The Supreme Court of the Maldives on Monday annulled the results of the first round of voting in the country's presidential election, agreeing with a losing candidate's claim that the election was flawed.
Four judges of a seven-member panel decided that some 5,600 votes cast in the Sept. 7 first round were tainted, making it unclear which candidates qualified for a runoff. The court ordered revoting to be completed by Nov. 3.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed led the vote with more than 45 percent but failed to get the needed 50 percent. Yaamin Abdul Gayoom — brother of the South Asian country's longtime autocratic leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — finished second and was to face Nasheed in the second round scheduled for Sept. 28.
However, businessman Qasim Ibrahim, who finished a close third, complained that he was denied a runoff slot because of a voter registry that included made-up names and the names of people who are deceased. The difference between the second and third-placed candidates was about 2,700 votes.
The court postponed the election as it heard the case, angering the supporters of front-runner Nasheed.
The decision to annul an election hailed as free and fair by the United Nations, European Union and countries like the United States and neighboring India threatens to exacerbate the political crisis in this island nation that became a democratic system only five years ago.
The country known best for its luxury tourist resorts and beautiful beaches held its first democratic election in 2008 after the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed, who became president in that election, resigned last year amid public protests and withering support from the military and police over his decision to arrest a senior judge. The current president is Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who was deputy to Nasheed before his resignation.
A local inquiry commission dismissed his claims that he was ousted in a coup and forced to resign at gunpoint. However, the country has since been politically polarized.
Maldives is comprised of 1,100 coral islands and is home to 350,000 citizens, almost all of them Sunni Muslims. The country has had a difficult transition to democracy with its young institutions, including the elections commission, and police and the judiciary have often been accused of favoritism.
There have been nightly protests since the election's postponement by Nasheed supporters who questioned the court's impartiality and accused it of colluding with Gayoom.
The protests have largely been violence free but early on Monday six masked men broke into a pro-Nasheed television station and set a fire that gutted the studios.