MALE, Maldives (AP) — The president of the Maldives said he will stay in office even though his term ends at midnight Sunday in order to avert a constitutional void that could have arisen due to the postponement of a presidential runoff election.
President Mohamed Waheed Hassan said in a televised address to the Indian Ocean archipelago nation Sunday night that his intention was to oversee the runoff now scheduled for Nov. 16.
The first democratically elected president of the country and the brother of a former autocratic ruler have qualified for the runoff based on the results of Saturday's election. However, the Supreme Court postponed the runoff scheduled for Sunday, the latest in a series of obstacles in electing a president.
Hassan's decision has the potential to exacerbate an already volatile political situation in the fragile democracy.
After Hassan's announcement, hundreds of supporters of former President Mohamed Nasheed poured into the streets to demand Hassan's resignation, throwing stones and bottles at police.
Hassan's decision to stay in office came despite the urging of a U.N. official that an interim government be established until an elected president could be sworn in.
Nasheed, who resigned as president last year, won nearly 47 percent of the vote in Saturday's election, while Yaamin Abdul Gayoom, the brother of 30-year autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, trailed with 30 percent. A third candidate, businessman Qasim Ibrahim, had 23 percent.
A runoff between the top two candidates was required because no one received at least 50 percent of the vote. Some 240,000 people were eligible to vote in the predominantly Muslim nation, and about 86 percent voted.
The runoff was supposed to be held Sunday, but hours earlier the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a petition filed by a member of Ibrahim's Jumhoory Party who asked for a postponement, arguing there was little time to campaign or forge alliances. The court set the runoff election for Nov. 16 as it was originally scheduled before it was moved up at Hassan's request to avoid a constitutional crisis.
Gayoom told reporters late Saturday that he wanted a postponement of the runoff to sort out alleged discrepancies in the voters' list. Nasheed had said the elections were fair.
The constitution requires that an elected president be in office when Hassan's term ends. The Supreme Court on Saturday reiterated its previous ruling that Hassan will stay in office until a runoff is held if no clear winner emerged from the first round, ignoring the possibility of a political crisis.
Presidential spokesman Masood Imad said that Hassan "reluctantly" decided to stay in office because of the Supreme Court order. He and the ministers will not receive their pay for this period and limit their work to basic administration and not undertake new initiatives.
Hassan will not stay beyond Nov. 16 for any reason, Imad said.
Nasheed had demanded that Hassan resign before his term ends at midnight, which would enable the parliamentary speaker to be caretaker and oversee the runoff. The constitution provides for the speaker to take over powers if both the president and vice president vacate their positions.
Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen already resigned on Sunday, presidential spokesman Imad said.
Nasheed said the international community was wrong in recognizing Hassan, his former deputy, as president when he resigned controversially last year and urged it to compensate by facilitating a power transfer to the speaker. He also called for the government and the armed forces to support the transfer.
The U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco in a statement called for an interim government to be established until an elected president takes the oath of office.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted the high voter turnout in an election administered "professionally and credibly," urging that the presidential election process be concluded "without further delay in the best interest of the Maldivian people," according to a statement issued by his spokesperson's office.
The U.S. Embassy in neighboring Sri Lanka expressed concern over the court order and said the Supreme Court's efforts to "repeatedly and unduly interfere in the electoral process subverts Maldives' democracy and takes decision-making out of the hands of the people."
Saturday's elections were the third attempt to elect a president this year. Two previous attempts since September failed with questions over the accuracy of the voters' list prepared by the Elections Commission. The chaos left voters isolated and divided, and their country's new democracy under threat.
Observers had regarded the September election as largely free and fair, but the Supreme Court said it found the voters' register included fake names and those of dead people. Police stopped a second attempt to hold the election last month, claiming all the candidates had not endorsed the voters' list as mandated by the Supreme Court.
The Maldives, which is known for its luxurious resorts, has faced much upheaval in the five years it has been a multiparty democracy. Institutions like the judiciary, public service, armed forces and police have worked in different directions and been accused of political bias. There is fear that continued political turmoil could harm the Maldives' reputation for stability and its economy. The country is heavily reliant on tourism, which contributed 27 percent to the gross domestic product in 2012.
Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the country's first multiparty election in 2008, ending his 30-year autocratic rule. But Nasheed resigned last year after weeks of public protests and signs of declining support from the military and police after he ordered the arrest of a senior judge he perceived to be biased.
Nasheed claimed that he was ousted in a coup and accused his then-deputy, Hassan, of backing it. An inquiry commission set aside his claim of a coup but the country has since been in political turmoil.
The next president faces huge challenges in building public confidence in government institutions and dealing with pressing issues including high unemployment, increasing drug addiction among young people and improving transportation among the far-off islands.