a half hours to choose between two candidates.
After an annulled result and two cancelled polls, foreign diplomats have increasingly viewed delays as politically motivated and the European Union warned of “appropriate measures” if Saturday’s election did not go ahead as scheduled.
Mohamed Nasheed, who became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president in 2008, left office last year in what he says was a coup.
He won 47 percent of first round votes a week ago, short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.
He is up against Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the holiday island paradise for 30 years and is considered a dictator by opponents and rights groups.
The term of the incumbent president, Mohamed Waheed, expired on Nov 11, but when the Supreme Court delayed the second round of voting after demands by Nasheed’s rivals, Waheed extended it to fill a constitutional void.
Waheed 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.”
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.