Maldives judges on Sunday heard a petition by strongman president Abdulla Yameen to have his recent election defeat annulled, potentially triggering US sanctions and plunging the Indian Ocean archipelago into fresh turmoil.
Yameen lost heavily in the September 23 election to a little-known united opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, despite his main rivals being in jail or in exile and the media in his pocket.
Under pressure from the US, Europe and India, which is seeking to counter growing Chinese influence in the strategically positioned 1,200-island honeymoon paradise, Yameen quickly conceded defeat and said he would leave office on November 17.
But even as Western countries breathed a sigh of relief, prisoners were released and opposition figures began returning from exile, Yameen last week filed a request for the Supreme Court to annul the result and call fresh elections.
A statement on Saturday by his Progressive Party (PPM) 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 Supreme Court in the capital Male adjourned on Sunday after proceedings that lasted several hours, and will resume on Monday.
The United States — which like the European Union threatened sanctions if the elections were not free and fair — on Saturday warned it would react if 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.
He added that Washington “will consider appropriate measures against anyone who undermines a peaceful transfer of power in #Maldives”.
The situation is not dissimilar to 2013 when Yameen, the estranged half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years until 2008, first became president.
Mohamed Nasheed, Yameen’s rival at the time and the country’s first democratically elected president, beat him in the first round of elections but Yameen persuaded the Supreme Court to nullify the result.
A subsequent vote was then twice delayed, allowing Yameen time to forge alliances that helped him narrowly win a contested run-off. Since then Yameen has borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects.
– ‘Blatantly unsubstantiated’ –
Dozens of people queued up outside the Supreme Court on Sunday to get inside several hours before the hearing began. It started with the court allowing all opposition parties to have their say.
A handful of people held placards, including “Arrest Yameen”.
Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, Colombo-based spokesman for the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), said the legal challenge was an attempt by Yameen to create turmoil.
The country’s Joint Opposition, which includes the MDP, has asked Yameen to withdraw the “blatantly unsubstantiated case, and to step aside and to facilitate a peaceful, and smooth transition.”
The opposition has also urged state institutions, including the courts and the security forces, to uphold the will of the people.
“Maldivians used the ballot to defeat the dictatorial regime. Yameen must not be allowed to (pervert) the hard-won opportunity for all Maldivians to attain meaningful democracy and stability,” the Joint Opposition said in a statement at the weekend.
Apart from his political foes, in February Yameen jailed the chief justice and another Supreme Court judge after accusing them of trying to topple him.
Yameen had initially suspended the court, parliament and the constitution and declared a state of emergency when legislators were about to impeach him in February.
Three of the remaining Supreme Court justices have been restored, but the opposition has said they had no faith in the judiciary to deliver justice while Yameen remains in power.
However, several high-profile political prisoners, including Gayoom, have been released on bail since the election results were officially announced.