Police force postponement of Maldives presidential polls

MALE, MALDIVES (AFP) - Police in the Maldives forced the postponement of Saturday's presidential polls in the Indian Ocean nation, declaring the vote illegal and blocking documents from leaving the offices of the independent Elections Commission.

The commission just hours earlier announced the vote would go ahead as planned despite 11th-hour court challenges by two candidates.

"We continued with preparations for voting, but the Maldives Police Service have said no documents connected to the election can leave the commission's offices," Commission chairman Fuwad Thowfeek said in a statement. "A new date for elections will be informed later."

Police spokesman Abdulla Nawaz told AFP that they considered it was illegal to stage the election in violation of a Supreme Court order that required all candidates to approve electoral lists. "Only one candidate had signed the voter register, and therefore it would have been a violation of the Supreme Court guidelines for the election to go ahead," Mr Nawaz said.

The Supreme Court last week annulled the first round of voting on Sept 7, citing irregularities - even though international observers said the polls were free and fair - and ordered a re-run.

Former president Mohamed Nasheed, who said he was ousted in a coup involving rogue elements in the police last year, won 45.45 per cent of the vote in September - short of the 50 per cent threshold needed for outright victory.

The election was meant to end political tensions that followed the controversial downfall of Mr Nasheed in February last year, but it has caused more instability in a country that embraced multi-party democracy in 2008.

Mr Nasheed, 46, the frontrunner, insisted on Friday that the poll go ahead as planned, dismissing the challenge by business tycoon Qasim Ibrahim, who came third in last month's aborted poll, and Mr Abdullah Yameen, who was a distant second.

A few hours before the polls were due to open, Mr Thowfeek announced the election would go ahead, a move welcomed by Mr Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party and instantly opposed by the other two candidates.

The police announcement also meant that the Elections Commission could not transport some ballot boxes to remote islands in the archipelago of 1,192 coral islands of which 202 are inhabited.

The United States and regional power India had called for the election in the tourist paradise to go ahead without further obstacles. There was no immediate comment from either after the latest developments.

Mr Yameen, the half-brother of the islands' long-time ex-ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, won 25.35 per cent in September's poll and would have faced Mr Nasheed in a run-off, but the decision to order a re-run allowed third-placed candidate Ibrahim to re-enter the contest.

There has been heavy international pressure to ensure the country chooses a new president by Nov 11 in line with its Constitution.

Mr Gayoom ruled the Maldives for 30 years until he lost the first democratic election in 2008 to Mr Nasheed, but observers said Mr Gayoom's supporters still control key levers of power, such as the judiciary, and do not want to see Mr Nasheed return to office.