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Crisis-hit Maldives vote again

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The Maldives Saturday began voting in a run-off presidential election held under intense international pressure to elect a new leader and end months of political unrest.

Polling booths across the Indian Ocean archipelago opened at 7:30am (0230 GMT) with the 239,000 electorate given eight and a half hours to choose between two candidates, Elections Commission official Aishath Reema told AFP.

"This time we have slightly more voters," she said adding that many had lined up to vote even before the 475 polling booths opened across the islands scattered across the equator.

After an annulled result and two cancelled polls, foreign diplomats have increasingly viewed delays as politically motivated and the European Union warned of "appropriate measures" if Saturday's election did not go ahead as scheduled.

Opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, a former pro-democracy campaigner who won the first free polls in 2008, is the frontrunner 21 months after he resigned under pressure from demonstrations and mutinous police officers.

In a highly unusual move on the eve of a national election, the man who replaced him as president, Mohamed Waheed, left the country on Thursday to travel to Hong Kong for a medical appointment for his wife.

"He is constantly in touch. There's no reason for concern," his spokesman Masood Imad told AFP Friday, adding that parliament would be responsible for inaugurating a new leader on Sunday.

Waheed, whose term expired last weekend under the terms of the constitution, had remained in office despite demands from Nasheed's party for him to step down and growing pressure from Western nations and India.

He announced his intention to step down after elections on Saturday in a speech on Thursday.

Nasheed faces a run-off vote against Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of former autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the archipelago famed for its coral-fringed islands for 30 years.

The former political prisoner won a first vote on September 7 with 45 percent, but the result was scrapped by the Supreme Court which upheld a complaint about voter list irregularities.

After another attempt to hold the poll was blocked, a re-run of the first round took place on November 9 which Nasheed won by a larger margin -- nearly 47 percent -- but still not enough for an outright victory.

A run-off election announced for the day after by the independent Election Commission was again cancelled by the Supreme Court, which is dominated by judges named during Gayoom's three-decade rule.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a warning on Thursday.

"The EU underlines that neither continuing uncertainty nor a drift towards autocratic rule would be acceptable to the EU and that it is therefore ready to consider appropriate measures should the poll on Saturday not bring the electoral process to a successful conclusion," she said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the 53-member Commonwealth bloc expelled the Maldives from its disciplinary panel which has begun investigating the political chaos and could ultimately lead to the country being expelled.

Nearly one million holidaymakers visited the Maldives last year, drawn to its secluded beaches on private islands where cabins can cost several thousand dollars a night.

Any more violence would spell problems for the industry, the lifeblood of the country, which suffered a wave of cancellations following unrest last year after Nasheed stepped down.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131116/crisis-hit-maldives-vote-again