MALE – After two months of political bickering and repeated failure to hold a presidential election, people in the Maldives voted Saturday to elect a new leader for their budding but vulnerable democracy.
Two attempts at holding the election since September failed with questions over the accuracy of the voters’ list prepared by the Elections Commission. The chaos left voters isolated and divided, and their country’s new democracy under threat.
The Elections Commission began counting ballots after the polls closed and said it expected initial results by early Sunday.
“Polling proceeded smoothly and peacefully across the country,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The election was observed by more than 2,000 local and foreign monitors across the archipelago of 1,192 tiny coral islands.
However, a runoff planned for Sunday in the event no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote may be in doubt, Elections Commissioner chief Fuwad Thowfeek told reporters in the capital, Male. The urgency is due to the country’s constitution, which requires a president to be elected by Monday, when sitting President Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s term ends.
Voter turnout appeared to be less than a previous vote in September, the result of which was annulled by the Supreme Court. Some 240,000 people were eligible to vote.
The country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who controversially resigned last year, was favored in the election. His main rivals are Yaamin Abdul Gayoom, a brother of former autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and Qasim Ibrahim, who challenged the September election in court.
Nasheed came to power in 2008, ending 30 years of autocratic rule. He resigned midway through his term after weeks of public protests and sliding support from the military and police over his order to arrest a senior judge. His opponents also accused him of undermining Islam because of his friendly relations with Israel and Western nations.
Among the electorate, Mohamed Naushed said he voted for “democracy to prevail in the Maldives.” He said he will not give up faith in voting even if Saturday’s election was called off.
Mohamed Ibrahim, a 31-year-old carpenter, said he voted for a candidate who promised to foster Islamic faith and values. He said that whoever is elected, he hopes there will be no religion other than Islam in the predominantly Muslim and conservative Indian Ocean archipelago.
The Maldives’ constitution prohibits other religions and the issue was prominent in the campaigning, during which Nasheed’s opponents portrayed him as too liberal. Qasim Ibrahim, a resort owner, campaigned on a strong Islamic platform and courted a religious conservative party as his ally.
Observers had regarded the Sept. 7 election as largely free and fair, but the Supreme Court annulled the results because it found the voters’ register included fake names and those of dead people. Police stopped a second attempt because not all candidates had endorsed the voters’ list, as mandated by the Supreme Court.
Yaamin Abdul Gayoom told reporters after voting that he did not believe the election was free and fair. He alleged that the Elections Commission was using a different voters’ list from the one he had endorsed.
Nasheed, meanwhile, expressed confidence that he would win.
Prospects for the election still looked bleak before President Mohamed Waheed Hassan mediated and obtained assurances Wednesday from candidates that they would approve the voters’ register. He later negotiated with the Elections Commission to move up the runoff, which was originally scheduled for Nov. 16, because the constitution requires an elected president to be in office by Nov. 11 and to avert a constitutional crisis.
The Maldives, a popular tourist destination known for its luxurious resorts, has faced much upheaval in the five years it has been a multiparty democracy. Society and even families have been divided along party lines, and institutions such as the judiciary, public service, armed forces and police have worked in different directions and been accused of political bias.
Delays to the election brought international pressure, with the United States and Britain warning that the Maldives’ reputation and economy could suffer. The country is heavily reliant on tourism, which contributed 27 percent to its gross domestic product in 2012.
Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, and Don McKinnon, a special envoy for the Commonwealth grouping of more than 50 former British colonies, were among the diplomats in the Maldives last week urging authorities to hold a credible election.
The next president must form a credible government, build up public confidence in government institutions and deal with pressing issues that include high unemployment, rising drug addiction among young people and poor transportation among the nation’s far-off islands.