The Maldives is facing fresh uncertainty after its highest court annulled the results of a presidential poll that had been declared free and fair by national and international observers.
In a split, 4-3 decision announced late on Monday evening, the Supreme Court said there was evidence the polls held on 7 September, in which former president Mohamed Nasheed won the highest number of votes, had suffered irregularities. The court set a new election date for 20 October.
The announcement by the court is the latest twist in a series of political dramas that have rocked the archipelago nation since Mr Nasheed was forced from office in February 2012, in what he and his supporters had termed a coup.
Under considerable international pressure, particularly from India, the administration that succeeded Mr Nasheed organised a fresh poll within 20 months. In that election on 7 September, Mr Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) emerged in first place with just under 45 per cent of the vote, five per cent shot of securing a first-round victory.
As a result, a run-off election was due to take place between Mr Nasheed and the second-placed candidate, Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of the Maldives’ former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
But before the run-off could be held, a challenge over the fairness of the first polls was mounted by the third-placed candidate, Gasim Ibrahim, a tourism and media tycoon who once served as Mr Gayoom’s finance minister.
Mr Ibrahim, who secured 24 per cent of the vote in the first round, claimed the poll was affected by irregularities, even though both domestic and international observers said proceedings were fair. The Human Rights Commission of Maldives said the vote was “free and fair” while the Commonwealth Observers Group said it had been a “credible electoral process”.
Mr Nasheed and his supporters claim they are the victims of powerful forces within the business community and the judiciary, the same people they say were behind his ousting last year.
After being elected president in 2008, ending Mr Gayoom’s 30-year rule, Mr Nasheed took on many of the nation’s powerful interests. He also raised the international profile of the low-lying Maldives and the danger posed by climate change and rising oceans.
Now the so-called Mandela of the Maldives, who served a political prisoner during Mr Gayoom’s dictatorship, will have to prepare for another poll, along with all the other parties.
“This puts everyone under pressure,” said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, an MDP members of parliament, speaking today from the capital, Male. “It has created a lot of tension for the whole country.”
Asked why the court had annulled a poll that observers had deemed to be fair, Mr Ghafoor replied: “That is the million dollar question – why?”
Reuters reported said that in their split ruling, the judges who said there had been irregularities during the polls, relied on a secret police report that suggested more than 5,600 ineligible voters had cast their votes. The other three judges said there was no evidence of irregularity.
Mr Ibrahim, who came third and who had challenged the polls, is now celebrating his second chance. His running mate and legal adviser, Hassan Saeed, said: “We are very happy to see this judgement in our favour. There were serious irregularities.”
The announcement by the Supreme Court verdict laid down guidelines to the Election Commission for the 20 October polls, including a direction to give the police a substantial role in logistics and maintaining security.
A statement issued by the foreign ministry of the Maldives, said: "Following the verdict of the Supreme Court, the government of Maldives assures its full commitment for the timely implementation of the decision and support to all relevant authorities including the Elections Commission in carrying out their mandatory duties in accordance with the ruling."