Yameen defeats ex-president Nasheed to win Maldives elections

Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of the Maldives former strongman, won the Indian Ocean nation's presidential elections Saturday, in a stunning defeat for frontrunner Mohamed Nasheed after months of political uncertainty.

Yameen secured 51.3 percent of the popular vote compared to 48.6 percent for ex-president Nasheed after a contest wracked by lengthy delays that were viewed as politically motivated, Elections Commission results showed.

With 98 percent of the ballots counted, Yameen's 7,000-vote lead could not be erased even if all of the ballots that still need to be counted went to Nasheed, according to commission data.

Election organisers said they had hoped to name a winner of the run-off contest Saturday as international pressure mounted to elect a new president and end the political turmoil that has gripped the popular tourist-destination.

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

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

However, his main opponents united after his first round victory last week and mounted a formidable challenge, leading to Yameen's victory.

Yameen is the half-brother of former autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled the archipelago famed for its coral-fringed islands for 30 years, before the nation embraced democracy.

Polling stations began closing at 1100 GMT on Saturday, said the commission, although people still queuing were allowed to vote. The islands' electorate is a mere 239,000 people.

Officials said there were lines of voters outside some of the 475 polling booths scattered across the islands when polling for the two candidates began early Saturday.

"Everyone is highly anticipating the time when a new president is elected. And so, we are trying to announce the permanent results by very early tomorrow morning," Elections Commission Fuwad Thowfeek said on national television earlier in the day.

The vote tally began as soon as each station closed its doors, the commission added.

Delays and cancellations

The parliament on Saturday scheduled a special session for Sunday to inaugurate the new president in a further sign that this election may produce a clear winner.

In a highly unusual move on the eve of a national election, the incumbent 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.

Waheed, whose term expired last weekend under the terms of the constitution, has 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.

After casting his vote, Yameen said he had no complaints about the electoral process.

"I will accept the results no matter what the outcome," he told reporters.

Nasheed, a 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 Elections Commission was again cancelled by the Supreme Court, which is dominated by judges named during Gayoom's three-decade rule.

Ahead of the election, the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warned the bloc was "ready to consider appropriate measures should the poll ... not bring the electoral process to a successful conclusion".

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.