MALE, Maldives – The Maldives’ top court suspended the presidential election runoff scheduled for Sunday, blocking a vote for the third time in two months and raising fears of a prolonged political crisis in the young democracy.
Western countries have warned that delays in resolving the crisis will damage the Indian Ocean atoll nation and its fragile tourism-dependent economy.
Opposition leader and ex-president Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted in February 2012 in what he calls a coup, had appeared set to return to office after winning almost 47 percent of the vote in the first round of voting on Saturday.
His challenger in the runoff would have been Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the country’s former autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who won almost 30 percent.
But the candidate who placed third on Saturday had insisted his supporters need more time to decide who to back in the runoff.
Just hours before the runoff vote was due to begin, the Supreme Court postponed it until November 16, despite a constitutional deadline of November 11 to elect a new president.
“All relevant state authorities are informed that today’s election cannot take place,” the court said in its pre-dawn decision.
The 2008 constitution, which ended 30 years of one-party rule by Gayoom, states the new president must be elected by the time the outgoing president’s term ends on Monday.
Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) condemned the court decision as a deliberate attempt to block the former president’s return.
“It is obvious the Supreme Court is doing its best to find a way to give the best chance to Yameen to become the next president,” said MDP leader Ahmed Naseem.
The United States and the Commonwealth had both warned against delaying the run-off vote.
“It is now imperative that the second round take place immediately and in line with Elections Commission directions in order to ensure the Maldivian people are led by an elected president of their choice,” said US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The 53-member Commonwealth bloc’s special envoy to the Maldives, Don McKinnon, said: “It is important now that the electoral process move forward swiftly to its conclusion, with the holding of the second round.”
The MDP has warned that the country could be heading for a constitutional crisis without a leader on Monday, although the Supreme Court has ruled that outgoing President Mohamed Waheed can remain as a caretaker.
Nasheed, the country’s first elected president, resigned in February 2012 following demonstrations and a mutiny by security forces that he denounced as a coup engineered by Waheed and former strongman Gayoom.
He swept to victory in the first round of elections on September 7 with 45 percent of the vote and was seen as front-runner in a second round run-off against Yameen scheduled for three weeks later.
But the run-off never happened because the Supreme Court annulled the first round after a defeated candidate linked to Gayoom complained of fraud. International and domestic election observers said the voting was free and fair.
Police action prevented a second vote on October 19 following another court ruling that procedures had not been followed, adding to suspicions among foreign governments that authorities were determined to prevent Nasheed returning to power at any price.
Gayoom, who ruled the archipelago with an iron fist till he was dislodged by Nasheed in a 2008 election, welcomed the court’s latest move.
“I welcome Supreme Court’s ruling to hold the 2nd round on November 16 because that would make it possible to have a credible election,” he said on Twitter.
Nasheed’s MDP accuses the former strongman of pulling the strings of the Supreme Court, an allegation that he and his Progressive Party of Maldives have denied.
Despite the political chaos, the streets of Male were calm on Sunday. Most protests and demonstrations usually take place in the evenings or late in the night.
Nasheed on Saturday garnered 46.93 percent of the vote but fell short of the 50 percent needed to win outright in the country best known as a honeymoon destination. Yameen won 29.73 percent.
The third-placed candidate with 23.34 percent, business tycoon Qasim Ibrahim, had asked the court for more time to tell his supporters which way to vote in the runoff.
During his rule Gayoom packed the judiciary and security forces with supporters, and there are suspicions that even if Nasheed wins, he could still be thwarted.
“I still have doubts he will be allowed to take power,” a European diplomat told AFP before the first-round results were known.