MALE, Maldives – After two months of political bickering and repeated failure to hold an election, Maldives voters headed to the polls Saturday to elect a new president for their vulnerable new democracy.
Two attempts at holding the presidential 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 budding democracy under threat.
Saturday's turnout looked less than a previous vote in September, the result of which was annulled by the Supreme Court.
Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected president who controversially resigned last year, is 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 a 30-year 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.
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 is called off.
Mohamed Ibrahim, a 31-year-old carpenter, said he voted for a candidate who promised to foster Islamic faith and values. Ibrahim said that whoever is elected, he wishes there will be no religion other than Islam in the predominantly Muslim and conservative Indian Ocean archipelago.
Maldives Constitution prohibits other religions and the issue was prominent in the campaigning, during which Nasheed's opponents potrayed him as too liberal.
Ibrahim, a resort owner, campaigned on a strong Islamic platform and courted a religious conservative party as his ally.
If no one gets at least 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is scheduled for Sunday. Some 240,000 people are eligible to vote.
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 all candidates had not 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 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 will approve the voters' register. He later negotiated with the Elections Commission to move up the runoff originally scheduled for Nov. 16 because the constitution requires an elected president to be in office by Nov. 11 and a constitutional crisis could result otherwise.
Maldives, a popular tourist destination in the Indian Ocean 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 like 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 Maldives' reputation and the economy could suffer. The country is heavily reliant on tourism, which contributed 27 percent to the 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 this 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 including high unemployment, increasing drug addiction among young people and improving transportation among the far-off islands.