MALE, Maldives (AFP) - Presidential elections in the Maldives were thrown into disarray on Sunday after the Supreme Court suspended a run-off vote, denying former president Mohamed Nasheed the chance to return to power 21 months after he was ousted.
Despite growing international concerns over the Indian Ocean atoll nation's failure to elect a new president, it is the third time in two months that authorities have stepped in to prevent polls taking place, leaving the nation in political limbo.
Nasheed on Saturday garnered 46.93 percent of the popular vote but fell short of the 50 percent needed to win outright in the country best known as a honeymoon destination, with a run-off scheduled for the following day.
The 46-year-old also came out on top on September 7 in elections that were subsequently annulled by the Supreme Court.
And police action prevented a second vote on October 19 following another court order that said procedures had not been followed, adding to suspicions among foreign governments that the authorities were determined to prevent Nasheed returning to power at any price.
"All relevant state authorities are informed that today's election cannot take place," the Supreme Court said in a pre-dawn decision that came just hours before the re-run was due to begin.
The man who came third in Saturday's vote, business tycoon Qasim Ibrahim, had asked the court for more time to tell his supporters which way to vote in a run-off pitting Nasheed against Abdulla Yameen, half brother of former autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
The court order came after Chief Elections Commissioner Fuwad Thowfeek announced he was going ahead with the vote timetable agreed with all the candidates before the first round.
The United States and the Commonwealth had both warned against delaying the run-off vote.
"It is now imperative that the second round take place immediately and in line with Elections Commission directions in order to ensure the Maldivian people are led by an elected president of their choice," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The 53-member Commonwealth bloc's special envoy to the Maldives, Don McKinnon, said: "It is important now that the electoral process move forward swiftly to its conclusion, with the holding of the second round."
"It is unreasonable and unacceptable for parties to continue to demand changes to an agreed election date," he added.
Ibrahim came last on Saturday with 23.34 percent of the vote, but announced he would back Yameen in a bid to prevent Nasheed's return to power. Yameen won 29.73 percent of the vote in Saturday's poll.
Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party warned the country could be heading for a constitutional crisis without a leader, but the Supreme Court Saturday ruled that outgoing President Mohamed Waheed can remain as a caretaker.
Nasheed won the country's first multi-party elections in 2008, ending 30 years of iron-fisted rule by Gayoom but after clashing with key institutions, including the judiciary and security forces, he was forced to resign in February 2012.
The Maldives, whose turquoise seas and white beaches have long been a major draw for tourists, has been the focus of intense US-led diplomatic pressure over the elections.
Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) had warned there could be legal challenges to the outcome of Saturday's vote irrespective of who won.
A host of Western diplomats had flown in to seek to ensure no hitches in the vote in a nation of 350,000 people with a fragile tourism-dependent economy.
The latest election was observed by more than 2,000 local and foreign monitors across the archipelago of 1,192 tiny coral islands and they did not report any electoral malpractice.
During his rule, Gayoom packed the judiciary and security forces with supporters, and there are suspicions that even if Nasheed wins, he could still be thwarted.
"I still have doubts he will be allowed to take power," a European diplomat told AFP before the first-round results were known.