By J. J. Robinson
MALE (Reuters) - The Maldives is set to hold a presidential election on Saturday after two recent polls were abruptly aborted, blocking the country's first democratically elected leader from returning to power.
The Indian Ocean island state, famous for luxury holiday resorts and picturesque atolls, has been in political turmoil since February 2012, when Mohamed Nasheed was ousted as president in circumstances his supporters called a coup.
Nasheed became the Maldives' first democratically elected president in 2008 when he defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled for 30 years and was accused by opponents and international rights groups of being a dictator.
Nasheed's main challenger on Saturday will be Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of Gayoom. The other main contender is resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, a finance minister under Gayoom.
The international community has issued stark warnings in recent weeks that the Maldives' reputation as a haven for wealthy tourists had been tarnished by the political crisis.
"Through weeks of political bickering and questionable delaying tactics, the Maldives' democracy is now in peril," said U. S. Ambassador Michele Sison.
The United States, Britain, the European Union and India, have urged the Maldives to hold a credible and inclusive election.
Nasheed won a September 7 election declared largely credible by international monitors, although he faced a run-off ballot having failed to garner more than half the votes.
The Supreme Court annulled the election amid allegations of vote rigging, and the police canceled an October 19 poll after Nasheed's rivals failed to sign a voter registry.
Following a meeting with incumbent President Mohamed Waheed on Wednesday, Nasheed's rivals dropped a threat to veto the election and agreed to sign the registry, removing a major obstacle to the vote.
Waheed says he will not remain in power after his term expires on November 11, raising the prospect of a leadership vacuum if the latest bid to hold the vote falters.
The Election Commission said it would hold any run-off on Sunday, if no one gets more than half the vote on Saturday, and announce the winner the same evening.
Some 240,000 people are eligible to vote.
FIGHT FOR SUPREMACY
The tension has set state institutions against each other.
The Supreme Court is generally seen as sympathetic to the those loyal to old leader Gayoom, while parliament is dominated by Nasheed's supporters.
The Supreme Court opened hearings against legislators from Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) ahead of its planned vote on whether to impeach the attorney general, prosecutor general and defense minister.
Two MDP legislators were convicted and dragged from parliament by security forces last week, while the MDP voted to impeach Attorney General Azima Shukoor, a lawyer for former leader Gayoom prior to her appointment.
Nasheed's rivals say top election commission officials favor his party, and they still have major doubts about the credibility of the election.
Nasheed, who once held a cabinet meeting under water with members wearing scuba gear to highlight the danger of rising sea levels, is equally suspicious of his election rivals.
"There is no way they will participate in peaceful political activities," Nasheed told a rally this week.
Nasheed's removal in 2012 sparked protests by his supporters and a subsequent police crackdown. A Commonwealth-backed commission of inquiry later concluded that his removal did not constitute a coup.
The crisis has hit tourism, a vital source of earnings, and the Maldives has faced fuel shortages because it is unable to pay suppliers on time amid dwindling foreign exchange reserves.
As well as restoring investor confidence, the new president will also face rising Islamist ideology.
(Writing by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Robert Birsel)