COLOMBO • Maldives judges yesterday heard a petition by strongman Abdulla Yameen to have his recent election defeat annulled, potentially triggering US sanctions and plunging the archipelago into fresh turmoil.
Mr Yameen lost heavily in the Sept 23 election to a little-known unity opposition candidate, Mr Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, despite his main rivals being in jail or in exile and the media in his pocket.
Under pressure from the United States, Europe and India, which is seeking to counter growing Chinese influence in the strategically positioned 1,200-island holiday paradise, Mr Yameen quickly conceded defeat and said he would leave office on Nov 17.
But even as Western countries breathed a sigh of relief, prisoners were released and opposition figures began returning from exile, Mr Yameen last week filed a request for the Supreme Court to annul the result and to call fresh polls.
A statement on Saturday by his Progressive Party said the vote was the "most farcical election in living memory" with the organisation "abysmal", vote-rigging "rampant" and many people unable to cast ballots.
The US - which like the European Union threatened sanctions if the elections were not free and fair - on Saturday warned it would react if Mr Yameen, 59, does not go quietly.
"The US is concerned by troubling actions by outgoing President Yameen that threaten to undermine the will of the Maldivian people," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said on Twitter.
Dozens of people queued up to get inside the Supreme Court yesterday hours before the hearing.
It started with all opposition parties being allowed to have their say.
Mr Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, Colombo-based spokesman for the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), said the legal challenge was an attempt by Mr Yameen to create turmoil.
The country's joint opposition, which includes the MDP, has asked Mr Yameen to withdraw the "blatantly unsubstantiated case" and to step aside.
"Maldivians used the ballot to defeat the dictatorial regime. Yameen must not be allowed to perverse the hard-won opportunity for all Maldivians to attain meaningful democracy and stability," the joint opposition said in a statement.