Maldives tries again to vote for president after months of unrest

Reuters

* Ousted President Nasheed hopes to be voted back in

* Run-off scheduled on Sunday ahead of Nov. 11 deadline

* Clash between parliament, courts threatens stability

* Court annulled September poll results; police haltedOctober poll

By J.J. Robinson

MALE, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Voters streamed into polling boothsin the Maldives to choose a new president on Saturday in anelection that tests the democratic credentials of an IndianOcean island state known more for its luxury resorts than itsrecent political turmoil.

The vote could mark the return of Mohamed Nasheed, thecountry's first democratically elected leader who came to powerin 2008 after 30 years of one-man rule. He was ousted last yearin circumstances his supporters say amounted to a coup.

Whoever wins will face a rise in Islamist ideology, humanrights abuses and a lack of investor confidence. The politicalcrisis has hit tourism, a vital source of earnings, and theMaldives has faced fuel shortages because it is unable to paysuppliers on time amid dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

The polls are the Maldives' third attempt to elect a newleader in as many months. A Sept. 7 vote was annulled based on asecret police report which found vote rigging while an Octoberpoll was halted by police after a Supreme Court ruling.

The delay has drawn criticism from international observers,including the United States.

"I just hope the Supreme Court doesn't interfere againtonight," said 63-year old Ameena Ali, who voted at a pollingbooth in the centre of the capital, Male.

A Reuters correspondent saw fewer people queuing up to votethan in the September election, when the turnout was 88 percent.Many feared the result could be annulled again through possibleinterference either from politicians or the police.

The Election Commission is expected to announce the resultsby 1830 GMT, and a run-off will be held on Sunday if there is noclear winner.

TROUBLE AHEAD?

Flanked by eight bodyguards and a mob of reporters, Nasheed,famous for holding a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight thethreat of global warming to the low-lying archipelago, voted ata polling station at a school in central Male, wearing a yellowshort-sleeved shirt.

"I'm confident of a win," he said.

His main challenger is Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother ofMaumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who ruled the Maldives for threedecades from 1978 and was accused by opponents and internationalrights groups of being a dictator.

Besides Nasheed and Yameen, the other main contender isresort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, a finance minister under Gayoom.

Yameen predicted he would win by a large majority. But in apossible sign of wrangling ahead, he questioned the election'scredibility.

The presidential candidates were meant to sign a register toverify the details of the country's nearly 240,000 voters, afterallegations the lists contained dead people and children.

"There are lists in the voting areas where the candidateshave not signed. That is totally wrong and these complaints arebeing filed with the Election Commission as we speak," Yameentold reporters after voting at a booth at a university.

The international community has issued strong warnings inrecent weeks that the Maldives' reputation as a haven forwealthy tourists had been tarnished by the political crisis.

The United States, Britain, the European Union and India,have urged the Maldives to hold a credible and inclusiveelection. But uncertainty still remains over how the candidateswill react after the results amid a lingering conflict betweenthe parliament and the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is generally seen as sympathetic to thethose loyal to Gayoom, while parliament is dominated byNasheed's supporters. Nasheed's rivals have not ruled out usingthe courts if they don't think the vote is fair.

"The obstruction of the election was the final result of thecoup perpetrators' devious plot to undermine the constitutionand take over the government," Nasheed told a rally on Friday.

Incumbent President Mohamed Waheed has said he will notremain in power after his term expires, despite a Supreme Courtruling allowing him to stay until the new leader is elected.

Nasheed's removal in February 2012 sparked protests by hissupporters and a subsequent police crackdown. ACommonwealth-backed commission of inquiry later concluded thathis removal did not constitute a coup. (Writing by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by MatthiasWilliams and Nick Macfie)

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