MALE, Maldives (AFP) - The United States stepped up its criticism of the Maldives on Tuesday, warning caretaker President Mohamed Waheed that his decision to remain after his mandate expired was endangering democracy.
The US State Department said Mr Waheed's move to continue to govern after his time in office lapsed at midnight on Sunday was unprecedented, after the tourism-reliant Indian Ocean nation failed to hold elections for the third time in two months.
"The US government is deeply concerned by President Waheed's unprecedented decision to remain past the legal mandate of his presidency, which ended on Nov 10," State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said in a statement issued by the US Embassy in Colombo.
"This action has endangered the Maldivian people's right to elect a leader of their choice," she said.
The Commonwealth said it will launch a probe on Wednesday into the political chaos in the Maldives, which is also a member of the 53-member bloc, and will take an "appropriate decision".
"Strictly speaking there is a constitutional void," Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma told reporters in Colombo.
"Hopefully, this chapter can be put behind us," he said, referring to political unrest in the Indian Ocean archipelago since former leader Mohamed Nasheed stepped down in February last year saying he was topped in a coup.
Mr Nasheed's successor, Mr Waheed, announced on Sunday he would remain in office until a rescheduled run-off vote to elect a president is held on Nov 16, five days after the Constitution mandates that his term should have ended.
The country's Supreme Court postponed Sunday's vote, just hours before it was due to be held, a move slammed by the United States and criticised by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).
"The political chaos caused by the interference in the presidential elections could have long-term ramifications in upcoming local and then national parliamentary elections," the IPU said in a statement.
It repeated its call for the rule of law to be respected in the Maldives and for the independent functioning of the executive government, the parliament and the judiciary.
The courts, dominated by judges named during 30 years of autocratic rule by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, has blocked three attempts to elect a new leader for the Sunni Muslim nation of 350,000 people.
Mr Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected, is the frontrunner to return to power. He has accused the court and Mr Waheed of deliberately blocking him.
He secured nearly 47 per cent of the vote in a first-round vote on Saturday, compared with just under 30 per cent for his nearest rival Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of Mr Gayoom.
The United States accused the Supreme Court of "unduly" interfering in the democratic process by postponing the runoff, five years after the island nation introduced multi-party democracy.
The political crisis deepened on Monday when the Parliament Speaker warned Mr Waheed he had no right to govern past his official mandate under the terms of the Constitution.
On Sunday night Mr Waheed vowed he would not step down despite opposition calls for him to go.
"The President assured the public that he will resign on the 16th (after the run-off election) and will not accept any further delays to the elections," Mr Waheed's spokesman Masood Imad told AFP.
Mr Nasheed resigned in February 2012 following demonstrations and a mutiny by security forces, which he denounced as a coup engineered by Mr Waheed and former strongman Gayoom.