World

Maldives court postpones presidential runoff

MALE, Maldives (AP) — The first democratically elected president of the Maldives and the brother of the country's former autocratic ruler have qualified for a runoff, according to results in the island nation's presidential election. But the Supreme Court postponed Sunday's runoff by six days, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis in this tourist paradise nation, which has been buffeted by political turmoil for the past five years.

Mohamed Nasheed, who resigned as president of the Indian Ocean archipelago last year, won nearly 47 percent of the popular vote in Saturday's election, while Yaamin Abdul Gayoom, the brother of 30-year autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, trailed with 30 percent. A third candidate, businessman Qasim Ibrahim, had 23 percent.

A runoff between the top two candidates was required because neither received at least 50 percent of the vote. The runoff was supposed to be held Sunday, but hours earlier the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a petition filed by a member of Ibrahim's Jumhoory Party who asked for a postponement, arguing there was little time to campaign or forge alliances. The court set the runoff election for Nov. 16 as it was originally scheduled before it was moved up on President Mohamed Waheed Hassan's behest to avoid a constitutional crisis.

Hassan's term ends Monday, and the constitution requires an elected president be in office by that day. The Supreme Court on Saturday reiterated its previous ruling that Hassan will stay in office until a runoff election is held if no clear winner emerged from the first round, ignoring the possibility of a political logjam.

On Sunday, Nasheed demanded Hassan's resignation before his term ends at midnight, which would enable the parliamentary speaker to be caretaker and oversee the runoff. The constitution provides for the speaker to take over powers if both the president and vice president vacate their positions.

Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen already resigned on Sunday, presidential spokesman Masood Imad said. Imad said Hassan would make a decision after getting legal advice because the Supreme Court has asked him to continue.

Nasheed said the international community was wrong in recognizing Hassan, his former deputy, as president when he resigned controversially last year and urged it to compensate by facilitating a power transfer to the speaker. He also called for the government and the armed forces to support the transfer.

The U.S. Embassy in neighboring Sri Lanka expressed concern over the court order and said the Supreme Court's efforts to "repeatedly and unduly interfere in the electoral process subverts Maldives' democracy and takes decision-making out of the hands of the people."

The Maldives, which is 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. There is fear that continued political turmoil could harm the Maldives' reputation for stability and its economy. The country is heavily reliant on tourism, which contributed 27 percent to the gross domestic product in 2012.

The next president faces huge challenges in building public confidence in government institutions and dealing with pressing issues including high unemployment, increasing drug addiction among young people and improving transportation among the far-off islands.

Gayoom also told reporters late Saturday that he wanted a postponement of the runoff to sort out alleged discrepancies in the voters' list. Nasheed had said the elections were fair. There is deep mistrust between Nasheed, Hassan and the Supreme Court because the former president believes the other two are under the influence of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom himself.

The integrity of the Supreme Court has been called into question, with the United Nations' human rights chief, Navi Pillay, last week accusing it of interfering with the presidential election and subverting the democratic process.

Saturday's elections were the third attempt to elect a president this year. Two previous attempts 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 new democracy under threat.

Observers had regarded the September election as largely free and fair, but the Supreme Court said it found the voters' register included fake names and those of dead people. Police stopped a second attempt to hold the election last month, claiming all the candidates had not endorsed the voters' list as mandated by the Supreme Court.

Some 240,000 people were eligible to vote in the predominantly Muslim nation, and about 86 percent voted. Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the country's first multiparty election in 2008, ending his 30-year autocratic rule. But Nasheed resigned last year after weeks of public protests and signs of declining support from the military and police after he ordered the arrest of a senior judge he perceived to be biased.

Nasheed claimed that he was ousted in a coup and accused his then-deputy, Hassan, of backing it. An inquiry commission set aside his claim of a coup but the country has since been in political turmoil.

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