MALE - The ex-leader of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, faces a tricky run-off after failing to win a majority in presidential polls he hoped would seal his return to power 18 months after he was toppled.

Nasheed was the clear winner of Saturday’s first round but analysts said he would be disappointed in failing to pass the 50 percent threshold and would now face an uphill task to seal his comeback in the second round of voting on September 28.

The Elections Commission on Sunday formally announced the run-off between Nasheed, who secured 45.45 percent of the popular vote on the honeymoon islands, and his nearest rival Abdullah Yameen, who garnered 25.35 percent.

The two other candidates, both of whom have been fiercely critical of Nasheed, could now prove a major stumbling block to the climate change activist’s hopes of storming back to power after his ousting in February 2012.

Nasheed has maintained he was the victim of a “coup” after a mutiny by the security forces but Saturday’s vote passed off without violence.

Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said it “preferred” an outright victory on Saturday, but was prepared to face the next round of balloting even as parties scrambled to form new coalitions.

“Of course we preferred a victory in the first round, but we are very confident of winning the next round,” MDP Youth Wing leader Shauna Aminath told AFP. “The results show that we doubled our vote base compared to 2008 and we are the largest, strongest party in the country.”

A spokesman for incumbent President Mohamed Waheed, who suffered a humiliating defeat receiving just 5.13 percent of the vote, said he was already planning to back Yameen, half brother of former strongman president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Asked if Waheed would support any of the candidates at the run-off, his spokesman Masood Imad told AFP: “It’s Yameen. Talks are already under way.”

The editor of leading newspaper Haveeru, Moosa Latheef, said the 46-year-old Nasheed would be “very disappointed” by the results.

“The second round will be tight,” he said. The other candidate who lost out in the initial vote was tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim who came in third.

Maldivians came out in force on Saturday, forming long queues outside polling booths under bright sunshine.

Regional power India and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had called for free and fair elections to end a year and a half of political turmoil on the tropical archipelago.

“On the whole, it (voting) was very calm and very peaceful,” the head of the Election Commission, Fuad Thaufeeq, told a press conference.

Voting took place on all major inhabited islands as well as at the tourist resorts that have made the country famous as a “paradise” destination.

Nearly one million holidaymakers visited last year, drawn to secluded beaches on private coral-fringed islands where cabins can cost several thousand dollars a night.

More instability would have spelled problems for the tourism industry, the lifeblood of the country, which suffered a wave of cancellations after unrest last year.

Nasheed resigned from office on national television, which had been taken over by the security forces, whom he said threatened him and his family with violence.

Waheed, who was then vice-president, took the oath of office immediately afterwards, leading Nasheed to accuse him of taking part in a conspiracy with Gayoom and other wealthy businessmen.

Waheed denies the charges, but the contested change in leadership and subsequent violence set back what was a flourishing democracy and left a legacy of distrust.

An international investigation concluded Waheed’s ascent to the presidency was constitutional, but Nasheed claimed he stepped down under duress.

The Maldives, which has a population of about 350,000 Muslims, held its first free elections in 2008 after three decades of autocratic rule by Gayoom.

Nasheed’s social programmes, eye for a political stunt and international work to highlight climate change earned him many fans while in office, but he was not universally popular.

After growing frustrated with the judiciary, he sent the army to arrest the head of the country’s criminal court, which led to a pending criminal charge that he abused his powers while in office.

His work to increase taxes and introduce budget guesthouses also earned him enemies among the powerful tourist tycoons, while he is seen by some as being too eager to please neighbouring India.