Maldives to hold first polls since president toppled

COLOMBO - The Maldives is to hold presidential polls on September 7, the first since the archipelago's first democratically elected leader was toppled in what he called a coup, the government said on Wednesday.

On the eve of the anniversary of president Mohamed Nasheed's ouster on the honeymoon islands, a top aide to his successor as president said arrangements had already begun to prepare for the election.

"The election commission has announced September 7 as the date," Masood Imad, media secretary to President Mohamed Waheed, said.

"Administrative work has already begun to conduct the election."

The Maldives, a patchwork of low-lying islands best known as an upmarket holiday destination, has been in political turmoil ever since Nasheed stepped down as president on February 7, 2012.

He later declared that he was forced out of office in a coup backed by the security forces and Islamic extremists.

However, a Commonwealth-supervised investigation rejected his claim of a coup and said that the transition of power to his deputy Waheed was in line with the constitution.

Nasheed, 45, has won nominations from his Maldivian Democratic Party to run for the presidency, but his main opponents are not yet clear.

He has warned that Islamic extremists are taking control of the Indian Ocean archipelago, which has a population of 330,000.

Officials said there would be a run-off on September 28 if no candidates crosses the 50 percent mark of the total ballots polled on September 7.

The Maldives has been under intense international pressure to hold early polls after the resignation of Nasheed last year, which followed weeks of opposition protests that were capped by a police mutiny against his administration.

The Commonwealth had previously asked Waheed to hold elections before the end of 2012, but the president insisted he was not empowered to call snap elections.

In a weekend email exchange with AFP, Nasheed, who is facing several court cases on charges of abuse of power and violating the constitution, expressed fears that his predecessor may try to block him from running for office.

"Clearly, the regime, including Waheed, wants to prevent me from standing in the elections," Nasheed wrote.

"In a sense, the coup isn't complete until they prevent me running for office.

"They don't want me threatening their hold on power. I am quite confident that I can win a presidential election.

"And that is precisely why Waheed and his friends in the judiciary have launched this case against me."

He insisted that his trial was a "politically-motivated sham," a charge already denied by Waheed.

Nasheed fought for democratic freedoms by campaigning against the rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled the Maldives for 30 straight years until he was defeated at the first multi-party polls in 2008.

Many of Nasheed's allies have turned against him as a new wave of religious extremism sweeps the country were Sunni Muslims had traditionally practised a liberal form of the religion.

"I am extremely worried about the fate of Maldivian democracy," Nasheed said.

"I fear that the actions of Waheed and his allies may have strangled Maldivian democracy at birth."

There was no immediate comment from the president, but he said in a tweet that democracy was "not a perfect destination".

"Democratic transition is a journey towards peace, equality and justice," Waheed said. "It requires cooperation, understanding and patience."

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