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Troubled Maldives holds make-or-break vote

Voting got underway in the Maldives Saturday in its third bid to choose a president and end unrest sparked by the toppling of their first freely-elected leader 21 months ago.

world Updated: Nov 09, 2013 08:47 IST

Voting got underway in the Maldives Saturday in its third bid to choose a president and end unrest sparked by the toppling of their first freely-elected leader 21 months ago.

"Voting began at 475 polling booths across the Maldives and several foreign capitals where Maldivians live," Elections Commission official Aishath Reema told AFP.

She said balloting will continue for eight and a half hours for the 239,105 electorate to vote. Results are expected Sunday and if none of the three candidates get more than 50 percent, a run-off is due for Sunday.

The Indian Ocean archipelago, whose turquoise seas have long been a draw for foreigners, has been the focus of intense diplomatic pressure since judges annulled the results of an election on September 7.

When new 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 iron-fisted 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.

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, and business tycoon Qasim Ibrahim thwarted the rescheduled vote on October 19 by refusing to endorse an updated electoral roll as required by law.

Organisers were furious when police refused to distribute ballots to voting stations sprinkled across the network of Indian Ocean atolls.

But on Saturday, Ibrahim was among the first to vote in the capital Male.

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.

Nasheed fell out with his one-time vice president after being succeeded by Waheed in February 2012. But following Waheed's decision to drop out of the race, the party that backed him has joined Nasheed.

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.

"Time is of the essence," it said, adding any further delay "could result in damage to Maldives' international reputation".

During his rule, Gayoom packed the judiciary and security forces with his supporters and there is a suspicion they still want to thwart Nasheed.

"Even if Nasheed wins over the weekend, I still have doubts he will be allowed to take power," a Colombo-based European diplomat told AFP before he flew to the Maldives. "It could get very messy."

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.