By J.J. Robinson
MALE (Reuters) - Voters in the Maldives go to the polls on Saturday to elect a president after nearly 20 months of intermittent protests and sporadic violence triggered when the previous government was ousted.
Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected president, was forced from office in February 2012 in what his supporters said was a coup.
The instability that followed threatened the Indian Ocean archipelago's image as a white-sand-and-coral holiday paradise.
Now Nasheed, who once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of climate change to his low-lying country of dozens of islands, says he is confident voters will put him back in power.
"There is enough support for us within the military and police now. The top brass don't have support among the rank and file. So we are fairly confident," Nasheed told Reuters in Male where almost every street is bedecked with election posters and flags.
The man who replaced Nasheed as president last year, Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, is also running. He told Reuters during a visit to Sri Lanka the consolidation of democracy was a very high priority.
"It is not always smooth. We have tried to stabilise that process," he said.
But Nasheed's main rival is expected to be Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of long-serving leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years and was accused by opponents and rights groups of running the country as a dictator.
Nasheed's ouster sparked rowdy protests by his supporters and a heavy-handed police crackdown, pushing the country into crisis. A Commonwealth-backed commission of inquiry later concluded that Nasheed's removal did not constitute a coup.
"What the people need is a smooth transition of power and a strong government which can instill democracy," said Ismail Hilath Rasheed, a human rights defender and blogger who has been living in exile since he was stabbed by an Islamist last year.
A rise in Islamist ideology, human rights abuses and a lack of investor confidence after Waheed's government canceled the country's biggest foreign investment project with India's GMR Infrastructure are the critical issues the new president will face, say analysts.
"Unfortunately, none of the candidates has spoken strongly against human rights violations and people being cruelly punished," Abbas Faiz, Maldives researcher at the rights group Amnesty International, told Reuters.
Another prominent contender is Gasim Ibrahim, a resort tycoon, media business owner and a finance minister under Gayoom.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes polled, the two top candidates will face off in a run-off vote on September 28.
The Maldives, a sultanate for almost nine centuries before becoming a British protectorate, held its first fully democratic polls in 2008 with Nasheed defeating Gayoom, an autocrat who was then Asia's longest-serving leader.
(Additional reporting and writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)