MALE - Voters across the Maldives came out in force Saturday to vote in an election that could see the honeymoon islands’ first freely elected leader return to power, 18 months after he was toppled.

Long queues formed outside polling booths before voting started under bright sunshine across the Indian Ocean archipelago, with the incumbent President Mohamed Waheed among the first to cast his ballot.

Waheed came to power in February 2012 when the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced from office following a mutiny by the security forces that he branded a “coup”.

Nasheed, a British-educated scuba-diving fanatic who once held a cabinet meeting under water, is contesting again and is seen as the clear frontrunner among the four candidates.

“We are very confident of winning it in a single round,” Nasheed said as he arrived to vote at a school, where he opted to join the queue in the sweltering sunshine to the surprise of onlookers.

Waheed is also standing — along with tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim and Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of long-time Maldivian autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The Maldives, which comprises more than 1,000 islands and has a population of about 350,000 Muslims, held its first free elections in 2008 after three decades of autocratic rule by Gayoom.

If none of Saturday’s candidates wins an outright majority, a run-off vote between the top two contenders is scheduled for September 28.

Yameen, who is seen as the main challenger to Nasheed, called it a “watershed election” as he voted near the university, wearing a shirt and tie and large sunglasses.

READ MORE: Clear negligence

“Things have gone so wrong the last four to five years. It is absolutely imperative that we change for the better this time,” he said.

Voting is taking place at polling stations on all inhabited islands as well as on the tourist resorts that have made the country famous as a “paradise” destination.

Nearly one million holidaymakers visited the Maldives last year, drawn to its secluded beaches on private coral-fringed islands where cabins can cost several thousand dollars a night.

Any more instability would spell problems for the industry, the lifeblood of the country, which suffered a wave of cancellations following the unrest last year.

Nasheed resigned from office on national television, which had been taken over by the security forces, whom he said threatened him and his family with violence.

Waheed, who was then vice-president, took the oath immediately afterwards, leading Nasheed to accuse him of taking part in a conspiracy with Gayoom and other wealthy businessmen.

Waheed denies the charges, but the contested change in leadership set back what was a flourishing democracy and has left a legacy of bitterness and distrust.

An international investigation concluded that Waheed’s ascent to the presidency was constitutional, but Nasheed claimed he stepped down under duress.

Leela Ahmed, a 43-year-old teacher, told AFP outside a polling station in Male that she had voted for Nasheed to reverse what she called a “coup” last year.

“We’re working to bring back a democracy that was crushed by a few people,” the mother-of-two said.

Nasheed spoke of his apprehension earlier this week that “renegade elements within the police and military... might intervene during voting or during counting”.

The former president’s social programmes and work to highlight climate change — 80 percent of Maldivian land is less than one metre (three feet) above sea level — earned him many fans, but he was not universally popular.

After growing frustrated with the judiciary, he sent the army to arrest the head of the country’s criminal court, which led to a pending criminal charge that he abused his powers while in office.

His work to increase taxes and introduce budget guesthouses also earned him enemies among the powerful tourist tycoons, while he is seen by some as being too eager to please neighbouring India.

Retired politician Ahmed Shareef, who served as a deputy foreign minister and mayor of Male under former governments, denounced Nasheed for privatising the international airport in a deal with Indian operator GMR.

The contract was scrapped last year by Waheed, leading to a serious deterioration of ties with India, which has been eyeing greater Chinese interest in the strategically located islands.

“It wasn’t a coup. It was what the creator of human beings, Allah, intended,” Shareef told AFP while declining to say who he would vote for.

“I don’t want any foreigner to be the operator of the airport,” he said.

The results are expected around midnight (1900 GMT)