Voters streamed into polling booths in the Maldives to choose a new president yesterday in an election that tests the democratic credentials of an Indian Ocean island state known more for its luxury resorts than its recent political turmoil.
The vote could mark the return of Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader, who came to power in 2008 after 30 years of one-man rule. He was ousted last year in circumstances his supporters say amounted to a coup.
Whoever wins will face a rise in Islamist ideology, human-rights abuses and a lack of investor confidence. The political crisis has hit tourism, a vital source of earnings, and the Maldives has faced fuel shortages because it is unable to pay suppliers on time amid dwindling foreign- exchange reserves.
The polls are the Maldives' third attempt to elect a new leader in as many months. A September 7 vote was annulled based on a secret police report that found vote-rigging, while an October poll was halted by police after a Supreme Court ruling.
The delay has drawn criticism from international observers.
"I just hope the Supreme Court doesn't interfere again tonight," said Ameena Ali, 63, who voted at a polling booth in the centre of the capital, Male.
Witnesses said fewer people queued up to vote yesterday than in the September election, when the turnout was 88 per cent. Many feared the result could be annulled again through possible interference either from politicians or the police.
The Election Commission is expected to announce the results today, and a run-off will be held immediately if there is no clear winner.
Flanked by eight bodyguards and a mob of reporters, Nasheed, famous for holding a cabinet meeting under water to highlight the threat of global warming to the low-lying archipelago, voted in central Male. "I'm confident of a win," he said.
His main challenger is Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for three decades from 1978.
Besides Nasheed and Yameen, the other main contender is resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim.
Yameen predicted he would win by a large majority. But in a possible sign of wrangling ahead, he questioned the election's credibility. The presidential candidates were meant to sign a register to verify the details of the country's nearly 240,000 voters, after allegations the lists contained dead people and children.
"There are lists in the voting areas where the candidates have not signed," Yameen said.