by Uditha Jayasinghe
MALE, Maldives, Sept. 8 (Xinhua) -- Coalitions are set to take center stage in the second round run off in the closely contested Maldives presidential elections after four candidates failed to grab 50 percent of the vote needed to become the next head of State.
Ousted former president Mohamed Nasheed was jovially confident on Sunday that he will be second time lucky but backtracked on his previous stance that he would not form a coalition to win the top post.
Nasheed, who remains the country's first democratically elected president, was controversially removed from power in an alleged coup in February 2012, but made a strong show during the first round securing a strong lead of 45 percent.
Yet by the early hours of Sunday morning Nasheed was still short of some 10,000 votes to gain an outright win.
Surrounded by his supporters, an upbeat Nasheed outlined plans to demand recounts of several ballot boxes and said he still retained hopes of a slim first round victory since Maldives law gives seven days for adjustment of voting results.
"We've had a very smooth and very peaceful election. Of course we have some issues with some of the ballot boxes. We believe at some boxes voter turnout is higher than the electoral list and we would like the elections commission to explain these irregularities and discrepancies to us. We believe that we have performed well and we believe that we will be able to win these elections hands down during the next round," he told media following the release of results.
An estimated six ballot boxes, Nasheed alleged, did not provide credible results, with the police being involved in one instance of malpractice.
"Even last night after all these conversations and after having raised everything, the police thought it fit to enter in a ballot box and close that box without the observers' presence, these kind of heavy-handed actions never helps an electoral process," he added, but praised the performance of the police and military in general for keeping "renegade elements" in check.
If a recount still fails to get him the magical 50 percent, Nasheed will sit with his senior party stalwarts to decide if and who to form a coalition with.
"We will be talking to individuals to come around to our manifesto and we have been led to understand that they do believe in our manifesto and they do want to implement that."
The result of the first round of the polls means that former President Abdul Gayoom's half-brother member of parliament (MP) Abdulla Yameen is to be Nasheed's rival in the second round.
Jumhoory Party (JP) candidate, business tycoon Gasim Ibrahim obtained 24 percent of the vote, while Yameen edged ahead by just a slim 25.5 percent.
Current President Mohammad Waheed, who controversially took power from Nasheed in February 2012, made a poor show, only managing to get 5.3 percent of the vote.
According to monitors, voter turnout was close to 90 percent.
Maldivians enthusiastically joined in the elections, forming long queues outside 470 polling stations spread over 200 islands. Seven international polling booths were also set up in five countries.
Transparency Maldives, who fielded the largest number of monitors, told media that voting had been uneventful in 85.3 percent of polling stations and noted that the concerns regarding the rest would not materially affect the first round results.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, as well as regional power India, had called for free and fair elections in the Indian Ocean group of islands that has endured over one and a half years of political turmoil.
Now that the results are in, it is time for the wheeling and dealing to begin.
First runner-up Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Abdulla Yameen has the public endorsement of former President Gayoom and many of his family members active in the current government.
As a result, the PPM's support base includes many of those who backed Gayoom in the 2008 presidential election, a sizeable population across the country which saw Gayoom receive 45.32 percent of the vote in the second round of the polls.
Yameen also holds doubts about the credibility of the election, he told Xinhua ahead of the polls, but is yet to make an announcement of his plans.
"This (the election) is absolutely crucial. This is the watershed election. Things have gone so wrong for the last four to five years and it is absolutely imperative that we change for the better this time," he said.
"The Elections Commission may be credible but I don't understand why they were so reluctant when we offered to invite from all the parties an independent group to verify and ascertain whether their system is full proof, so this makes us quite jittery, " he added.
One option for Yameen is to form a coalition with Ibrahim who is considered to be the richest man in the Maldives and was Finance Minister under Gayoom's last government.
Gasim heads the Villa Group of companies, one of the largest private conglomerates in the Maldives, involved in the gas, shipping, aviation, airport, education, media and resort sectors.
Gasim enjoys strong support in and around his home constituency of Maamagili and among his 6,000 employees across the Maldives, and reaches many more through his own private media network.
Though lacking the raw memberships of the MDP and PPM, with the resources and vessels at Villa Group's disposal, he was able to campaign extensively and bring large numbers to his rallies, bagging just 1 percent less than Yameen.
The two also share common plans to open up the Maldives to oil exploration and drilling, with both saying that it will be a priority should they form a government.
Nonetheless, Nasheed is capable of being a strong challenger as he single-handedly polled nearly the combined amount of Yameen and Gasim.
The former president is also appealing to the international community and has forged strong ties with India.
"The other candidates have been very xenophobic. Their rhetorics are always so very unacceptable in any decent society. We are a more international party. We believe that we live in an interconnected world and we must live within the family of nations and we will have better relations with all countries."
His focus has also included China, which provides nearly a quarter of Maldives' lucrative tourist trade and is intent on strengthening relations if he returns to power.
"We have very good relations with China. The Chinese government would understand this far more than ordinary people. While we were in government, the Chinese government did mention issues over core Chinese values, such as a single China, and we have always adhered to that. There are also other core Chinese values and as a traditional society, we understand these core values. So I think it will be very easy for us to identify with those core values and shared identities."
During Nasheed's three years in power, China opened an embassy in Male and in 2011 applied for observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was then headed by Maldives.
"I think the Indian Ocean would be a far more peaceful place if Maldives as a nation does not try to play one country against the other. We must be able to live peacefully in the Indian Ocean and the international community must be able to resolve their concerns peacefully within the Indian Ocean, and I believe that a peaceful Maldives and democratic Maldives will peacefully facilitate that."
A peaceful transition of power will be crucial for the Maldives, which is under the shadow of increased human rights abuses, political issues, religious extremism and decreasing investor confidence.
It is clear that whoever wins the Sept. 28 run-off will have a tough job ahead.