The Maldives' top court suspended the presidential election run-off scheduled for yesterday, raising fears of a prolonged political crisis in the young democracy. It is the third time in two months judges have blocked a vote.
Western countries have warned that delays in resolving the crisis will damage the Indian Ocean atoll nation and its fragile, tourism-dependent economy.
Opposition leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted in February last year in what he calls a coup, had appeared set to return to office after winning almost 47 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting on Saturday.
His challenger in the run-off would have been Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the country's former autocratic ruler, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who won almost 30 per cent.
But the candidate who placed third on Saturday had insisted his supporters need more time to decide who to back in the run-off.
Just hours before the run-off vote was due to begin, the Supreme Court postponed it until Saturday, despite a constitutional deadline of today to elect a new president. The 2008 constitution, which ended 30 years of one-party rule by Gayoom, states the new president must be elected by the time the outgoing president's term ends, which is today.
Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) condemned the court decision as a deliberate attempt to block the former president's return.
"It is obvious the Supreme Court is doing its best to find a way to give the best chance to Yameen to become the next president," MDP leader Ahmed Naseem said.
The United States had 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," a US State Department spokeswoman said.
The MDP had warned that the country could be heading for a constitutional crisis without a leader today, although the Supreme Court had ruled that outgoing President Mohamed Waheed can remain as a caretaker.
Nasheed, the country's first elected president, resigned last year following demonstrations and a mutiny by security forces that he denounced as a coup engineered by Waheed and former strongman Gayoom.
He swept to victory in the first round of elections on September 7 with 45 per cent of the vote and was seen as front runner in a second round run-off against Yameen scheduled for three weeks later. But the run-off never happened because the Supreme Court annulled the first round after a defeated candidate linked to Gayoom complained of fraud.