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Maldives president leaves country on eve of crucial polls

AFP-JIJI

The president of the Maldives has left the country on the eve of national elections that have been delayed three times, his spokesman said Friday, leaving a leadership void amid a constitutional crisis.

Mohamed Waheed, who took office after a contested transfer of power last February, left for Hong Kong via Singapore on Thursday evening to accompany his wife to a medical appointment, spokesman Masood Imad said.

Presidential elections are to be held Saturday.

“I believe it was an appointment they had for some time that they deemed not necessary to postpone any more,” Imad said, noting Waheed’s wife was suffering an eye problem.

The married father-of-three, who as president commands the country’s armed forces, intended to return in a month and would in any case be stepping down as president after Saturday’s election, he added.

“He doesn’t have to be in Male. He is constantly in touch. There’s no reason for concern,” Imad added, saying that the legislature would be responsible for inaugurating a new leader Sunday.

Pressure has been mounting on the former U.N. official from Western nations and India, with the European Union warning of “appropriate measures” this week if the Indian Ocean islands failed to hold a free vote.

Under the terms of the constitution, Waheed’s term in office officially lapsed last weekend but he said he would remain in power to allow the selection of a replacement.

In a speech announcing his intention to step down on Saturday after 21 months in power, Waheed thanked the people of the Maldives but said his tenure had been “hard and stressful,” according to a statement Friday.

The tourism-dependent country has been gripped by protests and instability since February last year when the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, resigned.

He said he was forced out four years into his term by mutinous security officers acting on the orders of former autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Waheed, then his vice president.

Both accused men denied the allegations.

A first round of presidential elections was held Sept. 7 that were won with 45 percent of the vote by Nasheed, a pro-democracy campaigner regularly imprisoned during the 30-year rule of Gayoom.

He faced a second-round run-off vote against the former leader’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, which was scuttled by the Supreme Court. The court upheld a complaint about vote list irregularities.

Two further scheduled elections announced by the Election Commission were prevented.

Nasheed, who has promised to bring the perpetrators of the “coup” against him to justice if elected, will face Yameen in Saturday’s run-off vote.

On Wednesday, the 53-member Commonwealth bloc expelled the Maldives from its disciplinary panel, which has begun investigating the political chaos that could ultimately lead to the country being expelled.

Waheed, who has criticized foreign countries for trying to interfere in the country, shrugged off the attentions of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) in an interview later that day.

“CMAG can decide what they want,” he told the local Haveeru newspaper.

Gayoom, speaking at a rally of parties opposed to Nasheed’s return to power, said Thursday that if his half-brother were elected, the Maldives would leave the Commonwealth. He also took aim at regional power India.

“We will maintain good neighborly relations with all countries, but will not allow them to interfere in our internal affairs, particularly in our domestic politics,” he was quoted as saying in a statement from the president’s office.