The Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, famous for its beaches and marred by political unrest last year, holds democratic presidential elections for the second time in its history today.

President Mohamed Waheed is seeking a second term in the country of 1,190 islands and 350,000 people. His main challenger is former President Mohamed Nasheed, who left office last year in what he called a coup and faces trial on abuse-of-power charges for ordering the arrest of a judge.

A disputed vote may mar the Maldives’ transition from autocracy after Nasheed became the nation’s first democratically elected leader in 2008 following 30 years of rule by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. A power struggle could encourage hardline Islamist groups in the mostly Muslim nation, which is located near busy shipping lanes.

“The Maldives matters because it is strategically located and it’s a young democracy, one of the few in the Islamic world,” said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group. “My fear is that some people will not accept the result and there will political violence.”

The Maldives derives almost 30 percent of its gross domestic product from tourism, according to the World Bank, and is renowned for its beaches and scuba diving. The country’s population is scattered across 200 of its islands southwest of India.

Ministry Apology

The archipelago nation’s tourism industry suffered in 2010 after a video appeared online of a resort employee mocking two Swiss tourists in the local Dhivehi language as he officiated a ceremony to renew their wedding vows. He called the couple “swine” and “infidels” in an incident that later prompted a government apology.

Nasheed, who was jailed under Gayoom’s regime, left office after he ordered the arrest of the chief judge on accusations of failing to act impartially. Nasheed, who says he quit amid threats of violence by rebellious police and soldiers that amounted to a coup, was arrested and is now free on bail awaiting his trial.

If retakes the presidency, Nasheed will be immune from prosecution while in office, according to Chandrasekharan.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon “encourages all presidential candidates to respect the election results no matter who wins, and asks that all stakeholders overcome their past differences,” his office said this week.

Nasheed vowed yesterday to bring the “perpetrators of the coup” against him to justice if he’s elected, Press Trust of India reported. A commission of inquiry rejected his claim that he was ousted at gunpoint.

Polling will start at 7:30 a.m. and finish by 4 p.m. The Maldives will hold a run-off between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round.

With assistance from Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok. Editors: Andrew Davis, Nicholas Wadhams. To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew MacAskill in New Delhi at To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at 

Photo Credit: Maldives presidential candidate Nasheed addresses his supporters during a political rally ahead of the presidential election in Male. Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters