By J.J. Robinson
MALE (Reuters) - New Maldives President Abdulla Yameen pledged on Sunday to end two years of political turmoil that have brought violent protests to the holiday paradise, as he was sworn in after defeating the favorite Mohamed Nasheed in a run-off.
The win was a victory for the political old guard, who rallied around Yameen to defeat Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected leader who was forced to resign last year in what he said was a coup.
The election was the fourth attempt to choose a new president after three earlier ballots were either cancelled or delayed, adding to tension between the rival political groups and drawing international condemnation.
Yameen won 51.4 percent of the votes in Saturday's ballot, in which 91 percent of the 240,000-strong electorate took part.
"Rising out of political turmoil and establishing peace is a big responsibility as Maldives' president and head of state," Yameen said in his inaugural speech, after he was sworn in at a special session of parliament.
Before his investiture, he also vowed to tackle the Indian Ocean nation's high levels of debt which leaves the Maldives vulnerable to external financial shocks.
"Today the Maldives is in a deep economic pit," he said.
"State debt is sky high. The state budget's expenses are extremely high. We have to prioritize by reducing state expenditure. I will start work very soon," he told a victory celebration.
In one potentially divisive move, he encouraged greater religious conservatism in the Muslim country during his campaign, including a form of sharia law.
He also called for enhanced police powers and implementation of the death penalty, which exists in the Maldives but is not carried out.
SETBACK FOR DEMOCRACY?
To supporters, 54-year-old Yameen is best qualified to steer the Maldives to economic prosperity, after he headed several state-run firms before launching a career in politics.
To detractors his victory is a blow to democracy and a step back towards autocratic rule.
Yameen is a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years and is considered a dictator by rights groups and opponents. Key to his victory over Nasheed was the support of resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim.
Gasim, a finance minister under Gayoom, was eliminated in the first round of voting on November 9.
Yameen was sworn in before the country's Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz, with both Gayoom and Nasheed sitting next to each other in the audience.
Nasheed has pledged to carry on in opposition, and on Saturday urged supporters to honor the outcome of the vote.
"When you fall get up and run. When you lose, be courageous and in victory, be magnanimous," he said.
Yameen began his duties with a prayer, and vowed to provide jobs for the young, increase wages of farmers and fishermen and share state revenues fairly across the island archipelago.
Spelling out his foreign policy, Yameen said he would seek stronger ties with neighboring countries and Arab states. He also took what appeared to be a swipe at the United States and European Union, who have been critical of the Maldives' handling of the election.
"We will decide our own affairs," he said.
(Writing Shihar Aneez; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alison Williams)