By Martina Fuchs
DUBAI (Reuters) - The Maldives' new leader said a presidential election could be held before the scheduled date of October 2013 provided conditions were right for a free and peaceful poll, after his predecessor quit last week amid a dramatic police mutiny.
Mohamed Waheed Hussain Manik, previously vice president, took over after the February 7 resignation of Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected president.
Nasheed says he was ousted in a coup by mutinying police and military officers, who forced him to step down.
He has demanded Waheed hand power to the speaker of parliament and call a new presidential election in two months. A senior U.S. diplomat on Saturday said most of the people he talked with on the Indian Ocean islands said it was not possible to have free and fair elections within two months.
Waheed suggested that polls could be brought forward, but did not specify a date.
"At the moment, the election is scheduled for late 2013, more than a year and a half from now. If we agree to bring it forward we will have a discussion with all political parties, but the conditions have to be right to ensure there will be free and fair elections," Waheed told Reuters on the phone from Male, the capital of the 1,200-island nation.
"We need to make sure that there is continuation of peace. It is really important to bring back confidence and create rule of law."
A Commonwealth ministerial team, led by Surujrattan Rambachan, the foreign minister of Trinidad and Tobago, was due to arrive in the Maldives capital, Male, on Friday to investigate the circumstances surrounding Nasheed's resignation, the 54-nation Commonwealth announced.
Nasheed's supporters have refused to recognise Waheed as the country's new leader and join his call for a national unity government.
Waheed said he was hoping to include members from Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in the new government.
"I am still reaching out to all parties to be a part of the united government. We already have eight political parties on board," Waheed said late on Wednesday. "I am still keeping some of the cabinet positions open, hoping also that some from Nasheed's party members will join us."
Most of the cabinet already selected by Waheed are veterans of the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years until Nasheed beat him in a 2008 election. Among them are several representatives of conservative Islamist parties, which savaged Nasheed's religious credentials.[ID:nL4E8D50BV]
Although a warrant was issued for Nasheed's arrest last week on unspecified charges, Waheed said his predecessor would remain untouched and unharmed. The foreign ministry this week said Nasheed enjoys the immunity privileges of all former presidents.
"We will ensure that he has complete protection from his bodyguards provided by the government. His safety will be assured," Waheed said. "There are some charges against the former president. But I have urged that this is not the time for this kind of stuff. We need to build confidence and return to a normal situation."
Tourism, the main engine of the archipelago's economy, appeared to be largely untouched by the upheaval, as most visitors bypass the gritty capital of Male and head straight to holiday huts perched on stilts above pristine turquoise waters.
"The capital Male has been quiet for many days now. I urge all visitors to continue to come and enjoy the Maldives," Waheed said. "There are no problems at the airport or with ground transportation, they can go to their resorts very peacefully."
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London, editing by Rosalind Russell)