Maldivians finally vote to elect new president

AP News
Posted: Nov 08, 2013 11:36 PM
Maldivians finally vote to elect new president

MALE, Maldives (AP) — After two months of political bickering and repeated failure to hold an election, Maldives voters headed to polling stations Saturday to elect a new president for their vulnerable new democracy.

Voters were lining up in schools being used as polling stations in capital Male, with some camping out overnight to get an early start.

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.

Mohammed Sujuan said he is "definitely voting."

"Even if the voting is cancelled again ... it is my right," said the 21-year-old painter. He said he would vote for former President Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader who controversially resigned last year.

Nasheed is favored in the election, with his main rivals being Yaamin Abdul Gayoom, a brother of former autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and tourist resort owner Qasim Ibrahim, who challenged the September election in court. If no one gets at least 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is scheduled Sunday. Some 240,000 people are eligible to vote.

Nasheed resigned midway through his term after public protests and sliding support from the military and police over his order to arrest a senior judge he perceived as corrupt and biased. An inquiry put aside his claim of a coup, but the country has since been in political turmoil.

Siyana Mohamed, a 31-year-old government worker, said she will not vote because she is disgusted with politics and politicians.

"There is no one who wants to serve for the betterment of the nation," she said. "I hope that a new breed of young politicians will emerge to substitute the current politicians."

"The three candidates are out to seek power at any cost and we, the ordinary citizens are suffering," she said.

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.

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 after ending 30 years of autocratic rule in 2008. Society and even families have been divided sharply 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.

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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.

Gayoom's Progressive Party of the Maldives said in a statement that its candidate endorsed the voters list owing to "external interference" even though the party had many concerns. It did not name the countries or officials purported to have interfered.

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.