Maldives police have clashed with hundreds of protesters after outgoing President Mohamed Waheed said he would remain in power after his term ended.
Waheed had been due to step down on Sunday, but when no candidate won the necessary 50 percent of votes in a long-delayed presidential election the previous day, the Indian Ocean archipelago was essentially left in constitutional limbo.
“Since the constitution does not state what must happen, the Supreme Court has decided the government will continue instead of going into a constitutional void,” Waheed declared overnight, just minutes before his tenure officially ended.
Mohamed Nasheed, who became the first democratically-elected president of the popular holiday destination in 2008 but who was forced from office in disputed circumstances last year, led after the first round with 47 percent of votes.
In 2008, Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled for 30 years and was accused by opponents and international rights groups of being a dictator.
Gayoom loyalists, including a half-brother, who also ran in Saturday’s vote, now oppose Nasheed’s bid to return to power.
Nasheed’s political party, which dominates parliament, wanted one of its members to run the country until the second round of voting on November 16.
But in a tussle between Nasheed and the old guard he is seeking to replace, that decision was overruled. Nasheed, famous for holding a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming to the low-lying archipelago, will contest the runoff vote against Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen.
After Waheed announced his intention to remain in power, about 1,000 opposition supporters took to the streets of the capital, Male, on Monday and threw stones at police, who responded with pepper spray and batons to break up the crowd.
The protests died down in the early hours, and Waheed was last seen leaving Male in a speedboat, accompanied by his wife and flanked by security.
Western countries and neighbouring India have looked on with growing concern as two previous attempts to hold presidential elections were aborted.
The vote, decided by an electorate of about 240,000 people, finally did go ahead on Saturday and the runoff between the leading two candidates was scheduled for the next day to avoid a constitutional crisis.
But the Supreme Court, which has largely acted in line with demands made by Nasheed’s rivals, delayed it until November 16, in a further challenge for a country known more for its luxury beaches than recent bouts of unrest.
The United States accused the Supreme Court of “unduly” interfering in the democratic process by postponing the runoff, five years after the Indian Ocean islands introduced multi-party democracy for the first time.
“Efforts by the Supreme Court to repeatedly and unduly interfere in the electoral process subverts Maldives’ democracy and takes decision-making out of the hands of the people,” the US embassy to the Maldives and Sri Lanka said
Despite the political uncertainty, the streets of Male were calm on Monday.