MALE Voters streamed into polling booths in the Maldives to choose a new president on Saturday in an election that tests the democratic credentials of an Indian Ocean island state known more for its luxury resorts than its recent political turmoil.
The vote could mark the return of Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader who came to power in 2008 after 30 years of one-man rule. He was ousted last year in circumstances his supporters say amounted to a coup.
Whoever wins will face a rise in Islamist ideology, human rights abuses and a lack of investor confidence. The political crisis has hit tourism, a vital source of earnings, and the Maldives has faced fuel shortages because it is unable to pay suppliers on time amid dwindling foreign exchange reserves.
The polls are the Maldives' third attempt to elect a new leader in as many months. A September 7 vote was annulled based on a secret police report which found vote rigging while an October poll was halted by police after a Supreme Court ruling.
The delay has drawn criticism from international observers, including the United States.
"I just hope the Supreme Court doesn't interfere again tonight," said 63-year old Ameena Ali, who voted at a polling booth in the centre of the capital, Male.
A Reuters correspondent saw fewer people queuing up to vote than in the September election, when the turnout was 88 percent. Many feared the result could be annulled again through possible interference either from politicians or the police.
The Election Commission is expected to announce the results by 1830 GMT, and a run-off will be held on Sunday if there is no clear winner.
Flanked by eight bodyguards and a mob of reporters, Nasheed, famous for holding a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming to the low-lying archipelago, voted at a polling station at a school in central Male, wearing a yellow short-sleeved shirt.
"I'm confident of a win," he said.
His main challenger is Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who ruled the Maldives for three decades from 1978 and was accused by opponents and international rights groups of being a dictator.
Besides Nasheed and Yameen, the other main contender is resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, a finance minister under Gayoom.
Yameen predicted he would win by a large majority. But in a possible sign of wrangling ahead, he questioned the election's credibility.
The presidential candidates were meant to sign a register to verify the details of the country's nearly 240,000 voters, after allegations the lists contained dead people and children.
"There are lists in the voting areas where the candidates have not signed. That is totally wrong and these complaints are being filed with the Election Commission as we speak," Yameen told reporters after voting at a booth at a university.
The international community has issued strong warnings in recent weeks that the Maldives' reputation as a haven for wealthy tourists had been tarnished by the political crisis.
The United States, Britain, the European Union and India, have urged the Maldives to hold a credible and inclusive election. But uncertainty still remains over how the candidates will react after the results amid a lingering conflict between the parliament and the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is generally seen as sympathetic to the those loyal to Gayoom, while parliament is dominated by Nasheed's supporters. Nasheed's rivals have not ruled out using the courts if they don't think the vote is fair.
"The obstruction of the election was the final result of the coup perpetrators' devious plot to undermine the constitution and take over the government," Nasheed told a rally on Friday.
Incumbent President Mohamed Waheed has said he will not remain in power after his term expires, despite a Supreme Court ruling allowing him to stay until the new leader is elected.
Nasheed's removal in February 2012 sparked protests by his supporters and a subsequent police crackdown. A Commonwealth-backed commission of inquiry later concluded that his removal did not constitute a coup.
(Writing by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by Matthias Williams and Nick Macfie)