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Maldives presidential candidate Nasheed favorite as voters head for polls

Voters in the Maldives have begun voting in a presidential runoff, with opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed the front runner. Two previous elections have been controversially cancelled, and one poll result annulled.

Polling booths opened across the Maldives at 7.30 a.m. local time (0230 UTC), with the electorate of 239,000 choosing between two candidates.

"Polling commenced without any major incidents overnight," said a spokesman for the Election Commissioner's office.

The election sees Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Nasheed pitted against Abdullah Yameen, of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).

Nasheed, a former human rights campaigner, was elected president in 2008 in the country's first free election. He was pressured to resign 21 months ago amid demonstrations and a mutiny by security forces.

Nasheed alleged at the time that the coup had been engineered by his political rival Mohamed Waheed, as well as the country's former autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Abdullah Yameen is the half brother of Gayoom.

Waheed, whose term of office officially ended on November 11, has remained in power since then, ostensibly to fill the constitutional void after a series of delays in the voting process.

Punctuated voting process

In the first round of the current voting cycle, which took place last Saturday, Yameen won only 30 percent of the vote while Nasheed clinched 47 percent, just short of a majority.

Nasheed, a former political prisoner, won a previous first round of voting on September 7, only for the poll result to be declared null and void by the country's Supreme Court.

Two later poll attempts were cancelled by the Supreme Court, which is largely made up of judges who were appointed during Gayoom's three decades at the helm of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

The annulment and cancellations were criticized internationally, with the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issuing a warning against continuing uncertainty and “a drift towards autocratic rule.” Ashton said that Brussels would consider appropriate measures, should the delay continue.

The 53-member Commonwealth on Wednesday expelled the Maldives from its disciplinary panel. The panel has begun to investigate the political instability on the islands, which could ultimately be expelled.

rc/lw (AFP, Reuters)