* President forced out in 2012 hopes to be voted back in
* Unrest hurt nation's tropical paradise image
* If no outright winner, run-off scheduled for Sept. 28
By J.J. Robinson
MALE, Sept 7 Voters in the Maldives thronged
polling stations on Saturday to chose a new leader 20 months
after their first democratically elected president was ousted,
causing months of sporadic violence and uncertainty.
Mohamed Nasheed, forced from power in February 2012 in what
his supporters say was a coup, hopes to return to office and end
a period of unrest that has tarnished the Indian Ocean
archipelago's image as a tropical holiday paradise.
"Voting today is significant because we are going to
establish a legitimate government," he said after waiting 15
minutes to cast his ballot in the city centre, near police
Jostled by reporters, Nasheed was whisked to the front of
the queue by bodyguards and then quickly out of the polling
He is running against three rivals, including Mohamed Waheed
Hassan Manik, who took over as president after his ouster.
But Nasheed's main rival is expected to be Abdulla Yameen, a
half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who ruled for 30
years and was considered a dictator by opponents and rights
"I hope to get through in the first round itself," Yameen
Also on the ballot is Gasim Ibrahim, a resort tycoon, media
business owner and a finance minister under Gayoom.
Voters waiting in queues that stretched around street
corners in the capital Male, were eager to cast their ballots
after the prolonged period of turmoil.
"I've been waiting 19 months for this day. So I got here as
early as I could. It's my way of standing up against the coup,"
said Ismail Shiyaz, 39, a backer of Nasheed.
Others, like Rooya Hussain, were less certain.
"I don't think any of these candidates are suitable," she
said. "However, I cast a valid vote for one of them. Let's see
if this brings any change for the better."
FORCING A RUN-OFF
Nasheed said he now enjoyed support in the ranks of the
military and police which helped force him from office and
expressed confidence he would secure 50 percent of the vote to
win in the first round. A split vote would force a run-off on
Nasheed was forced to resign in February 2012 after
mutinying police and military forces armed opposition
demonstrators and gave him an ultimatum.
His removal sparked unruly protests by his supporters and a
heavy-handed police crackdown, pushing the country into crisis.
A Commonwealth-backed commission of inquiry later concluded that
his removal did not constitute a coup.
A rise in Islamist ideology, human rights abuses and a lack
of investor confidence after Waheed's government cancelled the
country's biggest foreign investment project with India's GMR
Infrastructure are among the critical issues the new
president will face.
The Maldives, a sultanate for almost nine centuries before
becoming a British protectorate, held its first fully democratic
polls in 2008 with Nasheed defeating Gayoom, an autocrat who
was then Asia's longest-serving leader.
(Additional reporting and writing by Shihar Aneez in Colombo;
Editing by Ron Popeski and Robin Pomeroy)